As digital transformation continues to be top of mind for organizations, the role of a Chief Information Officer, or CIO, carries more and more weight. Venkat Ranga, VP of Business Technology at Aryaka, deftly reimagines the acronym CIO to be “Career In Overdrive” to encapsulate the duties of a CIO that go far beyond the IT department. 

The Systematic community had the chance to hear from Chetna Mahajan, CIO at ZoomInfo; Kishore Kondragunta, Head of IT at Woven Planet; and Kumud Kokal, CIO at Farmers Business Network, as they shared their learnings as first-time CIOs with Ranga.

Here’s what they had to say.

Strategy and structure matter. 

One resounding takeaway from the panel is that strategy is essential to the success of not only your role as CIO, but also to the success of your organization. “IT is not a support function,” says Kondragunta, “it is a strategic partner.” Establishing your IT or BT department as a revenue-generating team rather than a cost organization allows you to be a part of the greater conversation on the business side as a CIO. Creating strong alignment with the business enables you to strategize with company objectives—the “B” in BT stands for business after all, and higher-level business objectives cannot be an afterthought. 

Mahajan urges future CIOs to “leave the names out of the design” when building out the organizational structure. Essentially, this encourages CIOs to build their teams with a headcount that focuses on roles and responsibilities rather than an existing obligation to employees to maintain a certain status quo. 

It can be tempting to plan your org structure around strict ideas of what every employee should be doing every day, but this can lead to stagnation and add barriers to your end goals. Focusing first on the business will compel you to have meaningful conversations with stakeholders to understand their needs and focus on the design and business goals, not the people. This strategy will allow you to plan much further ahead, which helps account for scaling, expansion into new geographies, and future headcount. 

Grow wherever you are. 

“The career ladder is not straight up, it’s more like a game of chutes and ladders,” explains Kokal. “There are times when you go up and down and take a turn.” 

He claims that he “ride[s] on the shoulders of giants,” attributing a lot of his career success to the power of his network. Studies indicate that “80% of professionals believe that career success can be elevated through professional networking.” Kokal shares that he built out his own board of directors to serve as mentors, champions, and voices of reason, and the need to network continues at every level of your career, from an individual contributor to a CIO. Getting (and staying) connected to industry peers and leaning into a community allows you to make personal connections and invest in your own career growth. 

Growth doesn’t only apply to the career game of chutes and ladders, it also applies to the breadth and depth of your experience. Kokal explains that there are three zones of your work life: the comfort zone, the panic zone, and the learning zone. 

You should strive to stay in your “learning zone” as much as possible—a stage at which you are taking on multiple jobs and projects that challenge you enough to avoid stagnation (which would land you in the “comfort zone”) but aren’t so overwhelming that you feel as if you’ve bitten off more than you can chew, a sign that you might be in your “panic zone.” Being in your “learning zone” enables you to stay hungry and innovative, two qualities paramount to the success of a CIO. 

Lead authentically. 

As a CIO, you will inevitably be juggling both work responsibilities and personal duties. “Don’t feel guilty about outsourcing,” says Mahajan. “You can’t be superhuman in your life.” 

The message? You need to be strategic in what you are doing every day: Look at your to-do list and figure out what are the most important, needle-moving tasks. It is impossible to give every task or project your undivided attention and effort, which makes it imperative that you tackle your responsibilities with honesty and learn how to ask for help. 

Another important lesson from the panel is that mistakes are inevitable, and it’s how you learn from them that sets you apart. As a CIO, “make sure to verbalize it’s ok to make mistakes. Celebrate learnings. Share mistakes. Be authentic,” offers Mahajan. Kondragunta adds that taking ownership of your failures allows you to course-correct and mitigate the chances of the mistake happening again. 

Looking to hear more authentic learnings from these first-time CIOs? Join Systematic to get access to the recording of the CIO panel.

Mary Hodges
About Mary Hodges

Mary Hodges is the Community Manager for Systematic.