“As a first-time CIO, there are things you’ve never done before and conversations you’ve never had before, at this level, in this role,” says Sarah Cockrill, one year director of digital strategy and position in Information Technology from the University of Canterbury, in Kent, England.

“You almost don’t want to say to your boss, ‘I don’t know how to do this,’ because you just had an interview where you taught them how amazing you are and how you can get work done.”

Cockrill’s story is a familiar one for budding CIOs who thrive on experience and ideas but are still learning the ropes in an unfamiliar role.

The changing role of the CIO means new skills are needed

Technology leaders today are expected to be business leaders first and IT leaders second, articulating what technology can do for the organization top-down and bottom-up.

Yet despite previous proclamations that IT was limited to a back office taking orders, some suggest it was always meant to be; William Sinnott and William Gruber first created Chief Information Officer term in their 1981 bookInformation Resource Management: Opportunities and Strategies for the 1980s, arguing at the time that IT was strategic rather than simply a cost-cutting tool, and that hiring a C-level CTO can offer a competitive advantage.

With IT arguably more influential and less of a commodity than at any time in the last 20 years, Sainsbury Group CIO Phil Jordan believes incoming CIOs need to be influential in the business, able to lead teams and demystify technology, not the technical project managers of the past.

“I would put more emphasis on business acumen, commercial understanding, data analysis… and understanding how the business will be changed by technology… than the skill set when I started, which was about supplier management, project management… and technical delivery history Jordan says.

Dominic Howson, CIO at waste management firm Viridor and a Next CIO UK judge, believes that today’s CIO needs to be a “sophisticated” business analyst who understands business processes, knows how technology can impact different business functions and has a degree financially minded.

“Ten years ago, the CIO was the guy or gal in the back office who kept the lights on and worried about backups, availability and capacity,” Howson says. “Now that’s the role of a business leader [who is] front and center of the company’s strategy.”

Yet there is an understanding that the CIO must first and foremost be a leader of people. Natalie Whittlesey, director at recruitment firm Investigo, says recruiters want to see strong communication and people skills.

“They often spend as much time talking about personality traits as they do about experience requirements,” she says of clients, adding that they have the ability to influence, have low egos, are willing to collaborate and can inspire people and take them on a journey.

“Good EQ and personality traits are incredibly important, but they’re also the hardest to nurture because people often have traits that remain relatively static over time. So the ability to self-reflect, seek feedback and self-development is also valuable,” she adds.

Whittlesey also says the COVID-19 pandemic, which has led many leaders, including Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella, to say that digital transformation initiatives have accelerated from years to months, has made CIOs more product and customer focused.

“Last week I spoke to a CEO who lost 70% of his business revenue within weeks as most of his on-site workforce was restricted to [working from] at home,” says Whittlesey. “He couldn’t rely on other regions to make up the numbers as they were also affected. This requires quick thinking from his management team to limit the losses. It also led to a rapid shift to digital revenue escalation.”

There is no CIO experience rule

A 2021 Hays report found that most CIOs surveyed had 15 to 20 years of experience in a related field before becoming CIOs, and about a quarter reported having 10 to 15 years before making the same leap.

“I had 17 years of experience before I took on my first CIO role, but it depends on the individual and the organization,” says Stantec Group CIO Dave Roberts. “Not all CIO roles are the same, and it’s important to differentiate between what would be called an IT manager or software development manager, or what would be called an IT director or CTO in smaller organizations.”

Whittlesey believes that recruiters and hiring managers are now more interested in experience in the last five years than they were in the last 15 to 20 years because of more diverse career paths and the continued pace of change in the technology market.

“If a client asks for more than 10 years of senior experience, I tend to challenge that,” she says. “A lot of people – especially women – get into IT as a side hustle. They can get involved in a technology project or program, get noticed by the CIO, CTO, CDIO and be encouraged to apply for a technology role, for example.

“This could mean they’ve had five to 10 years in HR, operations or marketing before moving into IT, where they thrive and move up quickly.”

Whittlesey acknowledges that experience can give business leaders a sense of security, as proven CIOs will have the battles to handle any situation, but ultimately recommends leaving the question of experience with the hiring manager.

How to Prepare for the CIO Role for the First Time

Preparing for the CIO role can take many forms, from volunteering for non-IT initiatives and secondment development to taking on non-executive director (NED) roles.

Viridor’s Howson recommends going outside your organization—and outside your comfort zone—to build a strong breadth of understanding.

“Go to client-led vendor presentations,” he says. “Find out how other businesses are using technology. Work outside of IT, in business on a business trip. While in IT, gain experience in every part of the function: service, infrastructure, development, support, architecture.”

Cockrill believes her time as a business analyst has been beneficial as she has gained visibility into projects being implemented in HR, finance and other departments. Talking about her own rise to the CIO position, she says she had two streams of work plan.

“It was a person to make sure I took every possible opportunity in the workplace to expand my skills,” she says, adding that she would often volunteer for opportunities with her principal while she was on the outside looking in.

“The other thing was that I started as a school governor, then I became chair of resources. It gave me some of the leadership experience I wasn’t able to get at work. Working with BCS or doing speaking events…all of these have added to my knowledge and helped me build that rounded CV that I can say I’m ready for. If you’re being interviewed for a CIO and all you know is your technology … and you can’t talk about that in that bigger picture, there’s a gap.”

Whittlesey argues that clients these days are less interested in diplomas or MBAs, even if Roberts says the latter can teach future leaders broader business principles and leadership skills. Instead, she says, hiring managers want to see evidence of reliability and commercial savvy; ability to speak the language of business, willingness to change, evidence of personal growth and evidence of delivering technology programs across the business.

Then there’s the small matter of visibility to get that elusive opportunity.

“Make sure you’re in people’s sights,” Howson says. “Think about your profile. How you can get more exposure to decision makers. Find a way to be part of bigger conversations. And think about your personal brand in all meetings and interactions.”

Overcoming imposter syndrome and the first 90 days as a CIO

Despite the seniority of the CIO position, those who hold it can still suffer from imposter syndrome and a lack of confidence. In particular, new CIOs may struggle with this nagging question: Am I good enough?

“A lot of people talk about the imposter syndrome, but it’s only through experience that you acquire the skills you need to be an effective leader,” says Stantec’s Roberts, a judge of Next CIO UK.

“Impostor syndrome can also be a problem when someone wants to get out of a certain industry and start a leadership role in a different type of organization,” he says. “Fear of the unknown sometimes stops people. Embrace new challenges. They will always teach you a valuable lesson and the experience will help you improve and develop.”

Wheatley adds, “Try to find reasons to take advantage of an opportunity instead of shutting yourself out. It doesn’t matter if you fail. Better to have a chance than not to apply at all.”

Once in the role, new CIOs need to think about how to approach the first 90 days. Howson, Whittlesey, Roberts, and Cockrill recommend learning about the business, its goals, and your team’s strengths and weaknesses, as well as developing internal relationships and benchmarking to gauge future progress.

Howson says CIOs need to find out what the business thinks about IT, align their department’s goals with those of the business, and uncover shadow IT and technology costs that aren’t budgeted for. He also urges CIOs to understand their contract positions and “kick the tires” on everything from compliance to cybersecurity, and find where the quick wins are to earn early kudos.

The new CIO should also build internal and external networks to prevent loneliness, says Cockrill, who says you can’t have the same relationships with team members as you would with your peers, and that CIOs are naturally detached from other senior executives in HR, Property and Finance. “Be brave and don’t be afraid of failure,” Howson says. “If you’re able to make a leap, chances are you know your stuff.”