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Korn Ferry CIO headhunter outlines qualities of a CIO

What are the qualities of a CIO? Gone are the days when the CIO role called for being responsible for mostly IT systems. Top-performing CIOs in the digital era are innovation-focused, devote more time to external customers, interact with their executive committees, and have their systems available for both internal and external use, according to a recent MIT CISR report.

“Five years ago, CIOs were generally perceived as being operation-oriented … but in the last couple of years the perception has become much more strategic,” Craig Stephenson, managing director of North America CIO practice at Korn Ferry, said.

Stephenson was speaking at a panel discussion on “The Perfect CIO: Empowering Business Partners and Serving Customers,” at the recent MIT CIO Symposium in Cambridge, Mass.

One indication of the shift to a more strategic business role is the rise in the number of CIOs reporting to the company’s top business executive. CIOs are now reporting to CEOs 56% of the time at Fortune 500 companies, a 12% increase over the past five years, Stephenson said.

Indeed, Stephenson said that most CIOs not only work more closely with their CEOs, but also are well positioned to become future CEOs because of their strategic involvement across the enterprise, from marketing to product development to partner relationships.

One thing that hasn’t changed in recent years: the longstanding reluctance of many CIOs to report to CFOs. Stephenson said that it takes a lot of work these days to convince a prospective CIO to report to the CFO. CIOs much prefer reporting to CEOs, a relationship that gives them access to the board and allows them to operate as a peer to others in the C-suite, he said.

Qualities of a CIO

So, what is the “perfect CIO” in Stephenson’s view?

“CEOs are looking for components of a CIO’s portfolio … that lead to exponential growth,” he said. “It might be around how you deal with change, it might be how you enable others, it might be how you bring people together.”

Here are some of the other qualities of a CIO outlined by Stephenson:

  • A perfect CIO, as discussed above, should be able to combine both operational and strategic activities. According to a MIT CISR survey, 50% of CIOs — in addition to overseeing IT operations — are primarily responsible for innovation and managing digital threats. CIOs should have experience reporting to the board on a quarterly basis.
  • A perfect CIO is able to attract and retain top-notch talent.

“The key risk for the CIO every single day is people,” Stephenson said. “There is a tremendous drain on talent in the marketplace.” CIOs should make sure their team members stay focused and are engaged. Stephenson recommended CIOs spend 10% -15% of their time on ensuring that their teams are being mentored and monitored appropriately.

  • Perfect CIOs should understand their company’s business priorities and objectives to ensure that they can leverage technology plans and strategies to achieve those goals.
  • A perfect CIO should be dynamic, charismatic, agile and willing to step outside his/her comfort zone.
  • A perfect CIO should be able to communicate effectively. That means CIOs need to be comfortable interacting with their companies’ business partners and stakeholders — both within and outside the company — and with a high level of confidence.

“I think the CIOs that can actually facilitate consensus, common purpose and mission, are the ones that are actually really set to achieve great things,” Stephenson said.

The panel discusses the qualities of a CIO during the session titled “The Perfect CIO: Empowering Business Partners and Serving Customers.” L-R: Moderator Leslie Owens, executive director at MIT CISR; Steven Rosenbush, editor at CIO Journal; Craig Stephenson, managing director at Korn Ferry and Jeanne Lieb, SVP and CIO at FM Global.

The panel discusses the qualities of a CIO during the session titled “The Perfect CIO: Empowering Business Partners and Serving Customers.” L-R: Moderator Leslie Owens, executive director at MIT CISR; Steven Rosenbush, editor at CIO Journal; Craig Stephenson, managing director at Korn Ferry and Jeanne Lieb, SVP and CIO at FM Global.

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