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On becoming a CIO -- by a CIO

Becoming a CIO requires technologists to take on high-profile projects and speak in business terms. A CIO outlines five rules for climbing the IT ladder.

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Recently, a promising young student who was applying to a leadership development program at Reliance, where I am the chief information officer, asked me, "How do I become a CIO?"

I wanted to answer this question in practical terms, avoiding leadership jargon. I didn't answer it fully during the event. This article is an attempt to make it right for that student -- and for others with the same aspirations.

Here are my five practical "tactics" to become a CIO:

1. Take a key role in a high-profile project. A high-profile project transforms a company’s business, so it requires involvement by members of the executive team. Examples include implementing an ERP system or launching a digital business. This type of project enables you to showcase your technical and leadership skills. It builds credibility and reputation, and gives the project exposure. But be aware: If a project is unsuccessful, you run the risk of being targeted, even if you were not responsible for the failure. It's also requires a great deal of effort,  so expect to put in lot of hours, become emotionally committed and stressed beyond reason. It is the most high-risk, high-reward approach. These kinds of projects aren't for everyone.

2. Apply and simplify. Business leaders hire IT professionals to understand technology so they don't have to. Even technically savvy CEOs care about technology only to the extent that it helps grow the business, differentiate from competitors or increase productivity. CEOs look for IT leaders who can navigate through technology concepts, filter what's relevant and turn it into useful business scenarios. Consider that MP3 players used to be advertised in terms like, "256 Mb, 1.8 TFT display, built-in speaker." Then the iPod came along with the tagline, "one thousand songs in your pocket." The latter resonates much better with users, because it emphasizes the value of the technology rather than granular features.

The paradox is that early in their careers, IT professionals are rewarded for their technical prowess. But as they advance into leadership positions, business acumen becomes more critical. It's never too late to develop the skill: spend time with front-line employees, learn about their challenges -- and not just IT ones. Observe customers' interactions with the company, put yourself in their shoes. Understand what drives profits and identify cost reduction opportunities. Consider how the company could sell more to customers and prospects. Think about how technology can improve the business, and storyboard your vision as though you were presenting it to a fifth-grader. Summarize your ideas in a 30-second pitch, and when you encounter the CEO in the elevator, you can make your mark.

Owning a domain means having decision-making authority over anything that affects it.

3. Take ownership of your domain. Define your domain as broadly as possible. For example, the domain of an IT support analyst might include infrastructure, programming code and business processes of whatever they support. Here's where it gets complicated: Owning a domain means having decision-making authority over anything that affects it. Astute business leaders slowly enlarge their domains by gradually earning decision power over portions of others' domains. The most ethical and lasting way to do so would be to manage your domain as though you own the company.

To this end, you need a long-term vision that you can voice to others at any chance. When it comes to making improvements, don't ask for permission; ask for forgiveness later on -- if necessary. Get involved in every discussion that is remotely connected to your domain, even (and especially) when it's not IT-related. Ask thoughtful questions, push back when something doesn't make sense and express your opinions. Hold peers accountable -- don't avoid conflict. Coach your "average" team members, or replace them. Find a problem and then fix a problem. In sum, show you care. You then may be asked to join meetings so you can weigh in on issues, not just because others want you to do the work. Continue on and you'll be promoted -- that is, get a bigger domain. Repeat from the start.

4. Make promises, meet promises. Unfortunately -- and arguably unfairly -- IT projects are typically associated with being over budget, missing deadlines and not delivering on scope. The key to counteract this reputation is making and meeting promises. Meeting promises is about delivering on time, on budget and to requirements. This isn't easy -- it's just more obvious, so the emphasis here is on making promises. IT professionals tend to overpromise because they don't anticipate priority swaps, changes in scope, resource shortages, technical failures and so on. At the other extreme, they might sandbag and build too much slack into the project timeline in their efforts to risk-manage future problems.

Take a page from manufacturing, construction and operations leaders, who have to deliver in spite of constraints, many of which are outside their control. They do so by learning from past experiences and refining their estimation models, so their promises become accurate over time. Let's apply this concept to IT projects. Keep a list of items that are affected by deadline/budget/scope problems for every project. When I plan for my next project, I account for these constraints. At the same time, note that planning for everything that can go wrong (as Murphy's Law suggests) does not build accuracy and often chips away at credibility just as much, so keep some of your optimism -- and hedge it with a plan B for the highest risks.

5. Build credibility. Finally, how you navigate within your company and build trust among stakeholders is critical to rising in the ranks -- and to having the support you need once you get there. The preceding recommendations all share the concepts of building credibility and demonstrating the ability to execute. Building credibility and trust will put you in good stead no matter your role in your company, but it can certainly help when you are responsible for projects, budget and staff resources.

I hope these tactics for becoming a CIO prove as useful to you as they have been to me.

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This was last published in December 2014

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What tips do you have for rising in the IT ranks?
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A major key comes down to communication. As a CIO, you are in charge of all the company's departments and communication between each one could lead to a promising tenure. 
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As with any path to leadership, building experience in multiple areas and relationships with multiple business units will be important. That will help to build the respect and trust you need to get to the top - and to be effective there. 
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It seems rising in the ranks in IT mirrors what should happen in any endeavor, taking on challenges, communicating clear goals and objectives, and delivering on them.
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