While the dichotomy between “IT” and “the business” should be archaic by now, it is alive and well at the executive table. Even though IT is easily as relevant to the business as sales, finance and product development, something about technology keeps many CEOs from thinking of their IT leaders as anything other than techies. But despite the bias, a growing number of CIOs are moving from the head IT spot into operations, marketing and other roles that rank as bone fide business leadership. For some, the move is part of a well thought out, long-term plan; for others, it is born of being in the right place at the right time. Either way, the advice and lessons learned from those who have made the move can be a catalyst for executives stuck in a CIO rut. I spoke to several CIOs who have crossed the great divide between IT and the business. Whether they have added a business role to their CIO title or shed IT altogether, their hindsight may make your own passage a little easier.
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1. Move into operations. More than any other executive, CIOs have an intimate knowledge of the nuts and bolts of a company, which makes operations the perfect pathway into the business. When Mike Palmer, now CIO and EVP of supply chain management at Allied Office Products, came to Allied in 1998, he was viewed as “strictly an IT guy, with my hands in the network, the hardware and the software; that’s all I did for two years.” To shake off that image, he became “a good translator, taking the black magic out of IT,” through patient and open communication with the line of business executives. He also spent early morning time with his CEO, teaching him the technology buzzwords that would make him more effective in his own leadership role. In 2003, Palmer saw his opportunity to formalize this translator role and to extend his reach into the business. “Our company had developed silos around customer service, IT, sales and the warehouse; one team didn’t know what the other was doing,” says Palmer. “So, I came up with the sell for why all of the silos should report to me, put it into a power point presentation, got my CEO on board and got the job.”
2. Take on strategic planning. Jeff Chasney was hired as a turnaround CIO for CKE Restaurants in April 2000. He completed the job in roughly a year, so his CEO handed him a messy finance department to straighten out. After he spent several months turning accounting around, his CEO sat him down and asked him what he wanted to do next. “I took some time to think it over and it occurred to me that as CIO I have the advantage of knowing how all of the company’s pieces fit together,” says Chasney. “I am well positioned to help plan where this company is going rather than fix the problems that come from a lack of planning.” So, in 2002, Chasney added EVP of strategic planning to his CIO title and has found that it is an excellent match with his CIO skills. “CIOs are spatial thinkers and are masters at design, analysis and getting the big picture,” says Chasney. “Those are the skills you need in strategic planning.”
3. Become a sales leader. In January 2003, Tim Wright became CIO and CTO of Geac, a publicly traded Canadian enterprise software company. From day one, he had a plan: Help the company improve sales, which would allow the board to see him as something other than G&A. “The sales organization had no way of capturing sales activity, so the business leaders had a hard time forecasting; it was a highly visible problem for the board,” says Wright. “I told them that I would solve their pipeline and forecasting challenges; I let them know that I would own the problem.” In addition to contracting with Salesforce.com, Wright offered to accompany the sales team when they wanted an executive presence on a call. “When the chief executive of our international operations left in 2004, I was the lead candidate,” says Wright, who in May 2004 was promoted to chief executive of Geac’s Asia-Pacific, Europe and Middle-East operations, while keeping his CTO title. “There were dissenters on the Board who argued that I had never had a sales role, but the CEO pointed to Salesforce.com and the accounts I had helped to close. In the end, I won the vote.”
4. Create a new business role. John Boushy, chief integration officer at Harrah’s Entertainment, did not take a traditional route to the CIO seat. He started out in IT in 1979 and spearheaded initiatives that used technology to drive marketing. As a result, he was offered the position of executive assistant to the chairman of Holiday Corporation, Harrah’s former corporate parent. There, he was exposed to critical business activities like corporate governance, annual planning, acquisitions and board level interactions. Next, he took on a marketing executive position and continued to drive branding and customer service through technology, but this time from the business side of the fence. In 1995, he moved back into IT as CIO. Seven years later, he named a CIO successor and stepped into the role of leading Harrah’s acquisition of Caesars Entertainment. So, what advice can Boushy offer from his experience on both sides of the IT-business divide? “Draw a Venn diagram with IT in one circle and your company’s most critical business function in the other,” says Boushy. “Look at the overlap and consider what role you can play.” If the role doesn’t exist, then create it. Initiate some key technology projects in the business area you’ve targeted, as Boushy did at Harrah’s. Find a sponsor who now sees you in that business role, create a new position, and raise your hand to fill it.
Now that the CIO profession is maturing, we will begin to see a range of new “post CIO” positions, of which operations, strategic planning and marketing are only a few. What are some other trajectories from the CIO seat? What experiences have you had in pursuing them?
Martha Heller is the managing director of the IT Leadership Practice at the Z Resource Group, an executive recruiting firm based in Boston. She can be reached at 508-366-5800 x222 or email@example.com.