by Kim S. Nash

Entourage, IT Style: The CIO’s Trusted Advisers

Jun 27, 200813 mins

What's it take to be a superstar CIO? One thing is an entourage of trusted advisers, including project managers, recruiters, publicists and troubleshooters who keep top CIOs at the top of their game.

Every big-time CIO knows you can’t rise to the top without reliable people around you. And the smartest CIOs build a battle-tested posse to bring along from company to company, city to city.

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And why not? A turnaround CIO wants a trusted operations expert with him when he lands at a troubled company, to help scope problems and not stab him in the back. A strategic CIO wants a grade-A communicator to help script messages and convey ideas to perhaps reluctant employees or nontechnical executives. What CIO wouldn’t want to take along a project leader who has expertly planned and managed global software rollouts?

Glen Salow, executive vice president of service delivery and technology at Ameriprise Financial, a $10 billion financial planning firm spun out of American Express, keeps tabs on 25 to 30 people he’s worked with over the past several years. He brings them into his inner circle whenever he can. Today the entourage includes two communications pros and an intellectual property attorney. One of those communicators is Kathie Wilson, a change-management specialist; they’ve worked together 11 years, beginning at American Express. Among other tasks, Wilson monitors how her boss’ technology changes are received by Ameriprise advisors and staff and helps position his communications to address those concerns.

“What gets you is not what you worry about, but the things you don’t know you need to worry about,” Salow says. “The way to deal with that is to surround yourself with diverse perspectives.” Most CIOs, he says, “keep a list of a dream team and you reach out to them often.” Salow himself was recruited to Ameriprise by chairman and CEO James Cracchiolo after the two worked together at American Express. Salow is among the highest-paid technology executives at a public company; according to SEC documents, he earned more than $7 million in 2007. (See “Million Dollar CIOs.”)

CEOs, of course, have recruited favorite managers to new gigs for a long time. CIOs with peeps, though, signal that technology executives know they have every bit as much on the line as a CEO, says Chris Patrick, partner at executive recruiting firm Egon Zehnder International and global leader of its CIO practice group. When superstar CIOs manage thousands of people and billions of dollars, Patrick says, “mistakes can move the company’s stock price in the wrong direction. You have to have trusted lieutenants.”

At these lofty levels, a CIO entourage can include a publicist to sculpt the image of the executive and sometimes his entire department, both inside and outside the company. A trusted right-hand man or woman gathers intelligence from the IT ranks and the influential players outside the technology group. A sharp lawyer negotiates with vendors and protects intellectual property. A technology operations specialist troubleshoots and fixes daily problems. A recruiter learns your work style and fills critical job openings with people skilled and compatible with the team.

Ken Harris, a former Pepsi CIO, credits a chunk of his success leading technology at Nike, Gap and now Shaklee to having found, and continued working with, project leader Rhonda Sias. What she adds to his entourage are technical excellence, business knowledge and smooth interpersonal skills. “It is rare to find someone who is highly developed in all three of these areas,” Harris says. In the past decade, the two have worked together at four companies. Sias has, says Harris, “saved my butt.”

The Posse That’s Right for You

IT execs now reaching for superstardom can also make use of a posse. Jeff O’Hare specializes in turning around IT groups gone awry. Now CIO at West Corp., a $2.3 billion business process outsourcing provider, O’Hare was previously senior vice president with enterprisewide responsibilities at Cendant, a $20 billion services conglomerate that was later split into four companies. Cendant hired him to fix a $1.5 billion outsourcing deal with IBM that had turned ugly. From Cendant and other companies where he has worked, O’Hare stays in touch with a group of IT professionals with specific, sought-after skills. These include technology purchasing and the financial intricacies of outsourcing contracts.

When he enters a turnaround situation, he wants tested and trustworthy people with him, he says. “Knowing the ins and outs of how your key reports work greatly accelerates your ability to initiate change and provides you with additional eyes and ears,” he says.

The CIO’s people get plenty from the relationship, too. Outside loyalists, such as recruiters and consultants who contract with certain CIOs, say they receive valuable referrals and future work. Hotshot technology professionals and others who move around with a particular CIO say that with each job together, they learn more and lead more.

Before he took a job as an IT consultant and manager at Accenture last year, John Melott followed one CIO—Wayne Sadin, now at Loomis—to six companies over 18 years. Sadin has been one of the CIO profession’s elite. Back in 2000 when he led technology at Bank United, he earned nearly $760,000 and had perks typical of superstar CIOs: a car allowance, financial planning services and a country club membership. Melott and others who have worked with Sadin say he’s an innovator—marrying technology to business strategy before that was part of the CIO job description. Melott’s specialty is IT operations, including designing infrastructure, managing data centers and directing technical services. “He drug me all over the country,” Melott says. “But I always knew that anytime Wayne called, it was always going to be a great opportunity. With each one, my horizon was getting broader and broader.”

If you strive to be a CIO who can command a high-powered entourage, take a lesson or two from Melott, Sias and two other star polishers: recruiter Tony Pannagl, president of IS&T in Houston, and publicist Wendy Serafin, principal of the Nifares Group.

The Project manager
Illustration by Gary Hovland

The Project Manager

Role: Run the big shows

Rhonda Sias


The Mosaic Group

Good project managers are always in demand. Great project managers can stay employed forever, says Shaklee’s Harris (Shaklee is a private multilevel marketer of cleaning and nutrition products). Harris realized this when he arrived as CIO of Nike in 1998 to find the European division’s ERP project in trouble.

“The European business head made it clear that from his perspective, getting the project on track and completed successfully was my priority number one,” Harris recalls.

He put Sias, who was already at Nike in the U.S., in charge of the project, relying on her know-how in putting together teams and motivating people, he says. “With someone like Rhonda, you know you are going to get a full and accurate picture of what is happening, communicated frequently, with a clear depiction of what decisions need to be made, what recommendations go with those decisions and what specific things I can do to help the project be successful,” he says.

Sias also implemented the foundation for Nike’s use of PeopleSoft human resources software, which she says was the company’s first truly global application rollout. What Sias respects about Harris is his blend of “visionary” IT thinking and “genuine heart.” After Harris left Nike in 1999 to be CIO of Gap in San Francisco, Sias asked him for a job. He hired her to be VP of supply chain in 2000 and there she rescued a “troublesome” part of a major merchandising system, Harris says. She worked with him there until she left to be an independent consultant in 2003.

Sias later consulted with Harris at Chevron, where he worked as a consultant in 2004 and, for a few months recently, at Shaklee.

“We trust each other,” she says. “He knows I’ll ask for help if I need it. I won’t surprise him. I provide leadership and a work ethic beyond your wildest imagination.”

The Recruiter
Illustration by Gary Hovland

The Recruiter

Role: Supply good staff quickly

Tony Pannagl

Managing Partner


Job openings that linger because the CIO, HR and outside recruiters can’t communicate frustrate everyone in the technology group.

Classic tales of internal HR staff not understanding what’s needed in IT persist. But so does the penchant for CIOs to keep outside recruiters at arm’s length. The thinking goes that recruiters who get too close will either leak your company’s plans to competitors or lure your best employees away.

Not true, according to Loomis’s Sadin. He says the closer you get to a trusted recruiter, the faster you can work. With an IT talent shortage, good recruiters are now essential to CIO success, Sadin says.

When Sadin joined Bank United in 1998 as a turnaround CIO, he needed to fill a critical director-level position. The national firm he had been working with wasn’t cutting it so he gave a local recruiter, Tony Pannagl, a shot. Within weeks, Pannagl brought two qualified candidates, one of whom Sadin hired.

Later, when Sadin joined Aegis Mortgage, he had Pannagl set up an office inside the firm to help internal HR fill 70 open positions, doubling the IT staff. He’s had Pannagl’s cell number in his cell phone ever since.

“A CIO needs to have recruiting firms that understand how he or she thinks,” he says. His shared history with Pannagl means positions are filled quickly, making Sadin more efficient. Pannagl’s success rates are better than those of internal human resources groups he has worked with in the past, Sadin says.

To fill jobs, says Pannagl, the two talk about the business goals of Sadin’s company. Then they compare people they both know in terms of personality, technology backgrounds and competencies. They’ve come up with about a dozen IT staff prototypes they refer to in these conversations, Pannagl says. Shorthand like that is “very important,” adds Sadin, “especially in a high-change or high-pressure environment.”

If a recruiter knows a CIO’s plans three or six or more months out, he can earmark candidates for those future projects. “This intimate relationship with Wayne and his staff lets us understand the goals of the company, which allows us to screen candidates better,” Pannagl says. “Wayne knows I’m not going to bite the hand that feeds me.”

The Publicist
Illustration by Gary Hovland

The Publicist

Role: Make the CIO look good

Wendy Serafin


Nifares Group

We all know CIOs who can’t talk business strategy as well as they should. Yet it’s one of the most important skills a CEO wants from a CIO. Many technology leaders will admit to needing help to convey their ideas to colleagues above and below. A publicist can help with that, as well as build the CIO’s reputation outside the company. A CIO with a good image can attract new talent to the IT department.

Chicago-based Wendy Serafin spotted this need when a former coworker became the CIO of her company, and few people outside of IT knew of his talents and achievements. She was working in the marketing department and knew she could get the word out about her modest IT friend better than he could himself. She did so, then started her own business handling communications for tech-exec clients.

“Business results are there but they camouflage it with IT-speak,” Serafin says. For one client, CUNA Mutual Group, a financial services firm with $8.3 billion in assets, Serafin develops the IT annual report. The booklet tells the story of the IT department’s strategy, vision and accomplishments each year along with other metrics to quantify the department’s successes. It also highlights how IT runs like a business. Executives will sometimes take it on sales calls with prospective clients to show how CUNA Mutual’s IT strategy supports business goals, she says. Serafin’s other clients have included the

Information Technology

Association of Wisconsin—where she advised CIOs how to communicate their accomplishments. In addition, from 1999 to 2001, Serafin worked with Rick Roy, then CIO at Metavante a $1.6 billion banking technology firm. One of her roles was communication leader for Metavante’s internal technology steering committee, helping to convey the group’s purpose and results to the rest of the company. Roy is now SVP of Customer Operations at CUNA Mutual, and gave Serafin the entree to the company.

Another task for Serafin: Getting CUNA Mutual technology leaders quoted in business media, either through press interviews or writing articles. CIOs who don’t market themselves and their group this way may be hurting their companies’ ability to attract talent, she says.

“They don’t understand the impact external communications can have for recruiting and retention,” she says. “The next-generation workforce looks at blogs and websites and Google when they’re looking for a job. They have to find you.” The CIO’s reputation does influence potential hires, agrees Egon Zehnder’s Patrick. Big-name CIOs “can attract talent simply because of who they are and being visible.”

The Operations Expert
Illustration by Gary Hgovland

The Operations Expert

Role: Troubleshoot

John Melott

IT Consultant and Manager


An operations expert relieves the CIO of the daily burdens of down-and-dirty IT problems, but is a bit more tactical than a deputy CIO or other “second-in-command” managers. John Melott can parachute into a problem IT situation and in a matter of weeks, assess infrastructure and engineering, top to bottom, says Loomis ‘s Sadin.

When they met in 1983, Sadin recalls, Melott was night-shift lead computer operator at Murray Financial in Dallas (where he’s still based). Melott came into Sadin’s office to volunteer an explanation of what was wrong with Sadin’s data center plans. For one, the walls were in the wrong place and cabling would be a bear. “That marked him as a comer, as far as I was concerned,” says Sadin. “I listened to him and he was right.”

Sadin recruited Melott to almost every company he worked at thereafter—five cities in four states. Sadin typically brings in Melott when a company has outgrown its IT department, and its staff and approach need changing. Melott’s value lies in his breadth of experience. “He’s certified in project management, certified in disaster recovery planning and boy, can he motivate people,” Sadin says.

Melott is most proud of his ability to shield a CIO from daily IT upsets. “You just take care of them,” he explains. “If you don’t sift through the events and information, you can get your CIO bogged down in too much day-to-day stuff rather than focusing on strategy.”

But you always, always tell your CIO about an IT problem that affects customers, Melott says. “When they don’t know about something not working, that makes them look foolish and if they look foolish then all of IT looks foolish.”