At times, the chief information officer is the leadership role that feels like it gets no respect in the organization—even though its skill set is often more diverse than those of other C-suiters. So, what’s the problem? It may come down to soft skills.
Associations ask a lot of their chief information officers (CIOs), who often have a more diverse set of operations to manage than do some of their fellow C-suiters.
So, why don’t they get the level of respect of their executive-level peers? A recent study by Ernst & Young suggests that CIOs often struggle to break out of the technical niche created and mandated by the role. And, while the work that CIOs do tends to be highly valuable, it also tends to not be seen at the same level as that of their executive-branch peers, with four in 10 CIOs citing a lack of support from the C-suite as their biggest challenge.
“Too few CIOs are currently regarded as true members of the executive management team,” the study states. “This limits their potential for change. Many CIOs nowadays appear to be C-level in title only, and this rank is not necessarily reflected in how they are perceived in the leadership team.”
The question, then, is this: Is CIO the ceiling for technical employees, or is there room for something higher?
The answer: It’s possible, but you’ll have to show off that your skills as a business leader—skills that branch out beyond the technical.
That’s a hard task (as highlighted by this pessimistic ZDNet headline), but it can be done. Perhaps the best example of someone making the leap from IT to the top of the executive ranks is Dawn Lepore, the CEO of Drugstore.com. Before Lepore jumped to her current company, which she has been leading for more than a decade, she was the CIO of Charles Schwab, leading that company during a period in which it was an early mover on internet-based stock trading.
Lepore’s ability to make the leap to CEO from tech leadership was perhaps made easier because she approached her role with Schwab like any other business-world position.
“I was never a particularly technical CIO. I had some technical training, but I didn’t have a computer science degree. I was actually a music major,” Lepore said in a recent Wall Street Journal interview. “So the business aspect of it was always more interesting to me. I was always drawn to that. So, if that’s the case, it’s probably a little bit easier to be viewed as a business person.”
It’s this balance of the technical and communicative that might have helped Lepore break through. It’s not nearly as common as it should be. Ernst & Young’s study notes that the most important traits for CIOs, above any technical skills, are leadership (which 81 percent of CIOs said was important) and communication (which tallied 79 percent).
“Although CIOs have acknowledged for well over a decade the need to develop their softer skills, not enough progress is being made,” the study says.
And a recent Deloitte University Press survey on CIOs pointed out that both leadership and communication were among the important elements that define the role—but that 91 percent of respondents said they were lacking in at least one key element in their own CIO abilities.
That’s a problem—one so serious that not only does it kill the chances of an eventual jump to the CEO role, but it also raises concerns about whether CIOs can remain effective in their current roles.
Let’s Talk Soft Skills
By sheer luck, the good folks at the association consultancy Delcor spotted this symptomatic trend around when I did, and they had a good diagnosis for it—a fun thing called soft skills, or emotional intelligence (EQ).
Delcor Managing Consultant Kathleen McQuilkin, PMP, notes that a communication gap exists between the C-suite the IT department that enables all the tech initiatives that drive associations forward. The IT department can’t just be seen as the part of the organization that puts new laptops on the desks and fixes ugly cases of ransomware when they arise.
Instead, the IT department has to be seen as a key gatekeeper for important business initiatives. Because, let’s face it: It is.
“The IT team must be able to talk about technology in terms of the business value it brings to the association,” McQuilkin wrote earlier this month. “Strip any technical jargon out of your conversation, especially with executives.”
In so many ways, CIOs are just like their executive-level peers. They’re all trying to sell what matters to the association and persuade the right people that this is the direction in which to move. But CIOs are asked to do all of that plus be adept at what is assuredly the most technical part of the business: They have to understand both the high level and the nitty gritty, while communicating both. That’s not an easy task, but, for those who can pull it off, the reward for both the CIO and the organization is high.
“Whether through intention or happenstance, every CIO is creating a legacy of one kind or another,” the Deloitte study states. “How your legacy gets defined is largely—but not exclusively—up to you. The circumstances in which you find yourself operating have a big influence on what you need to accomplish today—and what you should prepare for in the future.”
There’s a reason there aren’t more Dawn Lepores out there. It’s not because Dawn Lepore has a unique set of skills that could never be replicated. Rather, it’s because in some ways, the CIO role is one of the hardest to perfect.
But if your association’s CIO can figure out the balance between communicating and executing, that person might be hard to stop.