The inside dope on what CEOs are looking for in the CIO role

Want to move into a CIO role or interested in burnishing your resume? Get the skinny from top headhunters on the good, the bad and lost causes in CIO job hunts.

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Whether you have a plum CIO role, are an aspiring CIO or are pounding the pavement for a new CIO job, knowing what CEOs are looking for in an IT leader these days is important to the health of your career. At the recent Boston Society for Information Management (SIM) annual meeting, headhunters from three major recruiting firms sounded off on what CEOs are saying they want in a CIO in 2010. They offered some insider advice and reality...

checks on how to market yourself for the new CIO role and what you can (and shouldn't) do to get the attention of a top executive recruiting firm.

First and foremost, CEOs are seeking a business partner. Enterprise companies of all stripes have caught on to the importance of IT in day-to-day business and CEOs are under pressure, big time, to deliver. "Boards are pressuring CEOs to go out and find the CIO who will take the company to the next level," said Jamie Satterthwaite, managing partner and head of the east coast technology practice at Egon Zehnder International's Boston office.

While CEOs say they need a business partner in a CIO, many of them can't articulate what that encompasses, the recruiters bemoaned. "Regardless of whether the CEO really knows or doesn't know what they are looking for, sooner or later what they all say is, 'I need a leader who can hold their own with the business and who has the passion and courage to make IT the best it can be,'" said Mark Polansky, managing director of the information technology officers practice at Korn/Ferry International.

CIOs who have an operational role in their companies -- in other words, CIOs functioning as business partners -- are well-rounded in IT and the industry sectors in which they work.

"They understand not only the technology that the business needs, but what the business is all about," said Phil Schneidermeyer, a partner at Heidrick & Struggles International Inc.

The well-rounded CIO

To meet the IT requirements of the CIO role, aspiring CIOs who have focused on the application side of the house should get involved in an infrastructure project, and vice versa, Polansky advised.

Business expertise, on the other hand, is harder won.

The days are gone when companies routinely rotated up-and-comers through various parts of the organization in order to educate them about the business, he said. Therefore, if you are offered an opportunity to work in business operations -- and are confident you can get back into IT -- Polansky advised that you grab it.

Also, business expertise increasingly means global expertise. Whereas 10 or even five years ago, international experience was a nice-to-have on your resumé, it is "virtually a requirement" for the CIO role today, Polansky said. And that experience does not mean sourcing in China, he added, but spending time and being successful in a foreign location. "Volunteer for an international assignment."

The reality check: Insiders have best shot at CIO jobs

The depth of business knowledge CEOs are hoping for in a CIO make it difficult for an IT professional outside a given industry sector to get a shot at the job, recruiters said. Satterthwaite recounted an exchange in which a CEO in life sciences said he would rather have a "step-up" candidate from within the life sciences industry than "a lateral" from another field. "He doesn't have time for this person to learn the business," he said.

If you are out of a job and marketing yourself for a CIO role in another industry, "really think hard about the work you've done to demonstrate just how much overlap there is [with the industry you want to enter]," Satterthwaite said.

Another hard truth? Entrusting someone with more responsibility is a risk. Those CIOs who are taking on added business responsibilities usually are already at the company. "The management team knows the individual, so there is less risk in giving them additional responsibility," said Heidrick & Struggles' Schneidermeyer.

CIOs who aspire to play a business role at their companies, he said, need to lay out a roadmap for getting there and get agreement on the roadmap from management..

How to show and tell your IT leadership story

If you want to be one of those CIOs who seem to glide from one plum job to another -- the great CIO shuffle -- you must, of course, build your brand through the right kind of visibility, the panel intoned.

Boards are pressuring CEOs to go out and find the CIO who will take the company to the next level.

Jamie Satterthwaite, managing partner, Egon Zehnder International

Most people do a decent job of providing a historical perspective on where they have been. But, as Polansky noted, CEOs are looking for leaders. Therefore, resumés or elevator pitches need to demonstrate how youledyour organization by making changes that had an impact -- for example, by managing (not cutting) costs through smart technology choices or by driving business top-line growth through IT innovations.

In fact, showing a record of change is a key part of building one's brand, said Schneidermeyer, pointing to a presentation at the event by Boston Scientific Corp. CIO Rich Adduci. Adduci's tough-love approach to IT transformation showed a progression of achievements over a three-year period and how each year's achievements affected the business.

Sometimes there is no brand to build, however. Not everybody is CIO material, let alone a CIO who is a true business partner. "There's nothing wrong with being a great CTO," Polansky said. Also, it's hard to be a game changer in an organization that prefers the status quo. "If your organization is not a game changer in your industry, the chances of your being a game changer are pretty slim," said Schneidermeyer.

How to get noticed by a recruiter

A business card won't help. Polansky said he gets 50-some business cards at gatherings like SIM and when he gets home, he doesn't "know whose card is whose." A cold call -- as in go to the firm's lobby and demand to be seen -- sometimes works, as it shows courage. But the recruiters said that what you really need to do is get a resumé on file with the recruiting firm, preferably with a nice big asterisk from a trusted source. Who you know really is everything.

"The best referrals are from people I've gotten to know and trust, who say, 'This person is fantastic, you need to know them,'" said Satterthwaite. These are candidates who come already screened. Satterthwaite said you need to know the people who know recruiters, using LinkedIn and other online networking sites to figure out the connections.

Let us know what you think about the story; email Linda Tucci, Senior News Writer.

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