The DNA of the Association CIO

Kathleen McQuilkin | 03.17.16
Topics: CIO - Digital Transformation - IT Maturity

What are association CIOs made of?

Bits and bytes, and mobile websites? Systems, security, and IT Maturity?

All that and more. The closest thing we have to an Association CIO Genome Project might be the Ernst & Young (E&Y) report, The DNA of the CIO. The research behind this report is based on a survey of more than 350 senior IT professionals from all over the world.


The DNA of the CIO is a fascinating read for anyone who is or aspires to be a CIO. The report describes the skills CIOs need to develop because “relatively few [CIOs] have broken out of their comfort zones to actually become one.” Ouch.

A common reason CIOs aren’t invited to the C-suite table is because they lack the skills needed for success. According to those polled for this study, the key attributes of a CIO are:

  • Leadership skills (81%)
  • Communication and influencing skills (79%)
  • Analytical approach and organizational skills (77%)
  • Project and change management skills (74%)
  • Technological skills and know-how on IT trends (64%)
  • Knowledge on design and execution of business strategy (64%)

Does it surprise you that soft skills are valued more than technical skills? That’s exactly the point of my recent post about the need for IT leaders to develop their emotional intelligence (EQ).

Change the perception of IT.

According to the report, the biggest challenge for CIOs is the outdated view of IT held by others in the C-suite. “Many CIOs nowadays appear to be C-level in title only.” They’re “not yet at the top table.” In fact, only 46% of all CIOs report to the CEO, according to the recent 2016 State of the CIO Survey published by CIO.

Instead of being perceived as a strategic asset, the IT department is still seen as the helpdesk, and that perception has a detrimental impact on an organization’s investment in technology, according to the CIO report:

In companies where IT is seen as a business partner or leader, CIOs control more IT spending on average compared to companies where IT is considered a cost center or service provider.

Even more alarming is the disconnect between CIOs and their executive peers about the value IT brings to the organization. 60% of CIOs believe they help enable fact-based decision-making, but only 35% of their C-suite counterparts agree.

The CIO must be seen as a mission-enabling strategic partner to every department head and every member of the executive team. The E&Y report warns: 

Most leaders aim to keep any discussions with the CIO centered on IT budgets, with few seeing this as a chance to engage in a wider discussion about the value of technology.

The CIO must help the executive team understand IT’s potential as an innovative and transformative part of the organization.

Speak a different language.

The IT team must be able to talk about technology in terms of the business value it brings to the association. Strip any technical jargon out of your conversation, especially with executives. This comment from an E&Y survey participant rings true: “Historically, [CEOs] don’t get IT and are terrified of having someone who is going to blink at them in binary during meetings.”

Talk in the language of the association. Explain technology issues in everyday language your colleagues will understand. Describe the current and potential impact of technology on members, processes, programs, and goals. One message was repeated throughout the report: do a better job of emphasizing the value IT brings to the organization.

Have a strong #2.

Consider this:

What separates true CIOs from mere IT managers is their ability to delegate operational concerns effectively, while dedicating their time to giving strategic advice and input to the business.

That’s why you need a strong deputy on your IT team, someone who can run the operational side of IT on your behalf, so you can move out of fire-fighting mode and into strategic mode. You need to dedicate time to developing relationshipsand understanding where IT can add value to the association’s work.

Build relationships around the office.

CIOs (and aspiring CIOs) must build relationships and trust with key internal stakeholders. The CIO report warns: “CIOs who do not have strong partnerships with business leaders may have less influence over how IT is ultimately deployed.” Make an effort to understand the association’s membership, strategic goals, and departmental goals and needs. You must become association-literate.

Department heads and staff should see you as their in-house technology consultant who proactively helps them do their jobs better. You can’t just raise red flags—you must provide solutions as well.

If they don’t believe in you, if they think you are just someone who maintains the status quo, then you will lose their support and they will start to bypass you.

Your efforts to develop relationships with and empathy for your colleagues will help you get invited to meetings from which you were previously excluded, even at the top table.

Another challenge for CIOs: you must master internal politics. That’s where those soft skills come in handy. When you’re introducing new processes or projects, you must be able to handle “the complex social and political dynamic” that comes along with change.

Being a CIO is not for the faint of heart.

But, it’s a rewarding role that offers a significant opportunity for the right person with the right skills. As CIO, you can be the leader who helps your organization become more strategic and effective, so you can advance your mission, vision, and business goals.

Know what you’re made of. The DNA of the CIO is constantly changing, along with technology, and you want to remain up to the task. Perform an internal scan to check your own DNA and, where appropriate, build it into your review process.

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