by Martha Heller

Career Counsel: Tips for IT Leaders Who Want to Move Into the Business

Apr 01, 20064 mins

While the dichotomy between IT and “the business” should be archaic by now, it is alive and well at the executive table. Despite this bias, a growing number of CIOs are moving from the head IT spot into operations, marketing and other roles that rank as bona fide business leadership. Here are four ways to cross the great divide.

1. Move into operations. More than any other executive, CIOs know the nuts and bolts of a company, which makes operations the perfect pathway into the business. When Mike Palmer, now CIO and executive vice president 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,” he says. 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. In 2003, Palmer saw the opportunity to formalize this translator role. “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 PowerPoint 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 one year, so his CEO handed him a messy accounting department to straighten out. After he spent several months turning around that department, his CEO asked him what he wanted to do next. “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 having to fix the problems that come from a lack of planning.” In 2002, he added executive vice president of strategic planning to his CIO title. He has found it to be an excellent match with his CIO skills. “CIOs are spatial thinkers and 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 Canadian enterprise software company. From day one, he had a plan: help the company improve sales, which would allow the board of directors to see the CIO role 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,” says Wright. “I told them that I would solve their pipeline and forecasting challenges. I let them know that I would own the problem.” He contracted with for a CRM solution and 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 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, started in IT at the company, then moved into marketing, rising to an executive position before coming back to IT as CIO in 1995. He named a CIO successor in 2002 and took on 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,” he says. “Look at the overlap and consider what role you can play.” If the role doesn’t exist, then create it. Find a sponsor who now sees you in that business role, create a new position and raise your hand to fill it.