Column by Peter High
I recently completed a series in this column referring to the CIO-plus. In it, I interviewed a number of chief information officers who had been asked to take on additional responsibilities, due to the great work done as CIOs and the appreciation that that good work translates well into other functions within the company. The companies were a diverse lot, including ADP, P&G, Marsh & McLennan, Waste Management, McKesson, Merck, Walgreens, Owens Corning, and the San Francisco Giants among others. (To access the entire series, please visit this link.)
I would like to introduce a new series, which I refer to as “Beyond CIO.” There is a growing cadre of former CIOs who have been promoted or hired into positions that continue to take advantage of their technical acumen, but provide them with expanded purviews. Most of the executives that will be profiled will be CEOs or COOs who were former CIOs. Again, this is a diverse lot, including executives from companies like American Express, T.D. Ameritrade, Caesars Entertainment, Schneider National, Fifth Third Bank, and HP, among others.
Chief operating officer has traditionally been a key role to have to put one’s self as “on-deck” to the top job. Chief financial officers have also hewn their path to the CEO role. Not long ago, it may have seemed absurd to think of the CIO as an important stop on the way to the top role in the company. Yet a group of special technology leaders have spent meaningful time as CIO but then continued the ascent beyond the role.
There are some common denominators among these trailblazers:
- All of them have thought about business value first, and technology second
- Most have worked in other business disciplines prior to ascending to the CIO role
- Many work within organizations that promote from within
- A majority have an MBA or advanced degree in a business discipline
- Many also have spent time as consultants
Business Value First
As one former CIO turned CEO recently told me, “too many CIOs live in the technology world rather than the business world.” By this, he meant that they retreat to their primary area of expertise without thinking about the broader implications of the use of technologies. CIOs need to think of their roles as part R&D on behalf of the company. This means developing perspectives on trends like cloud computing, data analytics, and social media, to name three often written about trends. Understanding what they are is all well and good, but it is more important to think about how these trends apply to one’s company, and the value they should bring to the company, optimally with a quantified benefits estimated wherever possible.
The CIOs who have grown beyond this role also have a clear understanding of how value is created in their companies. CIOs have long monitored systems uptime, and the degree to which projects that they manage are on-time, on-budget, and on-scope. While these remain important, they are only foundational metrics. It is critical that IT manage to the same metrics that the business holds dear.
Diversify One’s Experiences
CIOs who have become COOs, CEOs, or who have taken on other wide-ranging responsibilities have typically spent some time in a business role within the company, even early in their career. This familiarizes them with the company’s customers, the profit and loss statements and the drivers of each, and simply builds their networks across the company. When they achieved the top position in IT, they have walked a mile in the shoes of other divisions of the company. They also are probably familiar with the strengths and weaknesses of the IT department as a user, which provides a strong degree of empathy in their perspective.
Ben Allen, for instance, was the CEO of Kroll, an operating company within the Marsh & McLennan portfolio of companies. When Kroll was divested, Allen joined Marsh & McLennan as chief innovation officer, and soon thereafter as global chief information officer for the entire company. His having spent time as the head of an operating company meant that he knew about the traditional complaints of IT as a past user. He had been one of the executives offering constructive criticism. As he spoke about changes that IT would mgake, he was able to speak with the operating company CEOs as a peer in a way that others would not be able to. Last month, Allen was named President of Marsh & McLennan Agency, a subsidiary of Marsh & McLennan’s largest operating company which was established in 2008 to meet the needs of midsize businesses in the US. Thus a CIO-plus (read my interview with Allen here) has moved “beyond CIO.”
Promote from Within
When executives leave major corporations, many times, the company initiates a search from outside of the company to replace the departing executive. One can argue that this is a failure in succession planning and career development of one’s staff. Companies that promote from within are constantly cognizant of rising talent. Companies like GE and P&G rarely hire executives from the outside, putting the onus on management throughout the company to identify future leaders. Companies like this tend not to think about their companies in silos. They offer high potential employees the opportunity to work in multiple divisions in multiple geographies to learn more about the business as their careers blossom. This means that the rising star in IT may find him or herself in a rotation in a business division in a new geography for a time before they return to IT. As Filippo Paserini, the CIO and Group President of Global Business Services noted in my interview with him, the company has a long history of hiring CIOs who have had significant experience in other disciplines. This well rounded perspective is something that many of the CIOs who have grown beyond the role have had.
Business Degrees Lead to Business Opportunities
Many people who will be interviewed in the “Beyond CIO” series have MBAs or degrees in other business disciplines rather than simply having engineering or computer science degrees. This exposure to concepts like finance, accounting, management, and entrepreneurship together with the network that these degrees provide mean that the tenures as CIOs for these executives are marked with a greater understanding of the other functions within the corporation, and a more proactive and consultative approach in collaborating with the rest of the company.
Once a Consultant, Always a Consultant
Many people who will be interviewed as part of this series spent time as consultants. Consultants are faced with a wide variety of issues that do not have easy solutions. (If they were easy, the consultant would not have been hired in the first place.) At their best, consultants are problem solvers who are great listeners and great communicators. These are all critical skills, and frankly they are characteristics that buck the stereotype of the average IT employee as a group that has historically trended toward the reactive and tactical over the proactive and strategic. For instance, Bob Willett who was CIO of Best Buy, was first the head of Accenture’s retail practice, and would rise to CEO of Best Buy International before taking on multiple other CEO and board-level assignments. He had spent time with dozens of retailers all over the world before becoming an executive at one in particular. This meant that he knew retailers small, large, growing, fading, innovative, or not, and brought a broad arsenal to Best Buy when he joined.
For those ambitious CIOs who may not share these characteristics, there are ways to develop comparable experiences through training, and from spending more time with one’s peers. Better still, surrounding one’s self with an IT leadership team with these backgrounds will benefit the IT department generally, and especially the CIO. Lastly, these are principles that should be taken into consideration when developing one’s talent. A leader is as good as his or her staff, and it behooves the CIO to build the best team possible.
Please look for these interviews in the weeks ahead to understand what makes each of these executives special, but also why their stories may become more the norm in the future.