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How to Hire the Best CIO

Nov 18, 2005
By

Daniel Gingras






You need a new CIO, and I know that thought scares you. You’ve struggled for some time now figuring out exactly what the CIO in the company does, so figuring out how to hire someone for a job you don’t fully understand can be confusing.

I thought I’d put together a roadmap on exactly what you should look for and some ideas on how to go about finding the best CIO for the organization.

First, we need to decide whether the person who heads our IT department is truly strategic to the organization. My metric is whether he reports to you or to someone below you. But that’s not always a good indicator of the strategic nature of the position, sometimes it just reflects some peculiarities of the organizational structure.


As CEO you should ask yourself if you believe IT is a strategic resource in the company. Don’t kid yourself, if the CIO doesn’t report to you and you think IT strategic, you should be asking yourself some pretty tough questions. If, in the final analysis, you don’t think it’s strategic, then stop reading and pass this to the CFO or the head of HR to find a really good VP of IT or director of IT.

OK, you do think the role is strategic, so what should you look for in the new CIO. Well, having held the role many times, and having hired numerous CIOs for others, let me give you some guidelines.

Here are the key attributes you want:

Passion

No other attribute will determine the success of a candidate more than passion: hire for passion; train for skill.

You know intuitively that someone who loves what they do will be absolutely great at it. So why is this dimension so overlooked in the hiring process? I think because it simply can’t be measured.

You can look at credentials, work history and even test for concrete skills, but passion is a nebulous concept, yet I can assure you that it is the most important element in determining whether the person you hire will succeed in bringing value to the organization.

Spend some time getting to know the candidate. Ask him or her why they chose this position and your company. Don’t accept “pat” answers, challenge him or her to really reveal why they’re doing what they do.

Appetite for Change

The role of the CIO is the role of change-agent and you’d be surprised how many CIO candidates can’t manage change. It’s not only the ability to digest change, but, even more, the ability to create an environment where change is embraced; the ability to create excitement around change.

Execution is everything says Larry Bossidy, former CEO of Honeywell in his best selling book Execution: The Discipline of Getting Things Done , and the ability to create, influence and evangelize change is an essential element.

Hiring someone who’s held the same job for a very long time is probably not a great approach to finding someone with an appetite for change. Sure, you want to find someone who will stay with the organization, but beware of someone who is content with the status quo.

Business Knowledge vs. Domain Knowledge

No, you don’t need someone who comes from the cement-mixer industry. Guess what, manufacturing is pretty much the same whether you make cement mixers or cake mixers.

This drives me crazy and it’s endemic in CIO hiring. I once lost the competition for CIO in a company I had a real passion for because they wanted a “shoe guy." I had deep knowledge of distribution, manufacturing and their core architecture, but I came from a different manufacturing background.

Most businesses should try to find someone from another industry well known for their strategic use of IT rather than trying to find someone from their specific industry. Hospitals are notorious for this, feeling that they are so different that they have to get someone from another hospital.

Exceptional Communications Skills

It goes without saying that any senior officer of a corporation should be able to inspire his organization to greatness, and communications skills are key to creating that inspiration.

You should recognize within the first few minutes of a conversation whether the person you’re interviewing can deliver a cohesive message in an exciting way. But there are other dimensions, such as the ability to present in front of a large group, or to write effectively, so make sure you explore those skills as well.

Thirst for Knowledge

Let’s face it, technology is changing rapidly and although the role of CIO covers both business and technology, the technology piece has to be current to be of value.

There are emerging technologies which will completely revolutionize business, and if the CIO you hire isn’t constantly relearning their job, then you’re going to be saddled with old and obsolete technology.

Make no mistake, this is a very difficult and time consuming commitment on the part of any individual, because it is a commitment to lifelong learning. Ask them what the last class they took (or taught, because one way of staying on top of technology is to teach it) and what their view is of the changing landscape of technology and how to adapt to it.

Leadership

If there is a single trait that defines the role of the CIO, this is it. It’s also one of the hardest to recognize and to find. Finding a true leader requires some real detective work.

Contact their former employees and find out how they feel about the person, have they had employees who’ve followed them from job to job? Do they hold leadership roles in the community in addition to their profession? You’ll have to really dig to find a great leader, but when you do, coupled with an abiding passion for their job and your company, you will achieve exceptional results.

Daniel Gingras has been CIO of five major companies and is a partner at Tatum Partners, a nationwide professional services organization of senior-level technology and financial executives who take on leadership roles for client companies. He has more than 30 years of IT experience and teaches computer science at Boston University. He can be reached at dan.gingras@tatumpartners.com.


 

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