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Down To Business: Are You Top Management Material?

Aspiring CIOs and other career fast trackers must consider opportunities outside the IT organization
During the "Tomorrow's CIO" research presentation at the recent InformationWeek 500 virtual event, an attendee asked what has become a common question among ambitious technology pros: Is it better for the CIO to come up through the IT organization, bringing deep and/or broad technical expertise, or is a more diverse business background preferable?

A technical grounding suggests competence in product, architectural, integration, and other technical decisions; a business grounding suggests a deeper understanding of bottom-line priorities and better interaction with other business disciplines and units. So which is more important? The optimal course is somewhere in the middle, depending on the person, organization, even industry.

InformationWeek's Tomorrow's CIO survey of 720 senior technology executives, conducted in May, found that 75% of CIOs and 65% of their C-suite peers think the CIO will become much more of a business leader and leave most of the day-to-day technical duties to others in IT. Asked to rank the most important CIO attributes, the execs put "technical breadth and depth" near the bottom, after such qualities as leadership, collaboration, vision, and team building.

But those findings don't herald the age of the technically shallow CIO. Randy Mott, CIO of Hewlett-Packard and former CIO of Dell and Wal-Mart, where he started his career as a programmer, offers a comparison: It would be almost inconceivable, he says, for a CFO to feel his way around the job without basic accounting training and experience, so why would we entrust critical, complex technical decisions to a tech newcomer? For the most part, it's not enough for CIOs to just ask the right technical questions of their people without knowing how to craft some of the answers.

Now, Mott isn't saying that high-level IT execs don't need business experience. Quite the contrary. Starting with his years at Wal-Mart, where IT pros were reared as retailers first, Mott has emphasized giving technologists a range of business responsibilities. Mott's philosophy today is to recruit and develop people around a skill mix that's a third technology, a third business, and a third leadership.

General Motors CIO Ralph Szygenda recommends giving rising tech pros experience in other parts of the company--sales, supply chain, finance--even if the IT organization risks losing them for good. If they need basic business skills, consider funding an MBA. Conversely, Dr. Daniel Nigrin, CIO of Children's Hospital Boston, is an endocrinologist who went back to school for a special master's degree in informatics offered by Harvard Medical School and MIT.

The titles of the chief technology execs of this year's InformationWeek 500 companies reveal many complementary business duties. Ulrich Seif, CIO of National Semiconductor, also is senior VP of supply chain services. Tim Harvey, CIO of Hilton Hotels, is executive VP of "shared brands." At Harrah's Entertainment, CIO Tim Stanley also heads gaming and innovation. At health care provider Amedisys, CIO Alice Ann Schwartz is senior VP of clinical operations. Elaine S. Beitler, CIO of Bowne & Co., is senior VP of manufacturing and business integration. Robert Alexander, CIO of Capital One Financial, heads enterprise customer management. Such hybrid technology-business responsibilities are still the exception, but they'll be increasingly common.

CIOs aren't the only execs being coaxed out of their domains. An article in the September issue of CFO magazine urges rising financial stars to "play other parts"--in sales, marketing, even engineering. The HR community regularly exhorts its professionals to break out of, well, the HR community. For senior management, the days of the siloed career are over.

Do you know a CIO with authority for more than just IT? We're evaluating candidates for the 2008 InformationWeek Chief Of The Year award, and we're looking for CIOs with broad and deep influence, especially amid the economic turmoil. Tell us more at the address below.

Rob Preston,
VP and Editor in Chief
[email protected]

Editor's Choice
Mary E. Shacklett, President of Transworld Data
James M. Connolly, Contributing Editor and Writer