How to hire your first CIO

It’s the first time your business has recruited a CIO. How do you ensure you find the right person for the job?

As technology grows in importance for a range of businesses, many will consider hiring a CIO. So what does the recruitment process involve and what skills should you seek in the winning candidate? 

Businesses now face huge demand for secure hybrid working and integration of multiple cloud-based apps and services, not to mention the need to incorporate digital transformation into the broader business strategy. Isn’t it time someone took charge, ensuring your technology strategy and business strategy are fully aligned? 

If you’re at the point in your business journey where you know that technology will play a central role in driving growth and shareholder value, you’re probably ready for your first CIO, says Anna Barsby, co-founder of consulting firm Tessiant and former CIO at Asda, Morrisons and Halfords. 

“Adding a CIO to the management team helps to drive growth because it improves your IT strategy and efficiency. Making processes more efficient reduces costs and frees up employees to focus on higher-value tasks, which in turn drives more value,” says Barsby. 

Specialist help 

Despite the widespread skills shortage, there’s a good chance you’ll be inundated with applications for a new CIO role, says Joe Topinka, a chief information security officer (CISO) with Fortalice who provides consulting and coaching to new CIOs.

“Recently, the HR director at a mid-sized company told me they’d received 300 applicants within 24 hours of posting a vacancy for a CIO on LinkedIn,” says Topinka. “There is great value in finding an experienced recruitment search team who have ‘been there and done that’ before,” he says. 

Barsby also recommends using specialist support to identify the right candidate. “I’ve seen people just hire someone they know already who knows about IT, and it generally doesn’t work too well,” she says. 

That’s because a successful CIO must be a conduit between your business leadership team and the IT team. They need to understand how to leverage technology to deliver against a business strategy, as well as identifying opportunities to use technology to improve business efficiency, performance and innovation. 

Your CIO will need to know about more than just technology. “The CIO role has changed enormously over the last decade and the new breed of CIO is definitely people first, technology second. Modern CIOs need to understand that technology is an enabler of people,” says Barsby. 

Top questions for a potential CIO

What’s your track record? Your CIO should have a legacy of delivering business strategy. Ask about how they have achieved and evolved strategy in previous positions – this is more important than specific industry or platform experience. 

Can you add value? Along with being a business leader, your new CIO needs to have the experience to focus on projects that drive revenues or profit. Do they understand how their current project portfolio performs in these terms? 

Are you an effective talent coach? Executives are often afraid of technology, so look for someone you wouldn’t be scared to ask a dumb question. Ask about prior experience coaching a team – do they help build skills and knowledge in their wider team? 

Are you a partner? A great CIO doesn’t just deliver technological services. They should be a strategic partner, happy to take an active role in driving strategy. They must collaborate with other business unit leaders and use technology to drive strategic growth.

Emotional intelligence

Working with a specialist recruiter can help you identify candidates who combine the technical expertise required of a CIO with the necessary communication and strategic skills. The CIO job description needs to prioritise business strategy over technology, while also stressing the importance of being able to lead and inspire people to embrace change, says Chris Underwood, managing director of executive search firm Adastrum Consulting. 

Underwood suggests looking for a CIO with high levels of both digital and emotional intelligence. “To me, digital intelligence is understanding digital innovation and how to exploit it to deliver against business objectives, while emotional intelligence means someone can unite teams to embrace change, which helps you to retain the best talent and develop future leaders,” says Underwood. 

An effective CIO needs to be able to lead and inspire people, delivering change while also watching out for future change coming over the hill. Above all, they must be a good communicator, adds Barsby. Your CIO will be a link between the tech world and the business. 

“They need to be an interpreter in some ways, understanding what the business needs and conveying that to technology professionals,” Barsby says. “Equally, they must be able to explain to the board, in business terms, what is possible with technology, and facilitate a two-way conversation between business and IT.” 

In some respects, hiring your first CIO might be the easy part. Now you need to be ready for the changes that their role will bring. Many business leaders employ a CIO to deliver change but then struggle to adopt that change themselves, says Underwood. 

“It’s very easy to talk about transformation and change, but it can be really challenging when someone comes into a CIO role and actually wants to change how the business operates. That change has to be agreed, accepted and cascaded through the senior leadership team if it’s going to be successful,” he says. 

CIO or CTO: what’s the difference? 

For many years the terms CIO (chief information officer) and CTO (chief technology officer) were used interchangeably. However, that’s no longer the case. 

Today, a CIO is a business strategist who advises the leadership team on how to leverage technology to deliver business innovation, transformation and strategy.  A good CIO understands IT systems and services, but they don’t need to be an expert in specific platforms or technologies. Their role is to understand how technology helps the organisation deliver its strategy and become more efficient. 

Meanwhile, the CTO is someone who handles the operational side of IT, helping to shape how IT platforms and applications need to evolve to meet the organisation’s strategic needs. A good CTO is a technical visionary, with a strong understanding of new technology services and platforms. They will often be responsible for liaising with external suppliers and partners to build an effective IT architecture.