6 non-negotiable skills for CIOs in 2023

The role of the CIO is constantly evolving to keep up with the demands of digital business. Here are six essential IT leadership skills for the coming year and beyond
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It’s no secret that the CIO role has changed a lot over the years. It’s evolved from focusing on infrastructure, the help desk, and operational efficiency, and today is firmly rooted in technology, strategy, growth, and revenue. More of the C-suite and boards are looking at IT as a value creator rather than just as an operator.

To support and propel IT as a value creator today and into the future, CIOs must hone and master new competencies. These non-negotiable skills for successful technology leaders help to fortify their strategic role in the organization, build strong, resilient teams, and cultivate loyal clients.

The CIO's Venn diagram

Gone are the days when CIOs could be excellent technologists or operational leaders alone. Now CIOs need to balance expertise in business, technology, and entrepreneurship.

On the business side, you must be passionate about what your company does and its mission. It matters less how you build that acumen, but you need to do it. As CIO of Vanguard, I was lucky enough to get rotated into different business positions during my tenure. That helped me to build credibility, develop acumen, and gain customer insights.

While building business acumen, the CIO doesn’t get a pass at being a strong technologist. In that bucket, you become a chief educator, too, as you educate the C-suite, the board, and the rest of the organization about the possibilities of technology.

You also need to be an entrepreneurial leader. Entrepreneurial leadership creates fertile ground for innovation and eliminates barriers to success. It’s about creating client outcomes and empowering people. To attract and retain the best technical talent, you must build a fast, diverse, and engaged organization.

The point at which each of these factors overlap is where CIOs need to be today.

Non-negotiable skills for today's IT leaders

As you work to balance your focus on business acumen, technology, and entrepreneurial leadership, consider the following competencies as they will be non-negotiable for the CIOs going forward.

1. Become a blended executive

Today’s CIO needs to understand how capital is spent in the company. This means IT leaders need to become blended executives – with a passion and understanding of both the business and technology, and what technology can enable. After all, CIOs are one of the few C-suite executives who see the entire field.

Take the role of the CFO, for example. The CFO has regular conversations with the CEO and chairman about the value and feasibility of the company’s most important capital investments. Today, this conversation is happening more and more with CIOs. After all, the CIO is the person who’s most familiar with the risks and what it takes to get these big capital investments, which often tend to be technology investments, over the finish line.

2. Become a strategist and business development leader

A company’s assets – no matter what it sells – are becoming more and more about software. CIOs should now envision new market possibilities for growth through external integrations and partnerships. If the technology is built correctly, these external opportunities can be plentiful.

Vanguard, for example, just partnered with a large payment services company to offer them its advice platform. The software wasn’t built exclusively for the payment services company; it was built to launch advice in different global markets as an internal growth opportunity. But because it was built in a way that enabled Vanguard to chunk it up and offer it to other markets, external revenue opportunities are now being realized. Technology is now becoming a true product.

3. Think like a CIO – Chief Integration Officer

CIOs need to think about both internal integrations and external opportunities. They need to have strong relationships and be able to pull the business leaders together.

For example, I’m working with an entrepreneurial organization that runs different lines of businesses that are very strong, with heads of those businesses who are also very strong.

One of their challenges, however, is that their clients can be customers of multiple businesses. Between the seams, the client experiences the organizational structure of the business, which is a problem – a client should never experience your organizational structure. The person best equipped to identify and close those seams and integration points is the CIO.

4. Be client- and mission-obsessed

In the past, most organizations operated with a business group that sat between technology and the clients. The movement around agile, however, has knocked those walls down and today allows IT to become client-obsessed – we’re cross-functional teams that are empowered and organized around business and client outcomes.

As a CIO, you need to spend time with clients and have a strong internal mission, too. You have to develop great leaders and motivate and engage an entire organization. You have to align your people so they understand that their work has an impact on that mission. Having these practices in place is what will help CIOs live up to this bigger potential.

5. Build a resilient IT culture

Purpose-based individuals tend to stay with mission-based organizations and become high performers. These people will put in the discretionary effort at night that no one knows about because they care about your company and your mission. They’ll help their peers because they care about their colleagues and the clients of the organization. At the end of the day, that’s culture. You need to be a mission-based organization that attracts the right people, and you need the right culture to attract the right talent.

[ Related read CIOs beware: IT teams are changing ]

Culture starts at the top. People define their values as an organization. But it doesn’t necessarily run from the top of the organization down. The organization’s culture is really defined by the 5, 10, 15, or 20 people that you interact with in a day. This means you need phenomenal leadership. You need to be a good people leader and you need to attract and promote good people leaders, not just good technicians. These are leaders who are technically strong but who can also develop and mentor their teams.

6. Rethink how you hire

Hiring today is different than it’s been in the past. You can’t rely on the way you used to hire – recruiting only at college campuses and posting jobs externally. For example, Vanguard brings in new talent from places they may have never considered before. It employs a number of recruiting organizations (many non-profit) that focus on under-served communities and hunt for aptitude, then train those individuals without a college education and turn them into coders.

There are a number of organizations that train individuals from diverse socioeconomic backgrounds and with varying levels of education, and it’s worthwhile to consider these in order to bring new perspectives and ideas into your organization. If you’re not reinventing the way you hire and find talent, you’re missing out on a lot of opportunities.

As the CIO role continues to evolve, so must the CIO’s skillset. These skills – from becoming a blended executive, a strategist, and a business development leader, to focusing on the client, building a resilient IT organization, and rethinking how you hire – are surefire ways to support and propel IT as a value creator and help to build strong, resilient teams.

[ Research from Harvard Business Review Analytic Services identifies four focus areas for CIOs as they seek more flexibility, resilience, and momentum for digital transformation. Download the report now. ]

John T. Marcante is an award-winning C-suite technology and business executive with expertise in digital transformation, business strategy, financial planning and wealth management, cyber security and technology risk. John is the US CIO in Residence for Deloitte and the former Chief Information Officer and Managing Director of Vanguard.