How to land your dream CIO role

Leadership insights: How to land your dream CIO role


If you are looking for a better role, first define better, then consider what the senior leadership team really need from you.

Cathy Holley is a Senior Advisor and CIO Coach, with over 25 years experience as a leading technology headhunter working with global boards in all sectors to help them understand what a good CIO/CDO/CTO looks like. She is a former Partner and Head of Technology, Digital and Innovation Practice at Savannah Group, and has placed some of the top technology leaders in the world.

What CIOs think matter

Part of my role as a career coach for technology leaders is to ask them what value they have created in their organisation. Sadly, this does not always produce exciting content for either the creation of a compelling CV or preparation for an interview. So, I go back to basics and ask what they think a CIO’s role should be. It’s truly fascinating to see the huge variation in how CIO’s perceive themselves and the role they were hired to do. Answers often include:

  • I rolled out XYZ technology.
  • I restructured the teams and hired some new talent.
  • I helped align business and technology teams.
  • I reshaped/slimmed/grew the portfolio of programmes to improve delivery.
  • I had a really big team and spent huge amounts of money. (Can I have a medal now?)

I know from my 20 years as a CIO headhunter that these internally-focussed answers would not strike a chord with most CEOs. It is, after all, the equivalent of a CFO setting out their  stall by explaining they prefer a particular brand of calculator, know roughly how many beans make five and that they can cut costs by cutting heads. We’ve surely moved on,  haven’t we?

Many CIOs still judge their success by the size of the company they work for, team size or budget. This is pure vanity and really very 1990s. Let’s be clear, any idiot can spend lots of money; far more impressive to have achieved a lot by investing funds wisely and generating “more bang for the bucks”. 


What CEOs think matter

A small proportion of the CIOs I met dazzled me with answers I couldn’t wait to share with the CEO. I have been fortunate enough to work with boards of both large and small, private and quoted companies, and what most of them are looking for in a world-class CIO is someone who might answer those questions like this:

  • I quickly assessed one of our product lines as having a short sell-by date and selected new technologies, which enabled us to create two new products that now account for 80% of our profit (£30m).
  • We implemented new technologies which have enabled us to flip manufacturing anywhere in the world almost overnight, according to local demand. This cut costs by $5m annually and reduced stock-outs by 60%.
  • I persuaded the Exco to focus on three major programmes/deliverables which would generate the most profit, shutting down several pet projects where the business case was shaky at best, given our current resources are overstretched. The three projects have delivered $2m, $6m and $30m in new revenues.
  • I discovered a competitive product and created the business case which resulted in us buying the company and integrating its product line into our own. This has generated a new income stream of E150K and wiped out a key competitor.
  • We selected and provided the tools to analyse scientific data which we hope will enable us to cure certain cancers. (no price on this one)

These are all real answers given by CIOs that I placed or coached. Please note the financial figures which accompany each answer. Again, the size of the figure isn’t the main attraction – what’s impressive is the boldness, the initiative and the innovation. These CIOs leave the day to day running of technology firmly on the shoulders of their teams, where it belongs.


Impressing your future boss

If you want to impress the headhunter calling you with your dream role, or knock the socks off the CEO when you are invited to interview, do please think carefully about what questions to ask. If the first thing you ask is “how big is the team/budget?”, for me it’s an instant “get your coat” moment. If this is how you are assessing the value you can bring, it’s a bit sad. What you need to get to grips with, is how much value the firm places on technology and what you and they can deliver in terms of increased profitability as a combined force. 

Few CIOs who are seeking a new role stop to consider what type of organisation will enable them to thrive and be happy. 

Me: “What would you like to do next?”

CIO: “Well, obviously the same again but bigger.”

There’s a big old world out there and whilst I loved working with my huge, global clients it was just as rewarding (financially, more so since the big firms can be very pinch-penny) to work with PE-backed or smaller firms, where often CIOs will have an opportunity to broaden into different areas of the business. Whatever the size of the organisation, what matters is the content of the role not the numbers.

One thing is certain, if you ultimately aspire to a different role (COO? CCO? CEO?), you need to be demonstrating your ability to generate business value (top line not just bottom line) in your current CIO role. If you look at the company you are in and there is genuinely no opportunity to do this (are you sure? did you ask?) it could be time to move on.  

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