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2 Great Career Moves

Get Into the Business

The Demands for IT-business alignment will continue to grow in 2006, so today's CIO must develop greater business acumen. And that means getting out of your cubicle and finding out more about business operations.

CIOs may complain that there isn't enough time in the day to do anything besides manage IT operations. But "operational effectiveness only accounts for 15% of profitability in most companies," says Jon Piot, CEO of Impact Innovations Group LP, a Dallas consulting and services firm. Which means you'll need to do a lot more to contribute to your company's upside.

Busting out of your technology cage will require a significant and sustained effort. To begin with, you need to ensure that your direct reports can handle day-to-day responsibilities.

Next, Impact Innovations suggests that you arrange a grand tour of your company's functional groups, business lines and key satellite offices. "This is where you develop meaningful relationships with other executives at your peer level," Piot says. Spend a few days in marketing, and be sure to take the vice presidents to lunch or to the golf course. Ditto manufacturing, distribution and the COO. Think of yourself as a politician on a fact-finding mission. But focus on substance as well as appearances. "Then you can see the issues across the company that you can help solve," Piot says.

The goal is to identify tangible, well-supported ideas that you can offer fellow executives. "If you can say, 'If I could do an ERP or a BI [project], I could improve your production by [x] %,' that's how you start to get IT viewed as an enabler, a competitive weapon," says Scott Holland, a senior business adviser with the Hackett Group, an Atlanta-based research firm.

Network With Your Business Execs

Most CIOs hate schmoozing, especially outside IT circles. But for the sake of your career, the success of projects and the opportunity to drive your company's business through IT, you'll need to enter waters that are uncharted for most technology execs. "In 16 years of recruiting, I've seen that the most successful people are those who've stepped out of their functional comfort zone," says Andy Wihtol, founder of Andrew Associates executive search in Lake Oswego, Ore., and vice president for membership at the Society for Information Management (SIM), the professional association.

If nothing else, engaging business colleagues can make all the difference when it comes to project funding. Lynn Phillips, CIO at $370-million American Community Mutual Insurance Co., says that networking with business executives helped him secure approval for a major service-oriented architecture (SOA) initiative. "When we originally proposed SOA, it was seen as an IT architecture improvement and it was nixed," Phillips says. Then he networked with business colleagues. "When we went back and [got other company officers to] see it as a contributor to product delivery, that's when we got it funded."

So how to get started? For Wihtol's clients, "to push to the next level, many of them latched on to a [business] person for guidance, and some even hired a career coach," he says. And when it comes to staff, start early. "At SIM we're urging [IT groups] to hire not just for technology skills but for the best and brightest overall," he says. "Sure, sometimes you'll need to hire a person with limited client-facing skills just to get the job done. But in general, if you think about communication and business and soft skills, you'll be better off in the long run."

This was first published in December 2005

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