By Adam Stone
It seems straightforward enough. Work hard, rack up achievements. Move steadily upward. Enjoy the view from the corner office. As many information technology leaders have learned, things are never quite so simple.
Beyond mere hard work and talent, rising executives must have certain kinds of savvy. They need to know when to ask for help, and from whom. They must have big vision and an understanding of business priorities. Here are five things the aspiring CIO needs to know on the road to that corner office.
GET A MENTOR
As you strive toward the top IT post, youâ€™ll be entering a new world with new rules. It helps to have a close colleague and confidant who knows the lay of the land.
IT leaders know this, even if they donâ€™t practice the principle. Sixty-one percent of women and 56 percent of men say a mentor is necessary for success in IT, according to the 2010 Technisource Women in Information Technology Report from Monster.com.
Yet only 33 percent of women and 28 percent of men say theyâ€™ve had or have a mentor to support their IT careers.
Mentors help steer not only professional, but personal growth as well. They can guide you around pitfalls, or simply listen as you think your way through situations. They can challenge you to explore your own goals, asking questions that open your mind to new possibilities.
Whether by email, phone or in-person weekly or monthly meetings, encounters with a mentor are an invaluable resource for an up-and-coming player.
KNOW YOUR LIMITS
In the race to the top, thereâ€™s always the temptation to go above and beyond. But for the rising executive, itâ€™s possible to reach too far.
â€œThe discipline to recognize our own limitations in completing work is the biggest challenge I have encountered,â€ says Steve Romero, IT governance evangelist at CA Technologies Inc., in the company blog. â€œWe all want to say yes to delivering anything that is asked for.â€
That readiness to go the extra mile can be a career-killer. Those who overreach are bound to come up short. Better to score a win on a project thatâ€™s within your abilities than to overestimate what you can do and ultimately miss the mark.
Recognizing your limitations means learning to the speak the words most people would rather not own up toâ€”phrases like â€œI donâ€™t knowâ€ and â€œlet me get some help with that.â€ Otherwise you could be setting yourself up for failure.
Government IT leaders are under special pressure to know when to say when. A recent Government Accountability Office study found that while CIOs should have influence over 13 areas of information management, IT chiefs at 30 agencies said they were able to govern just five to seven. They noted various rules and limitations effectively tying their hands on the rest.
The bottom line: You can only do as much as you can do.
GET YOUR HANDS DIRTY
Itâ€™s next to impossible to manage a function you have never performed yourself. Youâ€™ll rarely see a football coach whoâ€™s never carried the pigskin himself. To lead an IT team, sometimes you have to be down on the field.
Seventy-six percent of those who have led a major project said the experience was critical to their career development, according to a CIO magazine survey of 100 up-and-coming IT leaders.
The logic seems self-evident, but that isnâ€™t always the case. Many top executives in information technology and throughout government rise through the ranks based on management experience, rather than on specific technical know-how. Thatâ€™s OK: Management is a specialized skill too.
But a little field work goes a long way.
While a manager may know why technology is needed, an IT chief with real-world experience is prone to think more about what the technology can actually do. A business leader focuses on the end goal, but a hands-on technologist takes a realistic view of the steps along the way.
Field experience gives a leader a firm footing for moving ahead.
UNDERSTAND THE CFO
At many organizations, the CIO is one notch down the org chart from the chief financial officer. Letâ€™s face it: Money talks. With IT departments typically operating under the aegis of the CFO, itâ€™s important to get to know that office, to understand the financial function and how it relates to the CIOâ€™s operations.
Some 42 percent of IT organizations or executives report to the CFO, according to a survey by Gartner and Financial Executives Research Foundation. In smaller organizations the percentage goes up to 60 percent. Even if the chain of reporting varies in a government setting, the basic rule applies: CIO and CFO must move forward hand in hand.
The typical disconnect involves the CIO seeking funding for a project, looking at it purely from the technology point of view. The CFO in turn sees the situation through a financial lens. What will be the payback on this investment? Both, ideally, meet in the middle. What is the business aim, and will this project fulfill it at a reasonable price?
But it takes some thoughtfulness to reach that middle ground, in a process that begins with the technology chief recognizing the CFO as a partner rather than an impediment.
MEET THE CUSTOMER
Itâ€™s easy for the CIO to see no further than the IT team. The minutiae of management easily can consume the day, making it easy to lose track of the customer. To be truly effective, the IT leader has to walk the beat, interfacing in person with the department heads and end users who are the ultimate recipients of your technology decisions.
Face time offers a chance to determine needs. Rather than purchasing and deploying software and applications to a throng of faceless end users, rising IT executives can forge ties that help to drive policy and guide strategy.
More than this, personal contact helps build relationships that endure over time, generating the positive ties that support your career progress down the road.