Ain't No Mountain High Enough

Ain't No Mountain High Enough

Human ambition is a powerful force. It has seen mountains conquered, oceans traversed, continents carved and (latterly) information systems tamed. Beverley Head identifies what it takes to get to the topToday, technology in business is pervasive; it cuts through the thread of almost everything business does. An effective CIO must understand the relationship between technology and the business of his or her company and the nature of that relationship. It can be strategic, operational or merely a support tool, and often is all three in the one company. The CIO role encompasses business operations, risk management, R&D, supplier/contract management, people management, cost management and strategy. It is not really a technical role.

So says one of Australia's most seasoned IT executives, who has now risen beyond the rank of CIO into a senior management role.

To scale the management ladder, the executive had to provide robust information systems to allow day-to-day operations to run smoothly; to outline and then deliver organisational change by successfully implementing new technologies; to find and retain skilled technology specialists; and to successfully negotiate the organisational politics.

That's all.

To be the CIO of an organisation of any scale today is to be integral to its success - today and tomorrow. The role of CIO is no longer a technical position bolted to an organisation almost as an afterthought; it is a central management function. Indeed, one of the CIOs interviewed below believes that it is imperative that ambitious CIOs have an MBA under their belt to achieve serious recognition. That CIO currently inhabits a visible position in the corporation. Some CIOs successfully exploit that visibility to rise through the ranks or secure financial reward; others fall victim to the visibility, especially when the information systems they oversee fail to live up to expectation.

Career Is Over

"The way to fail is to take on ill-considered projects which are too big and risky; or not to have the right [governing] structure around them. The business has to be the project leader and the owner of the project," says a finance industry executive with responsibility for IT. "Most big companies have had projects that fail and that is generally the end of the career of the CIO. You need to focus on the detail because [if you don't] it's the detail that brings you undone in the end."

It is important to recognise that, although CIOs have a management function, they still need to ensure that their operations run smoothly. It is pointless painting grand vistas of technological change if the day-to-day information systems don't run smoothly.

One senior executive in a bank agrees that the worst thing a CIO can do for his or her career is "not get the basics right - your [organisation's] IT operations should be reliable and resilient. You should not have too many failed projects. You must understand what drives costs. You must always be prepared to offer a choice of solutions to the business where the costs, benefits and trade-offs of each are clearly articulated."

The banking and finance sectors have certainly had their share of IT careers that have foundered on the rocks of failed and visible projects, such as Westpac's CS90 program; but other sectors are not immune to the "live by the IT, die by the IT" CIO syndrome. The CIO of a large multinational industrial company confirms that CIOs who concentrate purely on the technology and don't fully consider how that will have an impact on the business are inevitably headed for a fall.

That's how you get to the bottom. But what does it take to get to the top?

It takes ambition, communications skills, the ability to straddle the technical and business issues of a project, political nous and people management skills.

First, though, you have to want to get to the top.

Ambition Unbound

The finance industry executive describes himself as "absolutely ambitious" and has hopped sectors and roles in order to rise through the ranks. What motivates him is financial reward, status, and a job that is "exciting, with scope for growth and negotiating change. You want the ability to make a difference." Making a difference then generates a track record that the executive believes will be a CIO's greatest ally as he or she rises through the ranks.

The CIO of a global port operator is clear about his ambition. He wants his success recognised - and money. "If technology will deliver that, then that's fine. The technology job is the means to the financial reward." This CIO was a programmer and has what he describes as "superior technical skills" (and, incidentally, is adamant that accountants who think they can become CIOs are wrong). However, he would be quite willing to abandon his IT role if it did not deliver the financial rewards and lifestyle he craves.

Whatever that particular CIO thinks, accountants can and do become CIOs. One former accountant turned CIO has been in the field for 20 years. He believes the business-analysis skills he learned from management accounting help him enormously with his current role. "I have crossed the fence between user and IT provider many times, and [as CIO] I am able to see what [IT] will be dealing with in the business. I've never written a program, but I can't have the technical wool pulled over my eyes. My role is largely strategic."

The bank executive agrees that this strategic function is increasingly what boards are seeking. "Yes, they are looking for a strategic adviser and a risk manager, not a technocrat - although before the tech crash there was a re-emergence of the geek manager as the CIO; but this was a temporary phenomenon and is already fading," he says.

The shift in what boards are seeking from their CIOs has emerged over the last decade, the finance sector executive says. CIOs have had to react to that shift in order to rise through the ranks. "Ten years ago, there was a cost-cutting mentality. Now IT is seen as one of an organisation's core competencies; one of the levers for business to differentiate itself from the rest of the market. It is a way to increase customer service and decrease costs at the same time," he says.

Because of this, CIOs are being wheeled out more often by their boards and asked to explain to share-market analysts and to shareholders what information systems can do for the parent company. (Shifting the share price is a sure-fire way for a CIO to secure the attention of the board, but they had better ensure that their message shifts this price up rather than down because their careers will undoubtedly follow the same trajectory.) "We are more often being required to address forums of analysts and shareholders. So it is increasingly important that IT executives are good communicators and can [simply] describe the resolution of a problem by technology," the finance sector executive says. There remains, however, a few of the old-guard board executives who consider CIOs as johnny-come-latelys intent on invading their august domain. But, says the global ports CIO, "absolutely [we're getting] more respect, especially from the new wave of managers who see technology as just another part of their day-to-day role".

Asked whether the CIO commanded the same level of respect as, say, the CFO, he says: "We are getting there; not in every company, but generally. We would have got there sooner if the dotcoms didn't crash the way they did."

While CIOs may be moving up the value chain, in certain instances respect is relative to proximity. According to an industrial company CIO, business executives involved in an IT project clearly affecting them and their bottom line are enthusiastic supporters of IT. But, he says, sceptics persist and there are those managers who see IT just as a service for which they are charged. He believes that the advent of e-business, in which "every business manager sees a leapfrogging opportunity", will help CIOs be viewed more as valuable business partners. This will then increase their corporate visibility and importance.

Seek and Ye Shall Rise

According to the CIO of a public utility, the best way to develop visibility and importance is to swiftly prove your worth by delivering "recognisable results in a short time frame". She has particularly sought out difficult projects that have proved bottlenecks in the business. Her success with these has helped her to advance.

Systems implementations that are well thought-out and successful are essential to the career advancement of any CIO - but it's not enough on its own. Successful CIOs will have to learn to understand and play the politics peculiar to each organisation. "You need to understand that in any big company people will play politics and some will play politics to bring about your downfall. You need good political skills," one executive says.

In a global organisation, that can require a CIO to play politics on a broader stage.

One CIO with global responsibilities for his organisation says that this can be especially difficult for people with a scientific background. "Politics is a fluffy area. IT people tend to be scientists; they have a binary focus of 1 or 0 when the answer can be in-between," he says. "The worst thing you can do is not learn how to manage people and politics." CIOs may benefit from attaching themselves to a mentor in the company who is seasoned in its politics and can steer then through stormier waters, he adds.

Another CIO acknowledges the importance of finding a corporate mentor, particularly early in a career, if only to scope the possibilities for the future and get a shove in the right direction. "Sometimes [advancement] is a case of being in the right place at the right time; but you need the right mentor and you need to be able to sniff out trouble and head it off," he says.

Sometimes, however, the person who at first glimpse appears to be a mentor may be a monster in disguise. Says one executive: "I'd been headhunted into my last role to turn a part of the business around. I was under a general manager and was used as a human shield. If it worked out, I'd have come off well. If not, I'd have been the scapegoat "I felt it was time to move on. If you get into a situation where you're seen to be making trouble, then it's time to go. You have to find a way to be seen as the solution to, not the cause of, a problem."

Another of the potential political speed bumps is the mismatch between the perspective of business unit managers and CIOs, says the CIO of an industrial giant. "Business unit managers see the world vertically, I need to see it horizontally," he says. "For me, issues [of governing] are non negotiable; but when it comes to where we invest the IT dollars, then that is where the politics comes in.

Playing politics today means understanding where organisational power resides, developing a corporate profile and knowing how to head off trouble. It does not mean belonging to the "right" golf club or extravagant lunching. "I've not had to spend a lot of time on golf courses or in restaurants," the industrial CIO says, but does admit that it is important for ambitious CIOs to remain visible. That visibility also needs to extend beyond the boundaries of the current employer for best effect.

Moving On Up

Most of the CIOs interviewed here have moved employers a few times, although none has been what might be termed a serial job-hopper. In fact, one CIO views constancy as a virtue. "When I look at CVs for my senior managers, I discriminate against people who have done a lot of job-hopping," he says. There is, however, an argument for some movement - particularly early in a career - to help develop a peer network and attract the attention of head-hunters, who can play a significant role in helping ambitions be achieved.

"I changed jobs from time to time in the early parts of my career and suddenly I became known. By the third move, I was headhunted," one CIO says. "You do need to move around to develop your networking skills. You also need to recognise when you need to move because a culture, the politics or the bureaucracy won't let you get any further." On two occasions this female CIO moved because of a glass ceiling that she perceived. It was not a glass ceiling created by a "boys club" that went to the pub or played a round of golf, however. It was just a glass ceiling that stalled women in that particular company.

In fact, this CIO says she has never felt the need to play the corporate schmooze game: playing golf, or dining out, or drinking with her peers and superiors in order to further her career. Nor did most of the other CIOs interviewed. Only one CIO said that it was an important part of career advancement; even then, he combined it with an existing sailing passion.

Some of the CIOs, however, said that it was important to develop strong relationships lower down the management tree; but that was really a case of developing a network rather than oiling the wheels of career progress.

Dress for Success

While schmoozing may take a back seat, good grooming does not. Says one CIO - who has outlawed the once-weekly mufti day for IT workers - being seen in T-shirts and jeans sends all the wrong signals to senior management even if it is only one day a week. As a banking executive notes: "I think it is important to look like you mean business. This doesn't have to be a corporate uniform, but it does mean, neat, clean, well-pressed and groomed."

This is especially the case for CIOs who are regularly called upon to communicate to the board, analysts or shareholders what IT can achieve for the business. "Grooming is important, but it depends always on the audience. People who inhabit boardrooms are a conservative crew," warns one of the CIOs. "If you are in a business unit, it is appropriate to dress down but still present a professional image."

Says the industrial sector CIO: "It is linked to your image and confidence, and the way that you are dressed affects that. I think that the image should be professional always."

One CIO notes that "it is important not to be seen as a nerd. You need to be seen as a human being by your peers and it helps to be handsome . . . like me!" Another CIO, a dapper dresser, states that "you need to look like you are one of the corporate executives". That, he believes, will help the CIO communicate with senior management.

It should not, he says, paralyse those individuals who are simply unable to conform in their dress because "every company needs its wild ducks; but you have to be credible in your organisation and you won't achieve that if you look like a nerd".

A Woman's Place

Why do some men think women and technology are mutually exclusive?

Information technology should be a gender-neutral profession, being brains- rather than brawn-based. However, men still outnumber women at the top. So is it that women find it harder to climb the ladder? Or are there more than a few misogynists out there?

One male CIO says that it is "very hard" for women to make the grade. "I think women themselves are their worst enemies. We men can sit in a room and shout at each other then get out and have a beer.

"Women are difficult to have [in senior roles]," he adds. "They have much greater family obligations. They want a career and then they have a baby or two or three."

Luckily this female executive didn't cross his path. "I have never had a problem being noticed. It is probably easier for blokes initially, but, in a performance culture, performance wins over gender and I am in a performance culture - although there are critical points in one's career when taking time out for children may disadvantage you over male counterparts. This is a trade-off women have to make."

Another female CIO, who has had to shift jobs because of perceived glass ceilings constructed first by a female superior and then by men, agrees that women executives do need to plan when in a career is the best time to have children. "In my experience, you should do it earlier rather than later. You can't get to a senior management role and then take time out because you end up . . . well, not damaged but certainly hurt." However, she points out that more and more women are making it to the CIO level. "Where I don't see the change is women going beyond the CIO to the MD. They say: ‘Well, we might let you get to GM', but I see that as tokenism," she says.

There are some women who do rise to the top of the ranks. As one executive says: "People like Gail Burke [former CIO of Macquarie Bank] have done outstandingly well and Westpac has a woman CIO [Mary Ann Maxwell]. Like me, they have all done their time at the coalface. It's no harder in IT than in any other discipline for women."

One male CIO, who took over from a female, says that "women usually have to work a whole lot harder. My predecessor was a woman and very successful, but she said she had to work harder to get there and to stay there."

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