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A 12-Step Program for Aspiring CIOs

A 12-Step Program for Aspiring CIOs

Mattress Giant’s CIO suggests a path to the big chair

A former boss recently wrote to me about how much he enjoys watching those whom he had mentored in previous years succeed in their life's endeavours. My own memories went back to days when, together, we had wrestled with converting the databases of an acquisition and visiting English-impaired Japanese joint venture partners. Those seemed, at the time, trying days. But in retrospect, they were tiny jewels of experience that my former managers and mentors bestowed on me. I consider myself lucky to have worked for and beside each of them.

And now, I'm the former boss. It fills me with an often too-fleeting moment of paternal pride as I see a programmer of mine with his own consultancy and a former project manager get appointed to his first vice presidency.

The importance of good mentoring in our profession is often overlooked. However, as CIOs we have a duty (and the privilege) to share as much of our experiences and life's lessons as we can with the future of our industry. We can get so caught up in the daily ordeal of "leaping the tallest building in a single bound", that we forget to teach our wunderkinder how to leap. It's not so much the technology skills that we can share with them. More important, we need to leave them the keys to successful careers as technology executives and visionaries.

Just as a cub reporter learns the art of opening the doors of confidential sources, our proteges need to learn the art of effective boardroom strategies. It's not only important to the development of their career, but it is integral to the successful growth and evolution of our industry.

To that end, I will take a potentially pretentious stab at heeding my own advice by offering some of my own pearls of wisdom to those aspiring IT managers looking for a pathway to the CIO office. The following are some of the principles that helped me, at 37, become the youngest IT director at a $US6 billion retail company and a CIO.

1. Embody CRM. Every person in your company, whether it's the janitor or the CEO, is your customer. And you should treat every customer as if he had the ability to promote you or fire you. Believe it or not, that is the most important step (and the most overlooked) in your being looked upon as executive material - particularly because it's so rare in IT professionals.

2. Change your dialect. You must be able to effectively communicate with nontechnical people. If you cannot carry a 30-minute conversation with other department heads on business issues that are not technical in nature (for example, advertising, finance, merchandising, sales, real estate and so on), the prospect of your reaching a successful executive level in any organisation is slim.

I make it a habit to interact with as many non-IT managers, directors and executives as possible during the week, and I intentionally do not discuss technology. You can ask them about current and relevant issues facing their function (for example: "How did the focus groups go last night?" "Do you think we will experience any fallout over the Chapter 11 filing by [insert supplier or competitor's name]?" "I've noticed employee morale improving in our field offices. Have you seen the same trend?"). Those types of daily exchanges - especially at the senior level - instil the view, if even subconsciously, that you are a managerial peer, not just the "technology guy".

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