by Ben Worthen

CIO Ones to Watch: Leadership Development – The Right Stuff

Jul 01, 200614 mins
IT Leadership

Jeff Chasney is a success. He started his career as an entry-level programmer, steadily rose through the ranks, and before long he was leading IT departments. “You have to be the expert at everything,” says Chasney, executive vice president of strategic planning and CIO for CKE Restaurants, whose brands include Hardee’s, La Salsa and Carl’s Jr. “I can gut-check every aspect of my IT department.” So can Tom Lindblom, CKE’s VP and CTO, and one of this year’s Ones to Watch winners. In fact, it’s why Chasney nominated Lindblom.

So there you have it. Hone your skills until you can do every IT job with your eyes closed, and you’ll get a one-way ticket to the executive suite. Everyone agrees, right?

Not quite.

“I’m a lousy programmer,” says Charles Church, CIO of the Preparedness Directorate at the Department of Homeland Security. “But it isn’t about being an expert. It is about setting up an environment where people can be successful. My leadership style is to focus on recruiting and process and then get out of the way and let my people operate. And it has ended up being very successful.”

Chasney’s and Church’s leadership approaches couldn’t be more different. Yet both men have not only reached the top of their profession, they’ve managed to thrive there. How is that possible?

“The idea that leadership style makes a successful CIO is total b.s.,” says J.B. Kassarjian, professor of management and organizational behavior at the F.W. Olin Graduate School of Business at Babson College. “There are as many different styles as there are effective CIOs.”

Knowing what style best suits you, and staying true to it is essential whether you are already a CIO or working your way up the ladder. If you are a hands-on person, be a hands-on manager. If you are naturally enthusiastic, use that enthusiasm to motivate the troops. And if you are a quiet strategist, don’t try to manufacture false rah-rah; focus on strategy instead.

“You need to do what fits your hand,” says Kassarjian.

Every CIO needs to find his or her own leadership style. But getting to the top also requires the ability to recognize and capitalize on opportunities to hone what you’ve learned, say the CIOs who nominated the winners of the 2006 Ones to Watch awards, which honor senior staff poised to become tomorrow’s CIOs.

There is only one hard and true requirement: You must understand the business. “The CIO role is all about seeing IT issues as business issues,” says Darren Dworkin, a 2005 Ones to Watch winner who became CIO of Cedars-Sinai Hospital in Los Angeles last January (see “Making It,” this page). After that, say those who’ve made the leap, it’s about having the self-awareness to know your weaknesses, the humility to understand an important lesson and the self-assuredness to take advantage of an opportunity. On the road to becoming a CIO you need to learn the right way to get noticed, to listen to advice and to be patient.

Being energetic doesn’t hurt, either. “You can’t be in second gear all the time and be much of a leader,” says Pulitzer Prize winning historian David McCullough, who gave the keynote address at the CIO Leadership Conference in May.

In fact, the only innate quality a budding leader needs is a willingness to learn. “Don’t try to be Jack Welch or Louis Gerstner,” says Kassarjian. “The answer is in you.”

Be a Businessperson

Regardless of your leadership style, there is one thing that everyone agrees on: CIOs should be good businesspeople. You need that second mind-set to reach the top. “You can be brilliant with technology,” says Eileen McDargh, a leadership author and consultant, “but you are going to lose if you can’t figure out how to communicate in a way that people understand and that makes them feel you know their concerns.”

Art Lofton, VP and CIO of Northrop Grumman Integrated Systems Sector, got his position because he was a businessperson. Literally. Lofton’s current job is his first in IT. He has been at Northrop Grumman for 16 years, all in project management and engineering. Over the past few years, he began to notice how pervasive IT was at Northrop Grumman and realized that successful leaders would be those who could figure out how to leverage IT “to help the business,” he says. Since Northrop Grumman was looking for a businessperson to fill the CIO role, Lofton, who doesn’t program or have any other stereotypical IT skills, got the nod. He does have a rich technical background—he is an engineer by training—but he says it was his project management skills and the credibility he has earned with his customers that got him the job. He recognizes the same aptitudes in his Ones to Watch winner, Alex Seefried, IT program director for Northrop Grumman’s Airborne Early Warning & Early Warning Systems division.

IT staff who aspire to the CIO position need to demonstrate that they are business¿people too. Marilyn Delmont, CIO for the City of Chandler, Ariz., says that her ability to communicate the business value of IT projects has helped her stand out her whole career. “I was always the liaison, since I could do techno-talk to the IT people and business-talk to the customer,” she says. “I had a manager tell me he wanted to get me more exposure because of it, and I got special assignments.”

The lesson from this early experience stayed with her; one of the best pieces of advice she offers aspiring CIOs is to learn to use easy-to-understand analogies to explain complicated technology concepts (if you need to buy more bandwidth, for example, say that roads with more lanes can carry more cars). And as Delmont took on new jobs with more responsibility, she was always careful to emphasize the business problem she was using IT to solve. It’s a quality she shares with her Ones to Watch winner Tyrone Howard, the city’s project management office manager.

“I really don’t want to be seen as a technologist,” she says. “I want to be seen as a senior-level executive partner.”

Be a Learning Machine

Understanding how an IT project addresses a business problem is a start. A true businessperson is familiar with all the administrative aspects of running a department. When Delmont was a senior IT manager at Amoco, she knew that a lack of traditional business skills held her back from reaching the executive level. For example, Delmont knew she didn’t have the real-world budgeting skills a CIO needs. Rather than take on a budgeting project at work and learn on the job, she volunteered to work on the finance board of Empower, a local nonprofit that helped mentor pregnant teens. Both her boss and her staff wondered why she didn’t serve on a technology-related committee. But she knew that to move up she needed to understand budgeting, putting together a business case and calculating return on investment.

“I got to practice,” Delmont says. In fact, she had the opportunity to work directly with the chair of the committee, who was a finance specialist. “I tell my managers today that they should learn something different,” she says. “And I recommend that they find a committee to be on.”

New jobs were the places to learn supplementary skills for Church, the Homeland Security CIO. He had work experience in project marketing and management before becoming a CIO. “The product you are selling is yourself,” says Church. So it helps to make that product as multifaceted as possible.

Get Noticed (Quietly)

A well-rounded skill set gets attention. But the number-one thing that decision-makers who hire and promote look for is a successful track record. Future CIOs are those who take on extra responsibility and execute those projects well. In fact, CIOs say the best way to get noticed is not to point out the value you have added to a company but to do your job so well that the results speak for themselves.

Chasney of CKE says his first job was as a coop programmer for Ford. “I would go home and study so that I could work more quickly,” he recalls. Soon both the quality and rate of his work improved and people started talking about what projects he could help on. “One of my colleagues said to me that they were all that way early on and that I would settle down.” Those colleagues never became CIOs.

Throughout his career, Chasney would go above and beyond to get a job done. Even today, no task is too big or too small. “I’ll get coffee, donuts, whatever it takes,” he says. “I may be the quarterback, but I’m out there blocking.” He looks for similar commitment in his staff and says that it is necessary to reach the top.

You may feel the need to trumpet how hard you work, but resist the temptation—if the end result is good, the right people will notice. Chasney has been involved with IT systems that were touted by the development team but scorned by the intended users, whose reaction is the measure of success that matters most. “If the customer raves about the system and provides testimony of such to their peers, then a high rating is achieved,” he says. “If you have to explain to someone why it is a good solution, it isn’t.”

DHS’s Church says people also notice when a project gets done quickly. To that end, he emphasizes speed. “It doesn’t have to be perfect,” he says. “It can be a 75 percent solution. Just get it out there and then modify it later.” That’s not to say a solution doesn’t have to work. It does. But as long as the core functionality is there, let people start to use it. You can always add bells and whistles later. The key is to keep a steady focus on the big picture while still paying attention to details. Such talent is exhibited by Church’s Ones to Watch winner, Matt Coose, DHS’s director of engineering and PMO.

Ask for Help

CIOs don’t become CIOs without help. Thus, aspiring CIOs need to accept constructive criticism. “Wise leaders are willing to admit that they don’t know everything,” says McDargh.

Early in his career Chasney had an epiphany. He was always a go-getter who could solve just about any technology problem. But he often failed when it came to the human side of a project. One day his manager pulled him aside. “He said, ‘Take this to heart. You run through flower beds. I know you won’t stop doing it, but make sure you go back and prop up the flowers.’ That resonated,” says Chasney.

Everyone who becomes a CIO needs a little bulldog in them. To rise through the ranks you must be willing to do what it takes. But you don’t always get to set the pace, so one of the skills you need is the patience to let things—projects, promotions, opportunities, relationships—develop.

When Dworkin, the Cedars-Sinai CIO, was director of IT for Georgia Pacific’s Canadian operations, he pursued a series of process-changing IT projects. He was so determined to get the projects done that he didn’t stop to make sure that he had convinced all the business users. “Instead of leading people, I was pushing them toward something,” he says. The changes didn’t take. “I needed to be a lot more patient, which isn’t something that comes naturally to me,” he reflects.

Dworkin learned his lesson but still reminds himself to slow down. For example, Cedars-Sinai is looking into an electronic medical records system. “I’d like to pick a system and roll it out this year,” he says. But to succeed he knows he needs to get user buy-in and make sure that his preparations are thorough.

Northrop Grumman’s Lofton says you need patience when moving up. “You have to pay your dues,” he says. “That means fighting the urge for instant gratification.” Once, Lofton put in for a promotion that went to someone else. He was disappointed but concluded that he had reached for a position he wasn’t ready for yet.

Lofton also understood that people were watching to see how he handled failure. “How well you pull yourself up talks a lot to your character,” he says. The lost promotion taught him two lessons: First, there will be a right time for everything. And second, wait for the opportunity but start preparing for it now. To paraphrase an adage, “Luck is just opportunity and preparation coming together,” he says.

Work Your Community

Sometimes you need to make your own luck, however. Church is a veteran of the dotcom bubble. He’s been rich on paper and laid off more times than he cares to count. But he landed on his feet, in part because he isn’t afraid to put himself out there and network.

Before DHS, Church worked for four companies, including successful technology startups like AOL and UUNet. And, of course, for some that were less so. His last job before he moved to government was vice president of managed services for OneSoft. By January 2001 the company was spending $4 million a month more than it took in. It went into Chapter 11, and Church needed a new job. He decided to look for a government job. “I sent an e-mail to every CIO in the federal government,” he says.

Ron Miller, the deputy CIO at FEMA, wrote back. Miller suggested Church apply for IT jobs at USAJobs, the federal government’s jobs site. Church landed a job running the computer network for the Department of the Treasury, and when DHS was created in 2003 he became one of the CIOs there. He was surprised to discover that his first boss at DHS was a former coworker’s wife. The experience made him realize that since the IT community is small, it’s important to maintain good relationships. After all, you never know who you might end up working for. “One of the most important lessons I learned from the dotcom world was that companies come and go but people don’t,” says Church.

The Importance of Being Earnest

You may not have to go through four companies like Church did, but odds are you won’t become a CIO at your current employer. Most IT people have to jump around in order to keep moving up. “Once you’ve been in an organization for a long time they stop seeing you with fresh eyes,” says Chandler CIO Delmont. She avoids this trap by encouraging staff to be creative and come up with new ideas that will garner attention. Yet even rising stars can fall prey to this dilemma: Be too good at what you do and your company has a disincentive to promote you.

One of the benefits of moving around is that you get to learn how different organizations work. But each new job should be chosen because it provides an opportunity to hone a new skill such as project management, says Chasney. And make sure you can make a measurable difference in a job.

Becoming CIO is only part of the challenge. The days when CIO stood for “career is over” may be gone, but it’s important not to overlook how hard it is to stay a CIO. “Once you have risen to CIO you haven’t arrived, you’ve just started a new job,” says Chasney.

To that end there is one last piece of wisdom to consider when you finally make it. The best advice I ever got, says Delmont, was “don’t jeopardize your principles, because that is what makes you.” (This advice has a corollary: If you start kissing butt you will always kiss butt. Delmont decided never to kiss butt.)

Shakespeare said it best: “To thine own self be true.” Don’t change who you are just because you are now the top dog. “I’m more mature now,” says Delmont. “There are times when you have to be tough, when you have to be bold and when you have to be nice. But I didn’t change. I am basically the same person.”