by Martha Heller

Becoming an IT Leader at a Bigger Organization

Mar 23, 20076 mins

Former mid-market CIOs share what it takes to make the move to a larger organization.

You are a successful mid-market CIO who is ready to apply your IT leadership talents on a larger stage. But before you start sending your résumé to the Fortune 10, you may want to ask yourself a critical question: How scalable are my skills?

As anyone who has implemented enterprise systems can tell you, if you ignore the scalability factor, your system wont last three years. Given that you probably want your next CIO role to last at least that long, it is helpful to understand what you need to think about before moving to a larger organization. To get that perspective, I spoke with CIOs who have taken this path and made a successful transition. They offer this advice.

Prepare for the Size Question

Before you worry about succeeding at a larger company, you should focus first on making it past the hiring committee, many of whose members may be concerned about your ability to scale. In November 2006, Todd Thompson left his role as CIO of $1.7 billion airline JetBlue to assume the same job at Starwood Hotels & Resorts Worldwide, the $6 billion hospitality company. As he expected, the interview team focused on his ability to succeed in a larger organization.

My answer was that at JetBlue, where I grew a team of 70 to 200, I proved that I could scale very effectively, he says. I also made the point that there are some complexities in an airline environment that make a $2 billion company feel a lot bigger from an IT perspective.

CIO Jonathan Manis moved from Provena Health, an organization of six hospitals and 16 long-term care facilities, to Sutter Health, which, with 26 hospitals, is one of the nations largest nonprofit healthcare systems. Like Thompson, he also fielded questions about scale.

I knew that if they didnt ask it they were thinking it, so I decided to address the issue head-on, he says. I talked about my military experience in terms of geographical dispersion and span of control and related it to the Sutter role. Theyre thinking, How does this guy go from $1 billion to $7 billion? I wanted to get it out on the table and out of the way.

The takeaway: Focus on points of relevance between your experience and the new role. Show how much more important these points are than sheer numbers.

Sharpen Your Influencing Skills

In April 2006, Eric Goldfarb left his position as CIO of PRG-Schultz International, a $300 million financial services firm, for the CIO role at BearingPoint, which has $3.4 billion in annual revenue. Since BearingPoint is not the first large company Goldfarb has worked for, he has learned to observe differences in culture and management style and shift his focus accordingly.

A major part of the CIOs job in any company is to be aware of the technologies available in the market and to use them to improve efficiency or profitability. In a smaller company, you walk in, talk to the owner, and get approval for a technology investment, says Goldfarb. In a large company, where the magnitude of risk for every IT decision is much greater, you can no longer rely on a handshake to get project approval.

To win approval in such a setting, you may have to get support from your colleagues in sales and finance and even get a nod from a board member or two. Thats easier to do when youve taken the time to build strong relationships with key stakeholders and decision-makers.

When you sit down with your CEO, the first thing he will ask will be who you talked to about the project, says Goldfarb. You want to have a good answer. Or, better yet, have the CMO walk in as well and echo what you say.

The takeaway: In a smaller company, your relationship with your boss is the key to gaining approval of a big IT decision; in a larger company, you rely on your circle of influence.

Shorten Your Horizons

It seems almost contradictory, says Goldfarb, but larger, public companies tend to have a shorter-term planning horizon than smaller, privately owned companies. With shareholders hanging on every earnings report, he says, the executive team spends more time on month-to-month, quarter-to-quarter planning than on long-range goals. Your strategic planning efforts can no longer rely on ROI that is three years out; you will need to build shorter-term savings into your plans.

The takeaway: Shifting your focus from the forest to the trees can be a major adjustment and one worth anticipating before you start the job.

Adapt to a New Management Style

In many smaller companies, the original owners are still running the show, often with the siblings, cousins and friends who have been there since the early days. In a larger company, most members of the executive team gained their experience elsewhere.

You might have a CMO who got her MBA and then worked her way up the food chain at a few different major companies, says Goldfarb.

The takeaway: If you are accustomed to working with executives who grew up inside the company, you need to learn to function in a more formal management structure.

Upgrade Your Communication Abilities It is hard enough to establish clear and consistent communication in a company of 9,000 people, the size of JetBlue. When you move to a company of 145,000 people, as Thompson did when he went to Starwood, the challenge is enormous.

At JetBlue, we were geographically centralized. I could walk around the floor and talk to people to learn whats going on, says Thompson. Here, we are international and spread out. I have to communicate more formally and think a little harder about how to get the word out to all of those people.

Sutter Healths Manis moved from an organization that had around 12,000 employees to one that has 43,000 with hospitals that range widely in geography, size and culture. He managed 200 IT employees at Provena; at Sutter he manages 550. The diversity of the organization is a challenge, he says. Our hospitals are spread out through Northern California, and they range dramatically in size. When I am addressing the entire organization on physician order entry, I need to reference the small hospital up north as often as I do the progressive physicians in downtown San Francisco. The takeaway: Understand your many constituencies and tailor your message and its delivery in order to develop effective and consistent communication with all of them.

One point all three CIOs agree on is the need to be patient. Your natural desire when walking into a new job will be to establish change and credibility right away. Manis suggests you resist that inclination.

In a smaller company you can step in, assess the situation and take action pretty quickly, he says. But in a larger company, you want to take your time and evaluate what youre stepping into. Dont expect to come in and be a miracle worker.

Martha Heller is managing director of the IT Leadership Practice at ZRG, an executive recruiting firm based in Boston. Reach her at mheller­@­