Strategy, schmategy: Should CIOs be worried about their next career move?

IT leaders discuss board-level opportunities for CIOs... understanding of what the business needs. Many IT leaders, for a start, are promoted through the operational ranks.

Becoming a strategy-focused CIO, never mind ever becoming the CEO, can be an unintentional end point. Take one of the world's most senior IT leaders, Cisco CIO Rebecca Jacoby: "I was reluctant because I hadn't aspired to be a CIO," she says of her rise to the top technology job at the networking giant. She has, however, loved the position.

"If you go back three years, IT held a very different position in the business to the one it holds now. Cisco chief executive John Chambers believed the job needed to concentrate on transformation and business change, and he believed focus made me a good candidate," she says.

CIOs' complex employment aspirations

Like Jacoby, Salford University CIO Derek Drury says personal employment aspirations are often more complex than having a simple desire from day one to become a top executive. "Careers don't work like that," he says. "You find stuff you like to do and then you either move on because you're bored or because you have skills that other organisations want."

So, what about the next step? Would Drury like to become a chief executive? "Well, maybe," he says, once again reinforcing the complex nature of career paths. "My current desire is to do this job as well as I possibly can."

People, says Drury, get too hooked on the significance of job titles. What he does know is that a good CIO should have more than enough on their plate. Any organisation that doesn't think IT is at its core will be heading for a very hard fall, and a CIO who stops understanding what the business wants is finished.

"If you're truly strategic, your role is safe - you'll be in place to form the decisions on behalf of the business," reflects Drury. "Some peers are too hooked on cloud outsourcing and internal development. Bits of the organisation will fit to some of these models, so be flexible."

Avoid concept of fixed career paths and titles

Roger Newman, senior vice president at Mahindra Satyam, also picks up on the need to be flexible and - like some of the earlier commentators - suggests a need to avoid the idea of fixed career paths and job titles.

"The role definitions of many senior executives are changing, too," he says, referring to other C-level executives. "Roles are morphing. Everyone needs to understand IT and everyone needs to challenge what the business is doing. There's a morphing of skills because everyone is suddenly an expert in IT."

What emerges from the analysis is a complex picture of how the successful CIO has to have increasingly deep business expertise. However, rather than be scared, senior IT leaders must exploit the opportunity rather than worry about their next move.

"CIO is a wonderful role," says Nancy Knowlton, chief executive of technology specialist Smart. "IT leaders will have to prioritise the highest value concerns. In such circumstances, CIOs can either implement the strategy themselves or wait until the CEO makes a choice."

The opportunity to push business change through technology is in the IT leader's hands. Rather than their career being over, the CIO's influence across the information-intensive organisation is only really just beginning.

About Mark Samuels

Mark Samuels is a business journalist and editor at IT leadership organisation CIO Connect. He has written for various organisations, including the Economist Intelligence Unit, Guardian Government Computing and Times Higher Education.

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