Mattress Giant CIO Offers A 12-Step Program for Aspiring Tech Execs

A former boss recently wrote to me about how much he enjoys watching those whom he had mentored in previous years succeed in their life’s endeavors. My own memories went back to days when, together, we had wrestled with converting the databases of an acquisition and visiting with English-impaired Japanese joint venture partners. Those seemed, at the time, trying days. But in retrospect, they were tiny jewels of experience that my former managers and mentors bestowed on me. I consider myself lucky to have worked for and beside each of them.

And now, I’m the former boss. It fills me with an often too-fleeting moment of paternal pride as I see a programmer of mine with his own consultancy and a former project manager get appointed to his first vice presidency.

The importance of good mentoring in our profession is often overlooked. However, as CIOs we have a duty (and the privilege) to share as much of our experiences and life’s lessons as we can with the future of our industry. We can get so caught up in the daily ordeal of "leaping the tallest building in a single bound," that we forget to teach our wunderkinder how to leap. It’s not so much the technology skills that we can share with them. More important, we need to leave them the keys to successful careers as technology executives and visionaries.

Just as a cub reporter learns the art of opening the doors of confidential sources, our protŽgŽs need to learn the art of effective boardroom strategies. It’s not only important to the development of their career, but it is integral to the successful growth and evolution of our industry.

To that end, I will take a potentially pretentious stab at heeding my own advice by offering some of my own pearls of wisdom to those aspiring IT managers looking for a pathway to the CIO office. The following are some of the principles that helped me, at 37, become the youngest IT director at a $6 billion retail company and a CIO.

1. Embody CRM. Every person in your company, whether it’s the janitor or the CEO, is your customer. And you should treat every customer as if he had the ability to promote you or fire you. Believe it or not, that is the most important step (and the most overlooked) in your being looked upon as executive material?particularly because it’s so rare in IT professionals.

2. Change your dialect. You must be able to effectively communicate with nontechnical people. If you cannot carry a 30-minute conversation with other department heads on business issues that are not technical in nature (for example, advertising, finance, merchandising, sales, real estate and so on), the prospect of your reaching a successful executive level in any organization is slim. I make it a habit to interact with as many non-IT managers, directors and executives as possible during the week, and I intentionally do not discuss technology. You can ask them about current and relevant issues facing their function (for example: "How did the focus groups go last night?" "Do you think we will experience any fallout over the Chapter 11 filing by [insert supplier or competitor’s name]?" "I’ve noticed employee morale improving in our field offices. Have you seen the same trend?"). Those types of daily exchanges?especially at the senior level?instill the view, if even subconsciously, that you are a managerial peer, not just the "technology guy."

3. Create a service culture. Demand step number one from your direct reports. I have a zero-tolerance rule for bad customer service and a religious desire to recognize good service. The translation of these values will result in a culture of premium service and will help build your credibility as a good manager.

4. You’re only as good as your team. Remember that your employees are also your customers?so treat them as such. A couple of my former bosses eventually became my employees and I remembered how I was treated. It doesn’t matter where we are on the organizational chart. Respect for your subordinates will also help reduce turnover and show senior management that you are a leader (another rarity in IT people).

5. Purple monkey water wrench. Got that? Exactly. Your customers no more understand your techno-speak than you understand the heading for this point. Never talk down to anyone. One condescending exchange can erase years of hard lobbying.

6. Follow up at all cost. Follow-up is more important than all the technical qualifications in the world. I have had some very talented people work for me, and I had to let many of them go because they could not get this principle. Too often, we IT people will fix something or complete a project but never let the customer know it’s done. Always follow up.

7. "You won’t believe the call I just received." Make proactive calls to your customers on a regular basis. Ask them how you and your group are doing and if there is anything you can help them with. Then watch as the jaws drop. People are floored by this level of service, and they will sing your praises.

8. Skillfully manage expectations. Never fall victim to the classic IT pitfall of overcommitting and underdelivering. It’s hard to say "no" because we really like the adrenaline rush of solving problems. The minute you say "yes," however, you have a commitment. When you don’t deliver, you not only guarantee a disappointed customer experience, but you send a signal that you are a poor planner. Poor planners seldom make their way to the executive promotion short-list. Overdeliver at every opportunity.

9. Stay as far away from company politics as you can. Do not partake in petty infighting in your company. If you are approached or tempted to be drawn in, find a business trip and go on it. Be your own person. You will be respected when the mudslinging stops and the dust settles.

10. Get up close and personal with financials. I have never met an effective corporate executive who didn’t understand basic financial principles. Finance is the business of business. And you can only go so far up the ladder without at least a small mastery of the debit/credit side. More specifically, you should know how to read financial statements such as a P&L statement, an income statement, a balance sheet and so on. And I mean really learn what the numbers are saying. Identify the relationships and trends between gross margin and sales, how fixed and variable costs impact your company’s profitability, the debt position of your company, and so on. Nothing impresses a CEO, COO or CFO more than hearing an IT person intelligently participate in a financial discussion about the business, trends and opportunities. Believe me, they will see you in a whole different light.

11. Networking without wires. There’s an old saying, "It’s not what you know but who you know." Maintain your contacts with former colleagues, bosses and even vendor account representatives. Join and be active in professional associations, which are well worth the dues, and you will build a great circle of contacts in the process.

12. Forget the Alamo. Remember Enron. Finally, whether you are eventually given the key to the executive washroom or decide that cube life is not so bad after all, never compromise your ethics. Enough said.

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