Getting fired from her CIO job nearly 20 years ago wasn\u2019t just a career turning point for Cathy Hotka. \u201cIt was the best thing that ever happened to me,\u201d says the founder of Cathy Hotka & Associates, which today runs an influential networking community of retail industry CIOs and digital leaders across the U.S., Canada, and the UK.\n\n\u201cDriving home that day with all my office things packed up in my car, I realized I had everything I needed to start a successful consulting firm,\u201d says the gregarious Hotka, who had her first big client within a week of losing the top technology post at the National Retail Federation (NRF) in 2002. \u201cI had name recognition. I had lots of contacts. I knew the issues, the personalities and the sponsors.\u201d\n\nTwo decades later, her devoted attention to the business and marketing concerns of retail technology leaders enables Hotka to bring top decision-makers together from across the CXO and vendor communities for candid, off-the-record conversations at dinners, roundtables, and customized events. Attending her \u2018Retail Insiders Ultimate CIO After-Party\u2019 is a treasured tradition for hundreds of IT leaders who attend the annual the NRF show in New York City in January.\n\n\u201cI still remember people getting invited to one of Cathy\u2019s networking dinners and feeling as though they\u2019d truly \u2018arrived,\u2019 \u201d says Ann Joyce, CEO of Mindshare Associates and the former CIO and COO of Chico\u2019s. \u201cShe has worked so tirelessly for the CIO community, solving industry problems and filling talent gaps. I know of many careers changed for the better through Cathy\u2019s immeasurable influence.\u201d\n\nAt one of Hotka\u2019s recent \u201cretail brainstorm\u201d gatherings, for example, the sponsoring IT vendor didn\u2019t want to discuss specific tech products or services. The conversations with the 10 top retail IT and operations leaders in the room revolved around ideas for solving some of the industry\u2019s most persistent problems. \u201cWe talked about everything from why customer service can be bad, to the potential of having storefronts in the Metaverse, to organized retail crime and what to do about \u2018smash-and-grab\u2019 robberies,\u201d she recalls. \u201cIt was fascinating.\u201d\n\nCatching up with the uber-connected Hotka recently, we talked about retail CIO career trends, the impact of the pandemic, and the one thing she wishes she\u2019d learned to do earlier in her own career.\n\nMaryfran Johnson: What is the biggest career trend for retail CIOs these days?\n\nCathy Hotka: I see many of them moving up into CEO or COO or supply chain chief jobs at an unprecedented rate today. I think it's a genuine trend, and I would make the fearless prediction that it will continue. These folks not only have a great understanding of the technologies that run their businesses\u2014and, in many cases, that saved their businesses during the pandemic\u2014but they have great leadership skills, too. Home Depot just appointed longtime CIO Matt Carey as EVP of customer experience, and I can name a dozen more. Like Calvin Hollinger, former CIO at Urban Outfitters, now COO at West Marine. Or Andy Laudato, former CIO of Pier One, now COO of the Vitamin Shoppe. Or Mike Relich, CIO and COO at Guess, now the Co-CEO of PacSun.\n\nRetail IT leaders are the most knowledgeable executives in their companies about how every process runs. Twenty years ago, the big buzzword was alignment and how CIOs needed to learn to speak the business language. Fast-forward to now, and a lot of CIOs know the business better than the business does.\n\nHow much of a role did the pandemic challenges of the past two years play in these career shifts?\n\nThat\u2019s hard to say for sure, but retailers stood up and got stuff done. If you\u2019d asked me 10 years ago, I would have said most retail tech operations were mediocre at best. But they had a huge challenge and they did it. Home Depot, for example, stood up curbside pickup in 7 days. Globally! Pulling that off involved IT and legal and store operations and distribution and supply chains. So many retailers had to change their entire business models instantly. That certainly freed up the purse strings for IT. The ones that survived were the ones that acted. They didn\u2019t wait around. They saw what was happening and decided they were going to make it rock.\n\nWhat leadership qualities have you noticed in these CIOs who move into more senior business roles?\n\nThey are collaborators. They like to find broken stuff and fix it. They know how to manage complexity\u2014and they like doing it, too! Think about what great CIOs do now. They look at an endemic problem, analyze ways to address it, collaboratively choose the right tool, and then make sure the users know what they're doing. They know how to listen to a multitude of voices. Another trait I\u2019ve noticed is unflappability. These people are not anxious. They tackle things head on, with confidence, and they take things in stride. They're not drama queens.\n\nWhat was the biggest career lesson you\u2019ve learned?\n\nEarly in my career, I didn\u2019t know what I should be doing. I didn\u2019t have an advanced degree or a goal. I figured out that the one important thing to do is take the time to understand what your value is within your ecosystem. About 15 years ago, I took Sally Hogshead\u2019s How to Fascinate personality assessment test, and it was the best $59 I ever spent. Her philosophy is that you\u2019re most effective when \u2018you do you.\u2019 My archetype turned out to be The Maestro, the person who gets stuff done. Once I understood that people perceived me that way, I could move ahead without suffering from imposter syndrome\u2014that nagging fear that you\u2019re making a fool of yourself!\n\nWhat do you wish you knew earlier in your career that you know now?\n\nThat you should always ask questions and then more questions. You\u2019ll never be able amass the knowledge you need without relying on other people. They have a wealth of info they will happily share with you. Be a sponge! I once worked with a congressman whom I respected a lot, and now I wish I had asked him \u2018What was the most memorable day of your life?\u2019 He probably would have told me about being one of the witnesses standing behind President Lyndon Johnson on that plane while he was being sworn in after the assignation of JFK. I learned that years later after seeing him in that famous photograph. So the lesson there? Ask more consequential questions!\n\nThis article originally appeared in CIO's Career Strategist newsletter. Subscribe today!