Business & Finance
Commentary
4/18/2002
11:34 AM
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Secret CIO: Today A CIO; Tomorrow, Perhaps, The World?

It's rational for an aspiring CIO to expect that his or her career path can lead to CEO.

Not too long ago, you'd swear every professional conference had at least one session (if not its entire theme) dedicated to that burning question: How can we poor abused IT professionals attain our proper level of respect within the company? The presentations either complained that management (those dolts) didn't understand what gems we really were and needed to be educated, or declared that the gap was caused by our own multiple inadequacies--Mea culpa! Mea culpa! I'd come home from these get-togethers thinking I hadn't seen such levels of angst since I was a teen-ager and all of us knew our pimples would go away if only we could find the right elixir on the drugstore shelves.

But lately, I've noticed a pronounced change in the way major companies view their CIOs. My friends tell me they've seen the same phenomenon over the last year or two, though they're quick to caution that the situation may be as fleeting as the late, lamented run-up in Internet stocks. Personally, I think it's here to stay. In fact, it will accelerate rapidly.

The CIO now is generally regarded as a valued member of the management team. It looks like IT has finally gotten that well-deserved seat at the decision-making table. When signs of this new acceptance first appeared, many of us were wary that we were observing nothing more than a reaction to the Y2K scare or the E-business craze--Hug Your Techie, the nerd may help you avoid a disaster! But even with the millennium a nonevent and the harsh reality of the dot-com bust behind us, the CIO is increasingly being seen as integral to the success of the business.

At the recent InformationWeek Spring Conference, Rob Carter, CIO of Federal Express, and Fred Smith, his boss and CEO, showed that a close working relationship and frequent exchanges of ideas between CEO and CIO help propel an innovative, fast-growing business toward success. Smith strongly believes that the accomplishments of FedEx are intimately tied to its exploitation of the potential of IT. The good news is that we have living proof that the promised land of IT respect and recognition exists. The bad news is that the majority of people I overheard said they wished they had a boss like Fred.

The role played by IT in the minds of superstar CEOs was reinforced the next evening when former GE chief Jack Welch told his audience that smart businessmen should know that IT is key to productivity and innovation. Welch emphatically said that any CEO who wasn't close to his or her CIO wasn't doing the job.

So what does the future hold for IT executives? It's a dictum that the leaders of a company frequently rise from the functions that are crucial to its success. Prior to World War II, when low-cost mass production differentiated the winners from the losers, CEOs often came from the manufacturing ranks. After the war, finance people rose to prominence as the need to manage capital became key to expansion.

Now we're entering an era in which the new leaders could well be those who understand IT's capabilities and limitations. It used to be that the only thing being a CIO prepared you for was the job of being a former CIO. Not anymore. It's rational for an up and coming CIO to expect that his or her career path can lead to the CEO position.

Increasingly, people are advancing from CIO to the top job. Two come to mind. Michael Capellas, CEO of Compaq, rose through multiple positions to take the reins of a company in trouble. At the helm, he breathed new life into what had become a seriously problematic business. Cinda Hallman, a talented and insightful executive, was at Conoco when DuPont bought it. As DuPont's CIO, she brought massive efficiencies that dramatically lowered IT expenditures while improving effectiveness. Ultimately responsible for far more than IT, she left DuPont not long ago to take on a turnaround role as CEO of Spherion, a $4 billion professional-services company. Cinda combines ability and intelligence with strong leadership skills.

Numerous CIOs serve on the boards of private and public companies, a far cry from only a few years ago. Any company that doesn't see the need for someone at the board level who has experience with the opportunities that IT brings to business is simply missing out on a critical resource for modern business. Besides, the CIO is certainly useful to have around when multimillion-dollar projects come up for approval.

The future is bright. Polish your shoes. Buy a new suit. Put some money into that new upscale briefcase. Someday--soon--you're going to be a star.

Herbert W. Lovelace shares his experiences (changing most names, including his own, to protect the guilty) as CIO of a multibillion-dollar international company. Send him E-mail at lovelace@comcast.net. When (and if) his online column resumes at informationweek.com, he'll provide real, and sometimes whimsical, answers to your questions.

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