It Worked For Me: Career Advice from Top CIOs

It Worked For Me: Career Advice from Top CIOs

CIOs from FedEx, Campbell's Soup, Carlson and other top companies share the advice that helped them get ahead

Don't play it safe. During the late 90s, a colleague gave me a great tip: Go for the projects that everyone else is afraid of. Now, this could be suicidal if you get it wrong, but it's a great way to get noticed. This entered into my decision to lead my company's Y2K project and was how I went from a business to a technology role. The Y2K project was behind the curve and everyone had been staying away from it. I raised my hand to lead the project, gained enterprise wide recognition and earned the CIO job.
Bill Wray, CIO, Citizens Financial Group

Go with your gut. The best career advice was given to me by a peer when I was at GE and it had to do with starting up a CIO role in a different company. Whenever you begin a new role, you do a lot of listening, receive a ton of input, and learn as many facts as you can about the current situation. But after you've received all of that data and opinion, you need to follow your own instincts. When I took the CIO role at Medtronic, I was its first-ever CIO. As a result, I got a lot of input about what my first priority should be from the people who hired me. I took all of that input in, but I knew that the very first area to focus on was the team and organization because it was not set up the way it needed to be. Had I acted on the priorities of others, I might not have been as successful.
Jeff Balagna, CIO, Carlson

What interests your boss should fascinate you. My mentor, Edith Kelly-Green, was VP of Sourcing at FedEx , when she said this to me many years ago. When Edith arrived at FedEx, she learned that the big deals happened on the golf course. As an African-American woman, this was new territory for her. Rather than risk being pushed to the sidelines, she took golf lessons and learned the game. When I moved to the Dallas/Fort Worth area, I had little knowledge of hockey, and the Stars had just won the pennant. I knew that if I wanted to build relationships in the company, I had to follow Edith's lead and get smart enough about local sports that I could participate in that dialogue.
Jeff Campbell, CIO, BNSF Railway

Get dirty. Early in my career, I was a manager of engineering support for AIS, a division of Raytheon. The division was having trouble getting planes out the door and the IT department did not have the respect of the business. Systems were not working and needed major upgrades, people were not held accountable for their work. My boss said to me, "I'm going to have to fix this problem. Will you help?" I was not certain that I was up to the task, but I dove in. He promoted me to director and over the next 19 months, we restructured the organization, got pay increases for the staff, made large systems modifications and turned the organization around.
Doug Debrecht, CIO, Chemtura

Love it or leave it. Years ago, an author named Beth Milwid was working on a book of career advice for women, and I had an opportunity to interview with her. Her advice to me was that we spend too much time at work not to love what we do and if you don't, move on. I took this to heart and have applied it throughout my career. At one point, I went to a new company as global technology infrastructure leader in order to round out my resume and prepare for a CIO role. But when I got there, I assessed the IT environment and wound up outsourcing much of the infrastructure. I felt like I'd learned what I had wanted to learn and didn't see my career growing by staying where I was. So, when a great opportunity at a new company came along, I took it.
Jody Davids, CIO, Cardinal Health

Martha Heller is managing director of the IT Leadership Practice at ZRG, an executive recruiting firm in Boston. Reach her at

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