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CIO survival 101: Soft skills still matter

Great CIOs don't just talk about technology; they bring the conversation back to the ROI.

Chief information officers are increasingly among the most senior officers at many organizations, and it's been a hard-won trust to earn.  

The shift is particularly noticeable in the traditionally conservative financial sector. While the CIO or technology head had typically been one or two levels removed from the operating committee, 16 of the top 30 U.S. financial institutions now include their tech leader on the committee, according to a recent study by global executive search firm Leathwaite.

This is changing the nature of relationships between CIOs and business leaders and therefore behooves CIOs not to squander the opportunity. Gaining more prominence in organizations requires a new set of skills for working in tandem with business leaders.

"I'm not all sure CIOs understand they need to have a persuasive pitch that's anchored in immediate or long-term value," says Matthew Mead, CTO of digital consultancy SPR. "When you're transforming to a digital business, there are lots of risks and investments from a dollar perspective, and it's not just business as usual and keeping the lights on." This means that when CIOs converse with their peers about spending on tech, they should "remember to be persuasive and bring it back to the ROI."

But there is still work that needs to be done to stay on top. Nearly two-thirds of leaders overall (63%) say that the CIO needs better influencing skills to be an evangelist for digital business, according to a recent Financial Times Focus survey.

Here are three CIOs on three skills needed in the digital age.

Promote change, persuade people

For Mike Mathews, vice president of technology and innovation at Oral Roberts University (ORU), being a "mediocre CIO today and just keeping the operations going is a horrible job" that leads to high turnover. "A good CIO knows that if you're not making a good, indelible impression on users that things are getting better, you're standing in the way of progress."

For Mathews, the No. 1 skill CIOs must have nowadays is the ability to become promoters of change: "If you can't promote and evangelize why you're doing what you're doing, the project won't be a success.''

To educate himself, Mathews says he has attended numerous workshops and conferences "to tell the story of why virtual reality is important for the transformation of education. That practice helped me perfect it internally, since I have to be convincing."

It's also important that CIOs learn the art of persuasion, he says. To that end, Mathews attended a one-day workshop at Harvard Business School to learn how to work with stakeholders. "As a CIO, you're dealing with multiple contracts with vendors, and if I can't close those contracts, the project will be delayed, stalled, or stopped." A CIO going through digital transformation has to know how to negotiate with vendors to keep a project moving and with executives who give the green light to a particular technology.

A good CIO knows that if you're not making a good, indelible impression on users that things are getting better, you're standing in the way of progress.

Mike MathewsVice president of technology and innovation at Oral Roberts University

He credits his background working in educational technology sales as an asset. Empathy is another required skill for CIOs, Mathews adds. Looking ahead, he plans to add an enterprise-focused understanding of artificial intelligence to his repertoire.

AI, machine learning, and deep learning are being embedded into everything, he says. Mathews wants to understand the overarching impact AI can make "even before I bite off a small project, so I don't go down the wrong path. If I fail on the first AI project, it hurts the whole enterprise for the next couple of years because then no one wants in on it."

For Mathews, the best way to go about attaining new, needed skills is to read a lot, listen, talk to stakeholders, and "do an iterative design where you're not risking too much but showing you're making progress."

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Translate complex concepts

Scott Laverty refers to himself as "an accidental CIO." Laverty, executive vice president and CIO of jewelry chain Shane Co., started his career on the business side, working as a retail consultant for many years. 

That has served him well. "I had to have a deep understanding of our business strategy and, most importantly, our customers," rather than being a purely technical CIO.

He has also been called upon to translate Shane Co.'s business strategy into a tech roadmap. "I had to explain … really complex concepts to my peers in laymen's terms because they didn't understand what [IT was] trying to do."

Being an agile CIO is also important. "We were very old school here and trying to move to a more agile platform, and I had to have the foresight to be able to look ahead and say, 'Here's where the business is going.'" Coming up with pure technical skills would make that hard, Laverty says. "You have to be a darn-good communicator."

Like ORU's Mathews, Laverty says he is currently focused on "AI and what it really means and how it's going to play out, and I'm focused on different methodologies to do better analytics to get closer to customers." He's a voracious reader and plans to attend conferences. In addition to doing a lot of reading, "you have to pick through the chaff because there's a lot of noise and a lot of what people call AI that isn't really. That's probably where I'm weakest now, but I won't be in six months."

Laverty is also planning to learn how to extend agile methods beyond IT: "I'm really good at agile, but I think it would work well in other areas" of the business.

Trust, communicate, and become likable

Moving from working for a tech company to a nonprofit has been a challenge, acknowledges Isabel Sauerbrey, vice president of IT and operations for the San Diego Tourism Authority.

It is a very different environment when you work within a big IT department with a lot of sales and marketing people, she says. "I cannot focus on tech details here. I had to work on, 'How do I influence people to adopt a project—any project?' It's a challenge."

Because sales and marketing people speak a different language, Sauerbrey has focused on how to gain their trust. "That's become very important in this environment," she says. Sometimes, Sauerbrey not only has to sell technology to the executive leadership team but to people a level below them. "Even before I do a presentation and get people to adopt something, I have to sell it. To do that, you have to have trust and good communication skills."

In addition to selling projects, Sauerbrey says she finds herself spending more time on "creating relationships with people and finding sponsors and listening to their problems."

Another skill she feels is important is becoming "interesting to people. IT people are usually just locked up in their department, but it's no longer like that. So how can I create my relationships, my network and … contribute?" That has required learning all about marketing and being able to offer some input, not just from an IT perspective but learning to "talk their language if I want to sell them on what I'm implementing."

Dealing with a lot of creative people is not always something IT does well, she notes. "I try to create relationships with the marketing team, and if I'm interested in a project they're doing, I try to participate. That's my vision and goal. It's easy for me to learn technical skills. I think a lot of IT people need to hone their soft skills."

CIO survival skills: Lessons for leaders

  • Promote the right technology for the organization, and convey optimism for how it will improve operations and returns.
  • Learn to speak the language other departments will understand and appreciate.
  • Become a teacher of technology and how it benefits the organization.

This article/content was written by the individual writer identified and does not necessarily reflect the view of Hewlett Packard Enterprise Company.