Hunting down the best talent – a recruitment perspective

Magnus Graf Lambsdorff* of Egon Zehnder International, a global executive search firm, gives his perspective on what chief executives are typically looking for in their search for CIOs.

What are the main CIO recruitment trends you’ve seen over the past five years?
I think the demands of the CIO role are constantly changing to reflect the challenges, the complexity and the speed at which decisions now have to be made. The CIO is no longer just seen as the provider of infrastructure and a key problem solver. The IT role remains inward looking, as before, but many more CEOs who discuss these roles with us are now looking for co-drivers of their business. They also want someone who is a guardian of their business models, looking out for threats and then developing countermeasures.

What are the typical skills and attributes that CEOs are putting on the CIO checklist?
Efficiency, productivity and cost sensitivity are taken for granted. The true expectations of CEOs relate to the strategic orientation of the candidate, and a good market and business understanding. They need someone who sees the evolving possibilities from a technology perspective and understands how these trends and developments can have an influence on their core business, and vice versa. They then need the underlying leadership and communication skills, so that they can engage with the relevant stakeholders within the business. They need to be able to influence the rest of the business, which is something that is quite often lacking. Functional competencies are still important, but it’s increasingly acknowledged that the CIO’s team has to provide these, rather than necessarily the individual. Beyond all functional capabilities, though, this person first and foremost needs to be a market-oriented strategic change leader.

How easy is it to find such candidates in the market?
They are very hard to find. It depends on the expectations of a given company, but the most advanced CEOs, who fully understand what the CIO can do, are really challenging us. They are seeking people who hold deep technical expertise, but at the same time are real business people. But, unfortunately, there are not many CIOs who have seen any other function or segment of a business during their career, because they are traditionally still groomed within the technology area.

Are companies willing to invest appropriately in such candidates?
It depends a little bit on the team and the acknowledged importance of the function for their future development, but some are. But companies that do so get good people because there are not too many around. The ones who are up there absolutely know their price. Of course, the scarcity of this type of modern CIO is driving up the price. As a result, many CIOs are now getting remuneration packages that exceed what was seen in prior years and match their peers in the C-suite.

If you were advising a young person who aspires to be a CIO, what would you tell them?
I would probably tell them to do a bachelor’s degree in a technical domain, so they get a good basic grounding. Then go into business for two or three years, probably in the IT function, before doing an MBA. Following this, they should acknowledge the value of gaining experience in various areas in the organization, but without losing their grounding within the IT function. They need to get an understanding of other parts of the business. The best-qualified CIOs are those who have strategic change experience, along with exposure to the marketing and strategy side of the business.

Egon Zehnder has co-developed a “CIO of the Future” competency model. Can a CIO’s personality really be captured in this way?
No, of course not. But this type of model offers a highly objective view of their strengths. It basically groups competencies into three categories: reactive, active and proactive. Reactive behavior patterns, such as responding to customer demands and providing support, are positive, but are also mainly found at a junior management level. Senior IT executives, on the other hand, tend to demonstrate active competencies, such as anticipating future trends and achieving goals. Outstanding leaders are proactive strategic thinkers who make a long-range organizational impact. Ultimately, however, personalities are more complex than the parameters of any model, and it is always important to consider not only a candidate’s track record, but also their potential.

What kinds of competencies does the model suggest are particularly important for CIOs to have?
It is very difficult to generalize here, and our model merely serves as an assessment framework. It suggests, however, that outstanding CIOs have competencies that are remarkably similar to those of top CEOs. In other words, they are business leaders with clear strategic insights who can leverage IT investments to boost a company’s bottom line.

*Based in Hamburg, Magnus Graf Lambsdorff focuses on the areas of telecom services, digital business models and private equity.

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