How to become a CIO: 4 tips for professionals from any background

While being a leader is a tough task, getting there is half the battle. Here are the qualities necessary to be a successful leader.

What is the CIO's role in cybersecurity leadership? At the 2018 MIT CIO Symposium, Equinix's Lance Weaver described why the CIO must help guide cybersecurity policies.

CIOs and tech leaders are responsible for not only the success of the company, but also the people who make up the company. Between hiring the right candidates, supporting current employees, and actively advocating for women in tech, these leaders have a lot on their plates.

On top of building a strong staff, CIOs also have to ensure their company has the right security measures, invests in the right digital transformation initiatives, prepares for the Fourth Industrial Revolution, and operates efficiently and productively.

SEE: How to build a successful CIO career (free PDF) (TechRepublic)

While the job of CIO is difficult enough, the road to becoming one can be just as difficult, according to Gene Alvarez, managing vice president at Gartner, who hosts an annual panel on the subject at the Gartner IT Symposium, bringing together CIOs of different backgrounds to discuss their professional journeys.

Panelists of all backgrounds face their own share of hardships, Alvarez said. After considering all of the panelists' stories from over the years, Alvarez outlined some common characteristics in successful CIOs, and certain strategies they used to advance their careers.

Here are the qualities necessary in a successful CIO, and how to get there, according to Alvarez:

1. Willingness

To become a CIO, an individual must first demonstrate that desire, Alvarez said. The employee must show that they are willing to take on projects that others aren't, even when they aren't yet in a leadership position, he added.

"By doing that, they're going to get a level of experience that they will be able to use throughout their career," Alvarez said. This volunteerism shows that they are not only a team player, but willing to take initiative.

2. Communication

Communication skills are crucial for successful leaders and successful organizations. CIOs not only know how to speak to others, but how speak the "business language," said Alvarez. Having technical knowledge and programming experience is incredibly useful in the IT field, but being able to translate IT capabilities into business initiatives is what makes a tech employee a tech leader, he added.

"The CIOs that I've interviewed over the years, they treat technical skills as table stakes," said Alvarez. "They say, 'Yes, I have to be strong technically. But that's a given.' It's these other attributes that have differentiated them and enabled them to up to being a CIO."

One way to improve communication skills is through volunteering, Alvarez said. "Volunteerism is a way to get public speaking skills, to get management skills, and to get teamwork related skills outside of the work environment that you can bring back in," he added.

3. A coaching mindset

CIOs must know how to manage and motivate people, Alvarez said, which goes hand-in-hand with communication skills. These leaders must be able to ask their employees, "Where do you want to go? What skills do you believe you have now that are part of going to achieve that aspiration? And what skills do you need me to help you with and learn so that you can get to that aspiration?" he said.

"It's a real coaching mindset of helping the people below them get to the next level," Alvarez added. This type of coaching and accessibility must be able to be applied to those below them, as well as around them, so they are becoming an advocate for all team members.

4. Family support

Reaching the CIO level requires specific qualities in both the person and those in that person's life, said Alvarez. "Several CIOs have said if it was not for their families willingness to move with them to take the next opportunity, they would not be where they are," he added.

However, these employees can't expect the CIO title to fall in their lap, Alvarez said. "Within the corporate walls, employees should let their managers know their ambitions, where they believe they need to learn new skills, and that they would be available for projects and opportunities in which they could learn those skills," he added.

Putting yourself out there and making yourself available places you the back of the manager's mind, so if an opportunity becomes available, the know to think of you, Alvarez said.

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By Macy Bayern

Macy Bayern is an Associate Staff Writer for TechRepublic. A recent graduate from the University of Texas at Austin's Liberal Arts Honors Program, Macy covers tech news and trends.