How to hire a CIO

Chief Innovation Officer of DBS Bank Neal Cross speaks one-on-one with Laurence Smith.
By: | June 12, 2018

Laurence Smith: Organisations worldwide are facing disruption from digital startups and are racing to hire Chief Innovation Officers (CIOs) — but there is only a small pool of people with the right skills. How do you find the right one for your organisation?


Neal Cross: For any CIO to succeed, they need the right working environment. Even the best CIO won’t succeed without a conducive environment. In my case, there are four things which are essential to performing my role effectively.  I provide protection, inspiration, education, and freedom to my team – and while I think any leader needs to do the same, it is especially important as a CIO.

Why? The first question to ask yourself is where in the organisation should the CIO sit? Because no matter what, they will face politics and have to fight for resources, budgets, bonuses, and the CEO’s mindshare. So the CIO needs visible connection to top management, either positional power on the organisational chart, or very explicit sponsorship by the CEO. This must be highly visible support so that the connection to power helps negate any potential politics.

But this role is still far from plain sailing. In some ways, innovation groups tend to do what other groups do:  build products, generate PR, do technology and the like – managing multiple relationships is key here. But the most important thing, especially if it is an individual’s first CIO role, is that they have a place where they have protection.

Because there will be many who have gotten used to doing things in a certain way. They will not like being disrupted and may sometimes oppose the change. Having a layer of protection ensures that the innovation team isn’t afraid to come up with new ideas, even if they get rejected from time to time.

But protection for innovation teams isn’t enough. They also require inspiration. At DBS, the CEO Piyush Gupta, was clear that we wanted to be one of the best banks in the world. That’s a vision that I can take on and make my own. So now my team and I are inspired to do something really big and ambitious, using that as our driving force!

And to help us get there, there is a lot of education that needs to be done. Not just within the innovation teams, but also across the organisation’s wider workforce. The key about innovation is that it is not just driven by one team, it is an organisation-wide mentality that needs to be nurtured.

That is where education comes in to introduce new ways of thinking, working and problem-solving that really help organisations to step up.

The final thing a new CIO needs is freedom: freedom to write your own key performance indicators (KPIs), which, of course, the CEO must sign off on. As the CIO, you still need to decide on the actual programmes and provide direction on how to get things done.

Now, of course, this can be a double-edged sword. If you have the wrong CIO, things could go wrong.

If you’re hiring a CIO, just let them be, at least in the short term. When you think about goals, it is really critical not to force KPIs on them or expect immediate returns, especially not immediate revenue. This just sets them up for failure.

Initially a new CIO’s role should be about activity: getting as many staff as possible through some form of engagement with the innovation office. For the first year, if you do not let them write their own KPIs, then make it clear you want lots of activity and measure how many startups and employees are engaged by an innovation programme.

Are there any typical schools, organisations, roles, or industries that consistently produce great innovation leadership talent?

Unless you’ve got a big budget, you won’t be hiring the rock stars. But you can find people starting on the journey who have the right characteristics. They’ve worked at a technology company, done development and some sales, a bit of innovation, and some consultancy: that’s a good combination.

Hiring someone from a big consultancy can work, but I’m not sure that’s a great strategy unless they’re design consultancies like IDEO, What if or Frog. Hiring someone from the Big Four is not a silver bullet.

You have to decide what organisational problem you’re trying to solve: whether you need better products, a more innovative culture, a greater brand impact, or to attract better talent. Many of these aspects may be present, but not all innovation groups are the same, and you need to start with clear objectives.


About the Authors

Neal Cross (left) is the Chief Innovation Officer at DBS Bank, and a constant advocate for innovative thinking and agile cultures within organisations. His tenure since April 2014 has involved building and developing a comprehensive innovation roadmap for DBS.  Cross is charged with driving that innovation agenda regionally, as the bank looks to shape the future of finance in Asia-Pacific, enhance customer experiences, and better engage audiences in the digital landscape.

Laurence Smith  is a former colleague of Cross, having served as DBS’ Managing Director of Learning and Development between 2013 and 2016. He is currently Global Head of Talent and Learning for, as well as an advisor to its board.


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Featuring a keynote session and exclusive workshop with “the father of modern HR” Dave Ulrich, this four-day learning opportunity will guide HR professionals through the complexities and interrupters of the emerging workplace.

Smart Workforce Summit takes place in Singapore from September 19 to 22 this year. For more information, see:

This is the first of a two-part interview. The second part, in which Neal Cross discusses the skills and characteristics he looks for in younger innovation talent, was published on June 27, 2017 and is titled Leading innovation at the world’s most celebrated digital bank.


Laurence Smith is the host of HRM Asia’s Digital Mindset forum, and regularly contributes articles on how technology is changing the way workforces, and HR, operate.