The Pathway to CIO

From the Web site of one of the world's most prestigious executive search firms, Egon Zehnder International -- and under the heading of "Thought Leadership" no less -- comes this chilling judgement... "Although CIOs are an emerging presence in the executive suite, few IT executives have the business qualifications or capitalist's killer instinct for making money." -- '

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Coincidently, the nine core competencies shown to have the greatest impact on an executive's success, and that form the foundation of the Pathways program, were determined by Egon Zehnder. They hear you Mr Patrick. And soon you will be hearing from them.

SIDEBAR: How to Think, Talk and Walk Like a Leader

Simarjit Chhabra refutes the notion that IT people are not suited to the upper echelons of business. He cites Bill Gates, Steve Jobs and Michael Dell -- techies who used to assemble computers in their garage -- as living proof.

Chhabra, CIO of Xtralis, says IT executives have diverse talents and learning abilities, and can adapt to changing circumstances. But he admits that a lack of soft skills, business acumen and political agility holds them back. "Most IT people shy away from the top roles and focus on learning technical skills rather than strategic business skills," Chhabra says. "They prefer computer games to boardroom games. Others don't have the appetite for office politics. Some may deny it, but politics is an essential skill in business. It's time we realised that networking is more than Cisco."

Be an Intrapreneur

'Intrapreneur' is a term Chhabra uses to describe a person within a corporation who takes direct responsibility for turning an idea into a profitable finished product by being innovative and taking educated risks.

"Most of us don't possess any intrapreneurial skills, let alone entrepreneurial skills," he says. "This is what we need. We need to make IT a profit centre before thinking about how to run a business. If we can't manage our own department's profitability, how can we expect to do it for the entire business? This is where financial savvy comes in. If you can't speak the language of EBITA, ROI and TCO, then you're better off staying with TCP/IP, ADSL and WI-FI."

Chhabra says while some know little of the art of negotiation, others don't have the gumption to be assertive in making decisions. "Many of us spend our lives justifying outages in our infrastructure rather than making the case for more investment to reduce the outages," he says. "For example, how many of us know the most effective way to convince our boards we can't give them the fabled five 9s uptime unless they invest in infrastructure? Unless we train ourselves to think, talk and walk like business leaders, we will spend endless years waiting for approvals to upgrade links so users can have faster Internet access. That's not a career."

CIO: A Mix of Drive, Skills and Guts

Chhabra agrees that many senior IT executives in Australia don't have the drive, the strategic nous or the courage to move into the role of CIO. He blames career education, burnout, ignorance (from others) and wonky recruitment policies as some of the many reasons this is so.

"Our education system needs a revamp as we aren't taught about various business aspects during our engineering or technical streams," says Chhabra, who holds an Electronic Engineering Degree from the University of Pune in India and an MBA (International Management) from the University of London.

"I would say 99 per cent of companies around the world don't have a career path for engineers or technical employees to move into management or to learn cross skills," Chhabra says. "And even though IT has become the backbone for many organisations, IT remains unknown to most people in senior management. They still think we just fix desktops -- and we get treated accordingly. For example, look at the hype around cloud computing. Top executives see it as a way to reduce costs and improve efficiency, so they ask us why we haven't moved into the cloud. But have we educated them, in terms they can understand, about the risks of such a strategy?"

Having operated successfully as a senior IT executive at Capgemini, HSBC, and Ingram Micro, and with consultative roles at Citigroup, GE Finance, Morgan Stanley, IBM and DBS Bank on his CV, Chhabra is an evangelist for working across industries. He says the hiring strategies at too many companies are narrow and naive.

"Most companies require CIOs with a background in that industry," he says. "It's often a mistake. It puts a strain on available talent, and hinders anyone trying to recast IT strategy at a new firm because they are considered outsiders. We should encourage more cross industry experience. I've been lucky to work in logistics, telecommunications, financial services and outsourcing, and when I moved into my current role in manufacturing, I was able to revolutionise IT within our organisation around the world. My experience in those other industries helped us to leap into the future."

What Buddha Would Say

Chhabra says talented IT executives have all the ingredients to be the CIOs and CEOs of tomorrow. "Some of the most successful companies today, such as Apple, Google and Dell, have one thing at their core -- technology," he says. "Who knows technology in our company better than us? Many IT people think 'this is my job and this is my life'. How about changing this thinking to 'this is the job that leads me towards my next goal in life'? We need to step back and decide our life goals -- but also be certain it's what we want."

"And never complain you aren't happy with what you have. As Buddha once said -- 'a happy person is not a person in a certain set of circumstances, but rather a person with a certain set of attitudes.' That's what we need as CIOs -- a certain set of attitudes.

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Copyright © 2010 IDG Communications, Inc.

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