Advice: Plotting your way up the executive ranks

Gregory Smith, author of "Straight to the Top: Becoming a World-Class CIO" and CIO of the World Wildlife Fund, talks about his carefully plotted route to the executive ranks and offers some tips for aspiring CIOs.

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What is the biggest challenge in getting a job as a first-time CIO? Is it out-competing others who look similar on paper? I think there is a tremendous amount of competition. Most of the CIO positions out there are usually going through some type of an executive recruiting network. The recruiters I talked to don't usually pull up a set of criteria in a database online. One recruiter I talked to doesn't even recommend candidates putting...

information into an executive recruiting online database, because most executive recruiters aren't going to use it. They're going to look to the contacts and network of sitting CIOs or deputy CIOs to ask if there is someone on their staff or someone they know. You became CIO of the World Wildlife Fund at age 37. What helped you most to get that job? I was recruited for it. I did not approach an executive recruiter for that position; they approached me, at the recommendation of another sitting CIO. I had established my credentials in the private and for-profit sector. I had gotten experience with a variety of technologies at some pretty tier-one organizations: it was Sallie Mae on the financial services side, and PricewaterhouseCoopers on the consulting side. I had gotten all my tickets punched. I got my technical MBA at Johns Hopkins University. I actually took it a step farther. A year after I obtained by graduate degree I started teaching as an adjunct faculty at Johns Hopkins -- intentionally. As a way to increase your network? Increase my network, increase my exposure. As an adjunct faculty I was giving back to the IT community and the educational community, but at the same time I was greasing the skids for easier access to publications. When someone was looking at my bio and saw I was a director of this, a tech MBA and teach at a graduate level, when I submitted articles I believe they had a little more merit behind them. What's the biggest mistake you made in plotting your career? I'm not sure that I made any. None? I really don't think that I have. I've gotten consulting experience, I've gotten for-profit experience, I've gotten Big Five experience, I got my tech MBA, I've got publishing experience, I've got my graduate adjunct faculty. The only thing that I would -- I don't know if this is really a mistake. I was about to say, started my graduate work earlier. But Hopkins wouldn't really let me enroll in the program until I had a specific number of years of business experience. Fifty percent of your experience is in consulting, and you strongly recommend that aspiring CIOs work as consultants. Why? You've got to get both sides of the fence if you want to be a viable CIO. You have to understand the consulting proposition. You have to know also how to manage consultants and vendors.

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Being a consultant makes you a little bit humble. There are many instances where you have to sidestep and put the brakes on what you may know technically or business wise. You may have to deal with a client or a customer that is not that smart or that doesn't know as much as you do, and you've got to figure out creative and diplomatic ways to get that customer on board or eliminate any roadblocks that the customer may be putting up. In the organizations that use consultants regularly, some of the internal employees are a little bit jaded. They're thinking, 'Why did we have to go to the outside, when we could have probably done this on the inside.' Serving in a consulting role gives you far more experience than flat-out IT experience. Define for us what you call in your book "the IT glasshouse."
I define the glasshouse as the central IT management infrastructure of the past where all decisions, all the systems and all the policies were pretty much made within the IT shop. If you had to classify it as a government, it would be an IT monarchy. Today, I don't believe that works. I am not a fan of 100% decentralized IT, where managers and staff are completely decentralized and put into business units. I am not saying do a 180-degree from the old model. But I do think that today's CIOs need to work more with the business units and customers of their organizations and form better relations to share the risks, responsibilities and project sponsorship, as opposed to assuming the responsibility in IT or forcing a system on a business unit. There is a lot of talk about letting your business units take responsibility for the technology they use. But how do you do that? Do you get it in writing?
I do. But I don't let them take responsibility for the technology. I let them take responsibility for the business process that drives the solution. So when we are looking at doing a requirement analysis for trying to solve some problem or drive some goal, whether it is increasing revenue or something else, when we put budgeted dollars toward the project, we use an organizational structure that integrates with the project manager in the business unit itself. I bolt on an IT lead and have at least one business VP take accountability as co-executive sponsors. At the end of the day if I don't get signature from a business unit sponsor for a business unit application, I will not press forward. I make the calls for infrastructure, for security, all those good things. That is my job. But if we are looking for a CRM system, for example, to help drive donor management, the CIO should not own that system. IT should be owned by the business unit that is responsible for the revenue.

I have a simple phrase: IT drives technology decisions. The business units drive application business technology. I thought it was refreshing to read in your book that a CIO should have a solid grounding in technology, because so much of what you hear now is that this position is being taken over by businesspeople.
I just met one the other day. A new CIO from the business unit, and I think he's scared. Think about it. I take the inverse view that businesspeople can do the job. I think it is way off, and I am not shy in stating that. Look, this is a profession that in my case includes 20 years of work experience at some of the best companies in America. I have gotten a top-tier education. If you combine all that together, I am somewhere in the 28-year range of progressive IT skills and experience, managing technology and applying it to business. Now, would you hire someone who came up that track, who had all that experience in IT, to head up your financial organization? I wouldn't. The flip side is why is it hard for technical people to speak in business terms?
Given the amount of time they work on the technology side versus the amount of time they spend in the business unit side, it is so easy to lapse back into all of the different acronyms and the lingo the technology people use. I'll be honest. I have to force myself to be conscious of the fact that when I am speaking to a nontechnical audience to not be too technical. I have to force myself, today, and I am a sitting CIO with a new book out giving guidance to others on how to follow in my footsteps. It's hard. Does it have anything to do with the notion that the kind of people attracted to technology are very concrete in their thinking; they simply think in a different way from businesspeople?
Working in the technology area takes an analytical, top-down, logical, process-oriented person. That said, I think at some point in their career they have to force themselves to branch off and submerse themselves in an environment, like an MBA, which makes them recognize the other side of the fence and to think like a business person. The technology field attracts far more the introvert than the extrovert. I probably started out as a pretty strong-typed introvert and became a forced extrovert as a result of going up the ladder. When did you turn outward?
When I realized that it was absolutely one of the most important skills needed for an IT executive to have excellent communication skills. How long did it take you to hone your presentation skills?
Oh gosh. I'll give you the answer in the form of advice given to me from one of my mentors. I asked how long it would be before I was completely comfortable giving presentations to an audience I had never met before. The answer was, once you've done your first 100 or so, you'll get the hang of it. Your book's title is Straight to the Top, and top for you is CIO. Do you ever think there is somewhere else to go once you're a CIO?
Absolutely. I think it is the next-generation track to chief operating officer, and potentially a CEO of a technology company. I can tell that my career aspirations include one or two of these tracks. You devoted an entire chapter to golf. I found that a bit shocking.
It wasn't the whole chapter. Half of it was about the vendor management function. I talk about the importance of relying on vendors, having a vendor management strategy, in my case reducing the overall number of vendors, and distinguishing between commodity-based vendors and strategic vendors. I consider Dell a commodity-based vendor. I buy stuff from them and put it in. A strategic vendor will actually help me go from Point A to Point B. It might be a CRM vendor. It might be a consulting vendor. And I talk about that whole process of how do you manage and scorecard your vendor and different approaches for doing that. And I ask other CIOs how they do it. So you'll see stuff about outsourcing.

Then, halfway through Chapter 8 is when I start talking about integrating sports to build your relationships and to grow your network and build stronger relationships with your vendors. But why go out with them at all, especially given the sensitivity about conflict of interest these days?
Well, let me ask you, define conflict of interest. There are some companies that say don't even go out for a cup of coffee with your vendors, because you don't need to be friends with them or beholden.
That would be the federal government. And you know what? I understand why they do it. But I don't think that a cup of coffee is going to materially make a difference in the decision to purchase goods or services. I think the federal government has just decided to take that track. But I take the issue beyond the level of the CIO. How many CEOs do you know who go out and have dinner with some of their partners and vendors and colleagues? And how many CEOs and presidents do you see on the golf course? I can tell you I played golf in a tournament and John Thompson was there. He is not a CIO. He is the CEO for Symantec.

It doesn't have to be about who pays for what, as I clarified in my book. My guidance to people is, check what your policies are. If there is a no-pay policy, fine, pay for yourself. There are some clear benefits of getting out of the office and spending some time with people, getting to know them. And at the end of the day, because I have a better relationship both professionally and through sports, I have several vendors who I can pick up the phone and say, 'Listen Tom, I need this done, you need to help me out with this.' Now granted, they should be able to do that regardless, as a vendor. But it doesn't work that way. And if you look at the quotes from the vendors in the book, people tend to reciprocate, form partnerships and get more stuff done, cut through the [bull], when they have a better relationship. And I have found that a 30-minute meeting in my office doesn't get me a better relationship with a strategic vendor. Another piece of advice you give is that a CIO has to think like a chief financial officer. Why?
If you don't start thinking like a CFO, you're going to be reporting to one. What is so bad about reporting to the CFO?
Because historically, CIOs who report to CFOs are doing so because the CFO is not comfortable with their financial management skills, or the CIOs need to be reined in on their cost controls. The other research that I found is that CIOs who reported in to the CFO spent overall less percent of the company's revenue than those that didn't. A CFO's job is internal controls, audit, cost containment, financial management and reporting. I don't think that is the best creative place to put a potential innovator and catalyst, such as the CIO, who interfaces with just about everybody. There is no other executive that touches every other point of the organization.

Let us know what you think about the story; email: Linda Tucci, Senior News Writer

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