What's the best way to rise to the CIO level and beyond? Is it best to get broad-based business experience or more in-depth IT experience? At last month's SIM luncheon the speaker was a former CEO of Baxter International and now is a partner at a well known private equity firm named Madison Dearborn Partners. He talked about the CEO - CIO relationship and how to climb the business career ladder.
His name was Harry Jansen and he based his remarks on his own successful career; he made the case that broad-based business experience is the best way to rise through the ranks. I want to agree with him, but a lot of what I've seen in the last several years causes me to pause and reconsider. Maybe things have changed; maybe traditional assumptions need to be updated.
Harry spent 23 years working at Baxter. He started out as director of corporate development and instead of trying to rise through the ranks in development and finance, he opted to hop around to different Baxter business units and take positions in marketing and operations as well as finance. He told us how one of his bosses in finance said he was making a big mistake when he left the finance group and took a position as an operations manager. But this allowed him to get in-depth understanding of the company and build a large network of personal relationships, and it all helped him to finally be appointed CEO in 1997.
Now when he does private equity deals he looks for senior executives who have similar business experience, not just deep vertical experience in a function like finance, or sales or IT. This all sounds very logical but given the way the world is these days, it also raises some questions. For starters, how many people actually have the opportunity to stay at the same company for 23 years anymore? Most people only stay at a company 3 to 6 years (even if they want to stay longer, odds are good they'll be taken out by downsizing, outsourcing, mergers, layoffs, firings, forced resignations, etc.).
So given this reality of the almost constant job search, does it make sense to be a specialist or a generalist? It seems like a lot of CIO job descriptions emphasise that the candidate needs to have very specific technical skills. How many times do you see requirements like needing to have extensive implementation and operating experience using SAP or Oracle or some industry specific application package? This says something about what lots of companies are looking for and the kind of experience they think is valuable.
If the odds are you'll be leaving whatever company you work for now sometime in the next few years, then where do your loyalties lie? Are they with the company or with your profession? Is your company or your professional skills most likely to be the source of your next career advancement?
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