How Future CIOs and CTOs Should Prepare for Success

TNCR Staff

Established Silicon Valley companies and growing startups capture headlines every day, but the importance of technology to both specific organizations and the broader economy goes far beyond the handful of technology giants that are always in the news. Every successful organization leverages technology to some extent, and nowhere is this more obvious than in leadership positions. Technology, like any other tool, is largely useless without the right people to research and deploy it. 

As technology leadership roles become increasingly central to business success, it’s worth considering what the next generation of leaders will look like. In our interviews at The National CIO Review, we consistently ask sitting CIOs and CTOs what advice they have for those who aspire to executive roles in the future. Their answers are illuminating, revealing both fundamental leadership traits and important advice for future leaders.

The ability to consistently deliver services and products is key to technology success, and the best leaders work to keep promises and meet goals. Similarly, the people we spoke to stressed the importance of collaboration with other leaders, a goal that we have seen lead to organizational success in many industries. Finally, our interviewees placed a premium on trust. The timing to search for a technology leadership position is excellent, and these lessons place aspiring CIOs and CTOs on the right leadership track.

Delivery Leads to Influence

Among the responses from CIOs and CTOs we interviewed, the importance of delivery stands out. For technology leaders, being able to carry out promises of better security measures, more efficient infrastructure, or any other organizational benefit is one of the most important ways to measure success or failure. When we spoke to Mike Burgett, Founder of CIO Partners, he reinforced these sentiments. “The key measure of a technology leader is the ability to deliver,” he told us. “A CIO who wants to elevate his or her role and influence always needs to meet and exceed expectations for their function. If you are known as someone who gets the job done, you will obtain influence in your organization.” For those who aspire to be a CIO or CTO, focusing on deliverable outcomes in the present is a good way to drive professional growth. 

The importance of innovation for technology leaders has never been higher. For those who plan to attain a leadership role in the future, thinking about innovation as a deliverable is another worthwhile approach. CIOs and CTOs who spoke with us consistently listed examples of innovation and transformation they pursued, and a track record of success in these areas will be an important qualification for reaching a C-level technology position in the future. 

It’s also important for future leaders to experiment, even if these experiments don’t always result in immediate success. We have written before that technology teams as a whole need freedom to succeed, and the same is true of the people who hope to lead these teams. While it is never an optimal outcome, occasional is a natural part of this process. Phil Crawford, CTO for CKE Restaurants, reflected that future leaders shouldn’t be afraid of failing as long as their efforts lead to future growth. “Finally,” he said, “remember that is ok to fail as long as you learn from it and don’t make the same mistakes again.”

Collaboration Leads to Trust

Collaboration between technology and lines of business leaders is a vital ingredient to organizational success. By that same token, demonstrating a commitment to collaboration at an early stage can help prospective leaders prove their maturity. The days when IT could afford to solely exist as a back-office, independent department are clearly over. As technology continues to inform business operations, collaboration among leaders is vitally important. 

Leaders who currently sit in roles at the C-level understand the business importance of technology and the collaboration that is necessary to maximize its benefits. “I think being able to have business discussions is key to technology leadership today,” Calvin Rhodes, CIO for the state of Georgia, told us. “Quite often, our profession goes for technical solutions without considering the end result the business is trying to achieve.” Without the ability to work well with other leaders, aspiring CIOs today will severely limit their career paths. 

Part of the importance of collaboration comes from the challenges that still face this ideal. CIOs and CFOs rarely cooperate as well as they should, citing reasons like outdated reporting structures or expectations about the role of top technology executives. Whatever the reasons are that keep cooperation from operating at the highest levels, it’s clear that many organizations have a great deal more to accomplish in this area. For aspiring CIOs, demonstrating an ability to cooperate and collaborate with other leaders will help break down present and future barriers. 

Avoid Empty Promises

In addition to delivering products, meeting goals, and working with other leaders, it’s important for future CIOs and CTOs to maintain levels of trust by keeping their word and fulfilling promises. Young technology leaders may be tempted to fake skills that they may not have developed, but losing trust (from both superiors and peers) is a devastating blow to any career. In addition, lost trust will make delivering products and services much more difficult in the future. 

As humiliating as it may seem to admit a lack of knowledge or skills, some of the leaders we spoke to told us that this outcome is better than lost trust. Rhodes said, “Individually, and I think this is true for all of life, you have to be a trusted source for information. I appreciate people who honestly tell me when they don’t know an answer. When you lose someone’s trust, it’s very hard to get it back.” Occasional failure doesn’t doom an IT career, especially if it comes while pursuing a new innovation or transformation. Lost trust, however, is far more damaging. 

The importance of maintaining trust goes far beyond IT functions, but the centrality of technology to business operations gives added emphasis in this area. A security failure, for example, can have negative effects on a business that last for months (if not longer), and there are many other examples that show the high stakes of technology leadership. Leaders of any operation have a mandate to act in a trustworthy manner, but the stakes are especially high in technology functions. 

The Timing is Right

Recent years demonstrate that technology leadership is a growing field with the potential for even more success in the coming decades. These years also show that technology leadership is open to people whose expertise may initially lie in other areas. Many of the CIOs and CTOs we spoke to also told us that they arrived at their current position through fields outside of technology. The lesson here is clear: technology leadership is a field that anyone who is willing to work hard and learn the necessary skills can enter. 

Regardless of circumstances there will always be a great deal of competition for the top technology positions at organizations. There is always room to grow at any position, but hiring managers want to see demonstrated success. For students, young professionals, or anyone else looking to land a top-ranking technology role, the lessons here show a strategy that will help grow skills and prove collaborative abilities. It’s impossible to ignore the bright future for technology leadership roles. “Timing is everything. This is a great time to have an interest in the many different areas associated with IT,” Rhodes told us. “Corporations have a much greater interest in this field, so it’s a great time to look in this direction for a career.”

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