Chasing Unicorns: How to Find 'Blended' IT-Business Pros

Maryfran Johnson says the answer is to grow your own hybrid players, who have the rare combination of technical smarts, great communication skills and strategic thinking

With the largest IT budget in the world at her disposal, you might think the CIO of the Department of Defense could just order up whatever IT talent she needs. Yet Teri Takai encounters the same challenge that technology chiefs in every industry wrestle with today: finding that elusive "blended" IT-business professional.

"It's hard for tech people--even middle manager on up to senior managers--to think the way that the business thinks," she points out. "They tend to explain things from their own perspective."

These days, the ideal IT manager is seen as someone deeply technical yet business savvy, wonderfully communicative and, of course, a strategic thinker. In other words, as mythic a creature as a unicorn. "This talent issue is hardly new," writes Stephanie Overby in our cover story ("CIOs Struggle with the Great Talent Hunt"). "IT leaders have preached the importance of the blended IT professional for years. But after a decade, it's clear that help is not on the way."

So with no one coming to the rescue, we wondered how some of the industry's leading lights were coping with this increasingly pressing issue. We turned to the three newest members of our CIO Hall of Fame: the DoD's Takai, Kent Kushar of E&J Gallo Winery and David Smoley, who last month moved from Flextronics to become AstraZeneca's new CIO. We also talked with several of this year's winners of our Ones to Watch awards, which honor the next generation of up-and-coming IT leaders. (See the full list of Ones to Watch winners on Page 40).

The consensus was clear. The best blended IT-business executives are often homegrown, developed over time into strategic thinkers who operate well in both worlds. Some are business analysts enticed into IT positions. Others are IT stars loaned out to business units. Many are purposefully mentored by CIOs who take a longer view of talent development. "I look for open-mindedness, a questioning mind-set, candor, critical thinking, the ability to network confidently, internally and externally," says Smoley, who finds his hybrid talent at the company's manufacturing sites, where IT leaders must deal directly with customers and business management.

At E&J Gallo Winery, the CIO partnered with his CFO to recruit new business school graduates. "We didn't outsource it. We got on airplanes," Kushar explains. "We talked to deans. We studied the [curricula]. We joined advisory boards. And we were able to attract the right talent."

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