Career Planning Guide - Part 1
How to get on the CIO career track
At 28, Lee Pearson knows that sometimes the shortest road to a given destination is via a sharp tack in a seemingly opposite direction.
So with his ambition to become a CIO within the next 10 years burning strong, Pearson has "taken a bit of a deviation" in his IT career in order to pick up the "soft" skills he knows he will need in years to come. After putting in solid time as business analyst and project manager in IT projects at WA's The Water Corporation, he is doing an equally solid stint as Key Customer Relationship Manager.
"It's actually a complete step away from my previous IT role, and the main reason I've done that is I decided I wanted to get a bit more experience with people skills and work on more soft skills before trying to move into a more senior position down the track," Pearson says. "This role is very much about broader business knowledge. Basically it's an account management role looking after a group of the Corporation's top 200 customers, so I have to have an inch-deep, mile-wide knowledge of all the core business of the Corporation and build relationships with those top customers. It's very much about getting the business knowledge."
With a raft of people skills and new-found business nous under his belt, Pearson hopes to move into a more senior IT role within the next two to three years at most, and longer term says he is following a 10-year plan in pursuit of his first CIO position. In the interim, he tries to take maximum advantage of the mentoring program he hopes will keep his career on course.
Yet while the position of CIO has been shaping as a critical executive function for most organizations over the past decade, by the time they are ready to fill the breach, young men and women like Pearson may find stiff competition for open CIO roles if current trends continue. Not only are more companies sourcing such key positions globally, a survey by recruitment firm Ambition found IT recruitment demand across the spectrum in the first half of 2005 was the highest for four years, with candidates with specific skills receiving premium salary increases and lucrative sign-on bonuses.
With the contest for future CIO roles thereby guaranteed to be keen, young IT professionals eager to become CIOs down the track will have to continually reshape their skills and actively manage their careers in order to succeed.
Would-be CIOs with business experience are in high demand today, experts say, while those who can demonstrate that they understand how technology advances a company's business strategy leave the best impression.
"The standard thing if you want to be a really good CIO is to do two things: one is to have a reasonably good technical stream, and the other one is to have a reasonably good commercial or government stream. You need grounding in both before you aspire to the CIO role," says Tony Robey, executive chairman at Wizard Information Services. "Now of course that often doesn't happen. People have a good technical stream but not a good business stream and they struggle in the CIO role, so that is the heart of the issue . . . It's a hard road and it's a fairly big apprenticeship."
Executive recruiters pretty much agree that employers are looking for an executive with a strong track record of successfully running a business unit and an ability to deliver the desired business outcomes. In many instances an IT background is even becoming optional, although CIO candidates would likely still need to demonstrate an aptitude for the technical aspects of the role.
Bart Dekker got the requisite business experience at Ericsson, where his last role was business support manager, and it was that experience which helped win him his first CIO role with MIA Group two-and-a-half years ago. "I've only been in IT for about four or five years and before that I have always had business roles," Dekker says.
"Certainly from where I sit the CIO role is becoming more of a business role. Most of my objectives and what I do for the organization is more than just looking at technology but includes business processes and interlinking into the business, and also a lot of change management-type roles," he says.
Ideally, aspiring CIOs should have broad knowledge of their industry and a detailed understanding of how the corporate business units interact and function, and how the company ultimately makes money. Effective aspirants to the CIO job work to develop the same mature business perspective as their colleagues managing line functions.
But if you're on the outside looking in, it could be a slightly different story.
While employers value relevant market experience, recruiters say, some companies can benefit greatly from the difference and experience and approach brought by the industry agnostic, especially if such attributes are tangibly demonstrated to a prospective employer through a proven track record.
"Many Australian employers are still conservative in that they hire from within an industry . . . If you are looking to change industries, do your research and know how your skills can be transferred," suggests one recruiter. "Talking the industry language and knowing the issues will place you ahead of others wanting to make the change."
Another recruiter observes that anyone trying to break into a CIO role needs to be innovative, and ultimately, "turn water into wine" through the laying of foundations, the implementation of systems and proving an impressive return on investment. It would appear that miracles are now also part and parcel of the CIO's kitbag.
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