That final step up to the boardroom is often the most difficult to take. The higher you get in an organisation, the fewer roles there are and the fiercer the competition. With boards increasingly looking to their technology leaders to take the business forward in a tough business environment, the leap from tech leader to CIO or CTO is perhaps harder than ever.

At InX’s latest CIO roundtable with the Next CIO community, Natalie Whittlesey, C-suite engagement director for The IN Group, and James Lawson, director of InX’s technology and transformation practice, shared their advice for senior tech professionals looking to secure that first CIO role. Here are six key tips from the roundtable.

“You’re winning, not losing, if you reach the shortlist or final stage interview, but don’t get the job. See it as a step forwards, not a loss.” James Lawson, director, Inx

1. Realise you’re more than a tech leader

The transition to CIO involves a significant mindset shift. When you’re a CIO, you’re no longer a technology leader. You’re a business leader first and foremost, and a tech leader second. Work on expanding your understanding of the business – its challenges, opportunities and transformation needs – as well as the needs of your peers and the wider market. That way, the board won’t see you as someone who can just make things work, but as someone who can shape the direction of the business.

“Tech isn’t the question; the business and your customers are, and technology may or may not be the answer.” Natalie Whittlesey, C-suite engagement director, The IN Group

2. Focus on what you have got

Before embarking on that quest for your first CIO role, you need to really understand yourself. Stop thinking about what you haven’t got and instead, think about what you have got and how you can articulate that to potential employers.

Companies don’t need a job title. They need someone who can do certain things. Think of yourself objectively, almost as a product in the recruitment market: a set of skills, completed projects and lessons learned. There are organisations out there who will want those skills and capabilities. You might not tick all the boxes on a job description or have had a number one role before – we all have to start somewhere – but you will have a breadth of experience that you can apply to a CIO role. You just need to find the one that is ‘you-shaped.’

3. Build your network

The journey to CIO is a marathon, not a sprint. Take every opportunity to expand your network and let the market know that you’re open to opportunities. You might have a former colleague who’s looking to hire a CIO, knows what you’re capable of and is willing to give you a chance. Developing relationships with headhunters will also allow you to showcase your skills to the market. Every connection you make opens you up to an entire network of people.

Networking is particularly important when you’re looking for a role in a different sector with very specific requirements of a CIO – like financial services, for example. You might not be successful applying directly for the role if you’re unknown, but a referral from a member of your network can give you the edge.

4. Broaden your experience

Expanding your experience beyond your current role, and tech projects and programmes, can be extremely powerful. Look for steering team opportunities that allow you to gain that broader experience. Think about your gaps; in which areas, beyond your remit, do you need to upskill so that you can demonstrate a broad business knowledge?

It’s hugely frustrating when you feel you’ve done the same job elsewhere, but an organisation won’t give you a chance because they want someone from the same sector. Don’t forget that there are aligned businesses: you might not have worked in retail, but you might have worked in leisure and hospitality, for example.

5. Do your research

It’s not always about the industry. Think about what you can offer the business to help address its current and future concerns. It might be about to go through a major transformation, separation or integration, or ERP programme, and therefore need a CIO who’s delivered a similar project before.

Research the company (articles, social media, board reports) to see what major programmes are in progress, what’s coming up and how these tie into the requirements of the role. Look for something the business needs that you’ve done before.

Look at the profiles of the people on the board. Are they speaking at any events? What’s on their mind right now? Understand what interests them in the business world and naturally work some of this narrative into your interview: “I can see you’re going to do pilots in generative AI. I’ve done that and can show you the results.”

6. Know your story

The clearer your story, the better you can articulate it to hiring managers and the easier it is for a headhunter to present you to potential employers. Articulated in your CV, your story should include:

  • The size of organisations you’ve worked at, covering employee numbers, geographical footprint and complexity.
  • Your experience of ownership models, whether private equity backed, founder backed, venture capitalists or listed businesses (FTSE 100/250/350, public sector).
  • Your relatable industry experience (retail, industrial, financial services).
  • The size of your team and resource mix (percentage internal and outsourced).
  • Overall budgetary responsibility (OpEx and CapEx).

Use your online profile on platforms like LinkedIn to sum up your story for headhuntersand hiring companies. The first and sometimes only thing a potential employer will look at, your profile is as important as your CV. It should list, in no more than five lines, the key things that describe you as a professional, covering the points above along with your five or six key areas of expertise. Think elevator pitch. It needs to make you as easily recommendable as possible and when you’re talking about yourself in interviews, you’ll need to know it inside-out.

“You’re not selling yourself. You’re explaining yourself.” James Lawson, director, InX

A big thank you to our attendees and to Natalie and James for sharing their insight. If you’re a tech leader and would like to talk to us about how you can find your first C-tech role, please contact Natalie, James or one of our team.

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