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The Right Stuff

The Right Stuff

How to work your way up the corporate ladder

What does it take to make the leadership leap? Do you have what it takes?

Jeff Chasney is a success. He started his career as an entry-level programmer, steadily rose through the ranks, and before long he was leading IT departments. "You have to be the expert at everything," says Chasney, executive vice president of strategic planning and CIO for CKE Restaurants, whose brands include Hardee's, La Salsa and Carl's Jr. "I can gut-check every aspect of my IT department."

So there you have it. Hone your skills until you can do every IT job with your eyes closed, and you'll get a one-way ticket to the executive suite. Everyone agrees, right?

Not quite.

"I'm a lousy programmer," says Charles Church, CIO of the Preparedness Directorate at the Department of Homeland Security. "But it isn't about being an expert. It is about setting up an environment where people can be successful. My leadership style is to focus on recruiting and process and then get out of the way and let my people operate. And it has ended up being very successful."

Chasney's and Church's leadership approaches couldn't be more different. Yet both men have not only reached the top of their profession, they've managed to thrive there. How is that possible?

"The idea that leadership style makes a successful CIO is total bs," says JB Kassarjian, professor of management and organizational behaviour at the FW Olin Graduate School of Business at Babson College. "There are as many different styles as there are effective CIOs."

Knowing what style best suits you, and staying true to it is essential whether you are already a CIO or working your way up the ladder. If you are a hands-on person, be a hands-on manager. If you are naturally enthusiastic, use that enthusiasm to motivate the troops. And if you are a quiet strategist, don't try to manufacture false rah-rah; focus on strategy instead.

"You need to do what fits your hand," says Kassarjian. Every CIO needs to find his or her own leadership style. But getting to the top also requires the ability to recognize and capitalize on opportunities to hone what you've learned.

There is only one hard and true requirement: You must understand the business. "The CIO role is all about seeing IT issues as business issues," says Darren Dworkin, who became CIO of Cedars-Sinai Hospital in Los Angeles last January. After that, say those who've made the leap, it's about having the self-awareness to know your weaknesses, the humility to understand an important lesson and the self-assuredness to take advantage of an opportunity. On the road to becoming a CIO you need to learn the right way to get noticed, to listen to advice and to be patient.

Being energetic doesn't hurt, either. "You can't be in second gear all the time and be much of a leader," says Pulitzer Prize winning historian David McCullough, who gave the keynote address at the CIO (US) Leadership Conference in May.

In fact, the only innate quality a budding leader needs is a willingness to learn. "Don't try to be Jack Welch or Louis Gerstner," says Kassarjian. "The answer is in you."

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