When meeting boards to discuss their need to hire a CIO or CTO, the first question my colleagues and I always ask is whether they need evolution or revolution within their technology function. Clients are often reluctant to admit they are seeking a slower tempo of change since they fear seeming complacent or lacking ambition, but no organisation thrives in constant chaos so should not feel uncomfortable aiming for a gradual approach to change.
It is fair to say however that the vast majority of organisations we speak to range from fairly to extremely disappointed with their technology functions and so are crying out for “transformation”. Often, there is an assumption that no more needs to be said and that we should now understand the brief fully, be able to hit the streets and find the perfect CIO.

Finding The Perfect CIO…

Fast forward three weeks and we are starting to meet benchmark candidates along with CIOs who have requested a general meeting with us to explore career opportunities. Our first question is always around their aspirations – what would the perfect role look like for you? I am fairly sure that if you asked every CIO headhunter on the planet, they would tell you that the answer is almost always identical. After a short pause, the answer is usually “I am looking for a role in a company that wants to transform technology” (cue another pause while they let us absorb this ground-breaking revelation). Some are aware that this is rather cliché and acknowledge it with a wry smile, but others are genuinely surprised when we don’t immediately prick up our ears, lean forward and start furiously taking notes.

CIOs are usually quite dismissive of other CIOs, (more so than any other functional leaders when benchmarking their peers), and genuinely believe that they are one of only a tiny pool of change agents. We rarely hear CIOs speak well of others in their field. The average CIO might well be shocked if s/he heard the descriptions we hear of the technology function they have left behind – we are always told it was in a shocking state! Thankfully, their successor has rescued the car crash, lifted and inspired the downtrodden team and it’s in much better shape now (Thank Heavens!).

Obviously, at this stage of the interview, we would like to hear what transformation they have delivered in their current organisation. The answers range from the sublime to the ridiculous and sort the wheat from the chaff. Some years ago, we met a FSTE 100 CIO who had been with the same organisation for over 25 years. This length of tenure in itself is intriguing since the average tenure of a CIO is two to three years. He told us that he had created a company portal and consolidated the data centres. We resisted the temptation to ask him what he had been doing for the other 24 years, but he like many others sees himself as a change agent.

Be Clear About What Type Of CIO You Are

For CIOs, a healthy dose of honesty and self-awareness is the order of the day. Broadly speaking there are three main steps to technology transformation; “broken” technology that is hindering core business operations, “not fit for purpose” technology which is failing to deliver sufficient business value, and “best in class” technology for organisations who are striving to use technology to reinvent or redefine their market.

It is, of course, possible as a CIO to move between the categories, but you need to start by understanding where you fit in today. Taking on a role which is too much of a stretch will almost certainly result in failure that can be disastrous for both your career and self-confidence.

The overuse of the word transformation when describing fairly simple change has done nobody any favours. There is no going back now, and it is hard to imagine any role specification avoiding regular usage of the term. A little more sophistication in defining what is actually required will help organisations, CIOs and even headhunters make better choices. Perhaps we will even manage to lengthen the tenure of CIOs and improve the perception of this critical function, as a whole.

Before you decide that you have delivered as much change as your organisation needs, please do reflect on whether you have merely fixed the basics or whether your organisation has genuinely reached the pinnacle of what it can be and is fit for the future.

Subscribe to receive actionable leadership insights to your inbox