Community Service Can Be Exercise in Business Training for CIOs

There are many excellent and altruistic reasons for a busy CIO to get involved in community service, but one may surprise you. Philanthropy is great for your career and your business training -- especially if you've ever considered becoming a CEO.

I'm the CIO of a midsized, $100-million technology company. In my not-so-copious spare time over the past two years, I've been spearheading a community project to provide computers and student teachers to inner-city after-school programs across San Francisco. It's the largest, most complex project of this type that I've ever attempted -- a far cry from my first volunteer efforts as a parent working to get computers donated to my daughter's school.

Along the way, I've developed a continually expanding network of community connections that includes NBA Hall of Famer Nate Thurmond; the CEOs of Cisco, Symantec and dozens of other Bay Area companies; high-tech recruiters and politicians; church officials and deans of business schools; and plenty of other CIOs through a local IT executive forum called CIO Focus Groups (www.ciofocusgroups.com).

Yet even with all the help I've received in making this happen, the project hasn't gone smoothly or predictably. We've lost promised city funding, which is akin to a startup losing its venture capital backing. We've gotten stalled for months, run into bureaucratic walls and struggled to bring all the pieces together. It's been both maddening and deeply gratifying.

Community service is about bringing a variety of people to the table who cooperate with one another. All the necessary components of these philanthropic activities are skills that work well in business. When I got started in community service, I asked myself, "How does a CIO become a CEO?" CEOs have to speak knowledgeably about the marketing and positioning of their products. They have to understand and drive a sales strategy. They have to truly grasp all the functions of their business and be able to communicate these concepts to their own boards of directors.

Community service has helped me become a better communicator with other business leaders. In addition to the fact that I get a good feeling from helping others, I view community service as a stepping stone in my career and toward where I might go next. I can now speak from experience about what it takes to market an idea. I'm doing that in this column, in fact, by talking about my "startup" company: that is, my community service project. Good marketing takes courage because you have to run headlong into something without knowing if you're delivering the right message. This element of risk lies outside the comfort zone of most CIOs.

Why is it that IT people struggle with CRM (customer relationship management) systems but excel at ERP (enterprise resource planning) or other operational systems? IT people are analytical by nature, so we prefer to ensure that we can do something before we promise it. But sales people are always trying to push the envelope, to leap toward something they're not sure they can reach. When they say they need help, IT wants time to figure it all out first. IT doesn't match well culturally with sales.

But one of the astonishing side effects of my community service -- astonishing to me, anyway -- is that I've learned that I can sell. I've also come to realize that we CIOs are good at this. CIOs buy things all the time, so we can spot a good idea.

I hope that by now I've convinced you to step up and get involved. Don't spend time thinking about why you can't possibly do community service; spend your time doing it instead.

This was first published in September 2005

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