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Unboxing 10 Critical Skills for Today’s University CIO

While a chief information officer’s primary responsibilities lie in IT systems and cybersecurity, finding the right person for such a critical leadership role requires looking at more than technical savvy.

The letters "CIO" in a box.
In higher education, when searching for the ideal chief information officer, understanding and selecting the best match for an institution can be a daunting task. In any administrative search, careful vetting and choosing the best candidate is critically important. When looking to improve and enhance technology operations, motivate staff and provide exceptional customer service, selecting the right CIO requires deep analysis and careful selection. Unboxing the most critical skills that a future (or current) CIO needs will help ensure success. Here are 10 important ones:

  • Communications
  • Strategic Thinking
  • Project Management
  • Change
  • Diplomacy
  • Leadership
  • Honesty
  • Emotional Intelligence
  • Empathy
  • Empowerment

The first and most important skill is simply communication. Can your CIO take the complex and make it understandable to multiple audiences? Beware the perceived IT expert who quotes a myriad of IT-specific acronyms and abbreviations without being able to explain them in simple terms. When your candidate speaks, can they look directly at you or the group they are addressing? Do they speak with fluidity while illustrating confidence and friendliness? Watch how your CIO candidate reacts to groups and gauge if they can “read the room” by looking at the non-verbal communications of the audience. Good communicators can modify their message on the fly by observing the audience reaction. Finding a CIO who can master the art of clear, concise and consistent communications will pay large dividends to your IT enterprise, and your campus constituents.

Strategic thinking is essential and akin to playing chess. In 1950, Claude Shannon, an American mathematician, calculated the number of potential moves in a game of chess to be 10,120. After each player makes their first move, there are 400 possible board moves. After two complete moves, there are nearly 200,000, and after three complete moves, there are about 120 million. The key to success is strategic IT planning and deployments. You should be thinking at least three moves in advance and considering alternatives. If you only think in terms of one move at a time, you will not be strategically successful.

When implementing IT strategic plans, it’s important to practice effective project management. There are several important benefits of having a solid project management plan, and the correct mindset to utilize it. Project management ensures the project runs smoothly, helps it stay within scope, ensures it adheres to a timeline, improves communications and allows better business decisions. Being a successful CIO requires a track record of successful project management, for both small- and large-scale projects.

As you develop new projects, implement them and monitor results, it’s important to be ready for change. In your own institution, there will be people resistant to change. A revealing quote comes from the hit TV series “Monk” starring Tony Shalhoub. In an episode from the first season, Monk says, “I don’t mind change; I just don’t like to be there when it happens.” There are likely many employees and clients who feel the same way. The challenge for CIOs is to alter this culture and provide a mechanism to plan for and embrace positive opportunities for change. It is also important to have a solid change management (CM) process. This requires being able to implement change by clearly describing it and effectively implementing it through documented processes. Change management saves time and money, and it helps minimize disruptions when operational processes and procedures change. A CIO can be an advocate for CM and have a positive track record utilizing it.

In selecting the best fit for a CIO at your institution, see if they have a solid record of IT diplomacy. Another way to describe diplomacy is an ability to successfully negotiate. It’s rare to be able to please everyone. Being a diplomat requires the CIO to settle differences, find common ground and compromise. Good diplomacy will strengthen your relationships across your institution and beyond. The art of diplomacy will promote goodwill and mitigate conflict down the road.

Honesty is related to diplomacy. Without it, you will not be successful. Having only technical acumen is not enough. Being honest is integral in any work environment, as it promotes openness and helps to empower employees. Without honesty there cannot be trust, and once trust is lost, it’s exceedingly difficult to regain. The opposite of honesty is deception. CIOs who have “bended the truth” and rely on “half-truths” will create both internal and external distrust. When interviewing a CIO, probe deeper into how they value honesty. Ask for demonstrated positive examples.

Understanding the difference between leadership and management is essential and needs to be clearly articulated. Leadership focuses on the ability to influence, motivate and enable team success. Management refers to getting a group to accomplish specific goals based on responsibilities. As a CIO, being a successful leader translates into helping employees grow and preparing your institution for the future. Management tends to focus on promoting technical and problem-solving skills, communications and personal skills. As a leader, a CIO should be able to demonstrate their ability to understand a collective vision and encourage colleagues to “buy in.”

The life and role of a CIO can easily lead to stress. In an IT environment, understanding the emotions of yourself and those around you is related to emotional intelligence or emotional quotient. This skill is critically important for the success of the leader and employee. Travis Bradberry, author of Emotional Intelligence 2.0, says, “a lack of emotional intelligence among the senior team can be devastating to the rest of the workforce … when they are ineffective … they set poor examples of how they treat other people, (and) trickles down throughout the company. One telltale sign of leaders who need to work on managing their emotions is that they frequently have challenging interactions with others. They find people very difficult, and they don’t tend to understand that they are part of the equation.”

Related to emotional intelligence is empathy. Can your CIO provide examples of how they view balance between work and life, and how they motivate underperforming employees through leadership and mentorship? The Center for Creative Leaders states, “empathy in the workplace is positively related to job performance. Managers who practice empathetic leadership toward direct reports are viewed as better performers in their job by their bosses.”

The last skill is how to create a work environment of empowerment for employees. Emphasizing and demonstrating how a CIO has empowered people will provide a good picture of their effectiveness as a leader. Empowerment helps build employee confidence and trust, and it promotes an environment showing work is valued. Demonstrating the ability to empower others helps to showcase the ability of the CIO to share their vision and motivate employees.

Each of these 10 skills are critical and intertwined. Having just a few of these skills leaves your CIO only partially prepared to lead your organization. A resume and reference list are only a portion of the picture. Sometimes, requesting permission to check off-list references yields insightful answers. But more importantly, ask your future CIO how they have demonstrated these individual skills and request examples. Unboxing these skills will not only help you select an ideal CIO candidate, but will equally enhance the one you already have.
Jim Jorstad is an innovative global force on the effective use of technology in teaching, learning and research. Currently the interim CIO at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse, he heads a team responsible for providing services to over 1,500 staff and 10,000 students. He has extensive experience in learning space design, strategic social media and deploying major IT technologies. His film and journalist work has appeared on CNN, MSNBC, Forbes and NPR and he is the recipient of the 2013 CNN iReport Spirit Award. Jim is also an EDUCAUSE Leading Change Fellow, one of 50 IT professionals chosen worldwide for the award.