Improve Your Business Smarts by Extending What You Already Do

Direct Energy CIO Kumud Kalia says developing commercial orientation is the toughest of all leadership competencies for IT managers

What can IT leaders do to improve their business smarts?

Anyone aspiring to senior executive IT positions has heard the long list of skills and experiences that need to be accumulated along the way. Be more strategic. Be a better communicator. Become familiar with finance and accounting principles. The list goes on, but the one competency I think is least understood and most difficult to acquire is commercial orientation.

Commercial orientation is about understanding and factoring in the business impact of concepts or decisions. Making choices around a system implementation based on financial, operational and market impact shows commercial judgment, contrasted with selecting the best technical product alone.

For example, I recently dissuaded business colleagues from buying a CRM solution not because I didn't like the technology, but because I didn't think their business would improve enough to justify the investment. It would have been a great technology project, but unless many other things were changed, it would have damaged profitability.

Opportunities need to be manufactured to gain commercial exposure, as they don't typically occur within the traditional IT track. One approach is to extend what we already do. Our contract negotiation and supplier management skills can be applied to supply chain or operations management. In tech companies, product development can be very similar to corporate software development. Those who are more process-oriented can utilize techniques such as Six Sigma to diagnose and treat business problems.

Try to arrange assignments in other departments to get closer to the company's core business or customer interface. One of our senior IT staff led an in-source initiative to improve the quality of customer service.

You can also build longer-term commercial forays into your career path. I have stepped outside a pure IT role into operations, strategy and management consulting to gain a broader business perspective. The experiences gave me great insight into business value drivers as well as sales and marketing.

So, no matter if you are a junior IT staffer learning the ropes, a mid-level IT manager seeking more responsibility or an experienced CIO looking for general management opportunities, we can all achieve greater success by becoming more commercial in the way we operate.

Kumud Kalia is Direct Energy's CIO and executive VP, customer operations, and a member of the CIO Executive Council. E-mail mentor topics to connect@cio.com.

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This story, "Improve Your Business Smarts by Extending What You Already Do" was originally published by CIO Executive Council.

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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