by Martha Heller

It Worked For Me: Career Advice from Top CIOs

Jan 29, 20087 mins
IT Leadership

CIOs from FedEx, Campbell's Soup, Carlson and other top companies share the advice that helped them get ahead

As CIO, you have doled out your share of advice to the people you mentor. But at this stage in your career you probably feel confident enough in your own counsel that you rarely seek advice from others. But regardless of the title we bear, we are all on a career path and could all benefit from the perspective of those who have traveled a similar course.

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To that end, I asked several successful CIOs for a piece of career advice that they received along the way and that has served them well. Their experiences can help as you consider your own role – or provide new material for when you’re coaching others.

Get uncomfortable. I was a young technology manager and had a job that I absolutely loved. Everyone was my friend and the work really appealed to me. I was on a management development plan and was sponsored to interview for a job in a large scale systems development area of a different division of the holding company. This would be a lateral move for me but doing something completely different with a major project that was struggling. When they made me an offer, I turned it down. Well, my VP called me up to the 37th floor and told me how disappointed he was with me. He told me that he had been working hard to advance my career and that I was being a chicken by sticking with my comfort zone and not stretching my skill set. He put his foot in the middle my back and kicked me out the door. Turns out, he had intercepted my rejection, so I had the chance to reverse my decision and take the job. I learned a completely different skill set and was promoted twice within the next 18 months. That job really launched my career, and the opportunities it gave me are why I get to sit in this amazing job today.

Robert Carter, CIO, FedEx

Carpe diem. A colleague once told me that the key to success is not to worry too much about long-term career plans and just spot and seize upon great opportunities. It’s not about picking a career path. It’s about being brave enough to go for opportunities that do not necessarily fit into the career path you set for yourself. In my mid 30s, I was managing director of trust operations at Bankers Trust. The IT organization was implementing a $50 million trust accounting system. The systems leader became ill and had to leave. So, after a major battle over getting funding for the project, we had no one to lead it. With no real technology experience, I went to the vice chairman of the bank and said, “I can do this.” He was skeptical, but I told him that I could figure it out, and he gave me the project. I wound up leaving my operations management career path for senior IT leadership roles at Banker’s Trust, Prudential Insurance and then to my first CIO role at Nabisco.

Doreen Wright, CIO, Campbell’s Soup

Fall on your sword. Very early in my career, a mentor advised me that it is far better for your career in the long term to admit responsibility for failure than minimize it or defer accountability. In the late 80s, I was championing a massive company-wide project and determined at a pretty advanced stage that it was unlikely to be successful. Instead of trying to save it, I made the decision to throw in the towel and tell my boss, the CIO, that the project was a failure. When my boss decided to promote me later, the integrity I showed on that project weighed heavily in his decision.

Peter Solvik, former CIO of Cisco Systems and now managing director at VC firm Sigma Partners

Don’t play it safe. During the late 90s, a colleague gave me a great tip: Go for the projects that everyone else is afraid of. Now, this could be suicidal if you get it wrong, but it’s a great way to get noticed. This entered into my decision to lead my company’s Y2K project and was how I went from a business to a technology role. The Y2K project was behind the curve and everyone had been staying away from it. I raised my hand to lead the project, gained enterprise wide recognition and earned the CIO job.

Bill Wray, CIO, Citizens Financial Group

Go with your gut. The best career advice was given to me by a peer when I was at GE and it had to do with starting up a CIO role in a different company. Whenever you begin a new role, you do a lot of listening, receive a ton of input, and learn as many facts as you can about the current situation. But after you’ve received all of that data and opinion, you need to follow your own instincts. When I took the CIO role at Medtronic, I was its first-ever CIO. As a result, I got a lot of input about what my first priority should be from the people who hired me. I took all of that input in, but I knew that the very first area to focus on was the team and organization because it was not set up the way it needed to be. Had I acted on the priorities of others, I might not have been as successful.

Jeff Balagna, CIO, Carlson Cos.

What interests your boss should fascinate you. My mentor, Edith Kelly-Green, was VP of Sourcing at FedEx , when she said this to me many years ago. When Edith arrived at FedEx, she learned that the big deals happened on the golf course. As an African-American woman, this was new territory for her. Rather than risk being pushed to the sidelines, she took golf lessons and learned the game. When I moved to the Dallas/Ft.Worth area, I had little knowledge of hockey, and the Stars had just won the pennant. I knew that if I wanted to build relationships in the company, I had to follow Edith’s lead and get smart enough about local sports that I could participate in that dialogue.

Jeff Campbell, CIO, BNSF Railway

Get dirty. Early in my career, I was a manager of engineering support for AIS, a division of Raytheon. The division was having trouble getting planes out the door and the IT department did not have the respect of the business. Systems were not working and needed major upgrades, people were not held accountable for their work. My boss said to me, “I’m going to have to fix this problem. Will you help?” I was not certain that I was up to the task, but I dove in. He promoted me to director and over the next 19 months, we restructured the organization, got pay increases for the staff, made large systems modifications and turned the organization around.

Doug Debrecht, CIO, Chemtura

Love it or leave it. Years ago, an author named Beth Milwid was working on a book of career advice for women, and I had an opportunity to interview with her. Her advice to me was that we spend too much time at work not to love what we do and if you don’t, move on. I took this to heart and have applied it throughout my career. At one point, I went to a new company as global technology infrastructure leader in order to round out my resume and prepare for a CIO role. But when I got there, I assessed the IT environment and wound up outsourcing much of the infrastructure. I felt like I’d learned what I had wanted to learn and didn’t see my career growing by staying where I was. So, when a great opportunity at a new company came along, I took it.

Jody Davids, CIO, Cardinal Health

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