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Forget skill sets, find yourself a board to sit on

Will you be a CIO in five years? Do you want to be? Whatever your direction, you've got to have a plan and it must include at least two things: business skills and experience serving on the board of other companies.

CARLSBAD, Calif. -- What's the difference between an introverted CIO and an extroverted CIO? The introvert looks at his shoes when he's talking to you. The extrovert looks at your shoes.

So the joke goes.

But for CIOs looking to advance their careers or even change, the perception of CIOs as socially inept IT geeks is getting old -- and it's certainly not funny.

To move into consulting can be very strategic, provided you view it that way.

Martha Heller, managing director, Z Resource Group

To move into consulting can be very strategic, provided you view it that way. Martha Heller, managing director, Z Resource Group

It's time for CIOs to start looking at themselves differently, said Martha Heller, managing director, IT Leadership Practice at Z Resource Group Inc., an executive search firm with offices in Westborough, Mass. Heller spoke to some 200 IT executives at this week's CIO Decisions Conference 2006 being held here.

The CIO -- as a profession and a title -- isn't very old, and neither are many of the IT execs who now hold the position. "There's a new generation of CIOs that have an entire career ahead of them," Heller said. That career path isn't necessarily going to stay rooted in IT, however.

"The good news is that you get to carve out your own path," Heller said. "The bad news is that you get to carve out your own path."

A poll of attendees showed that 58% expect their next role to be in business. In contrast, 42% said they expected to stick with the traditional CIO role.

But as the industry changes and more business savvy is required of the CIO, those who don't envision a business title in their future may want to rethink things -- unless they're ready to retire.

Think consulting

Consulting is a great way to gain business acumen in order to expand your professional worth, Heller said. And a lot of CIOs are doing it. "To move into consulting can be very strategic, provided you view it that way," Heller said. "Do that for two years and your whole world will open up."

If you do it right, consulting work can expand your network, too -- and Heller means the people kind. "The thing that will get you your next job will be networking," she said. The better you are at it, the more opportunities you'll have.

Networking is a huge part of gaining ground professionally, and it's often underestimated -- and not practiced enough by CIOs. In fact, 55% of attendees surveyed said they believed they were no good at networking.

You've got to get out of the data center

One of the most effective ways to network, as well as gain that valuable business experience, is to join the board of another company, Heller said. It's something many CIOs here at the conference are doing -- or at least are considering.

"When you're on a board and get a firsthand look at how the company works you are just going to be a smarter person," Heller said. Then you can bring the generic business practice back to your company, which makes you more valuable.

Angelo Privetera, CIO of HDR Inc., an information technology company with offices in Omaha, Neb., didn't sit on any boards in the early part of his career as a chief technology officer and CIO. He does, however, currently serve on two boards, both nonprofits. This late in his career, Privetera said, he's not sure what his volunteer work lends to his résumé. Had he started sooner, though, he believes it might have helped him better understand governance, he said. Today his board participation is altruistic. "I've been given a lot, and now I need to give something back," he said. "If I had done this 10 to 15 years ago it might have changed things. You see things you may not otherwise have the opportunity to see."

Unfortunately, there aren't enough CIOs serving on boards -- at least that's the way Jean Holley, executive vice president and CIO at Tellabs Inc. in Naperville, Ill., sees it.

Holley said the problem is that many of her peers don't think of themselves as executives and are unclear about where or how serving on a board adds value.

"They're technologists and don't look at themselves as executives," Holley said. "They talk about the five nines.

The number of CIOs who climb corporate ladders by succeeding in technology roles is significant, but fewer have an understanding of fundamental business practices, such as accounting or marketing. It's not surprising, but it is problematic. "CIOs have to get out of the IT organization and see how the rest of the organization works," Heller said.

If you're considering a move outside of IT and into the operational end of business management, then it's your job to find someone to fill your shoes. Not very many CIOs are looking that far down the road, however. In fact, only 38% of those surveyed said they have a successor whom their peers and boss would accept.

"If you want to move into an operational role, you will have a tougher time if you do not have a successor," Heller said.

Norbert Kubilus, CIO at Sunterra Corp. in Las Vegas, has held a CIO title since 1983 -- a newly created position at that time at National Data -- having been promoted from chief operating officer of network services. A software engineer, he clearly moved up through the technology ladder but said he wanted to keep his hands in operations. Because, he said, it's important to broaden your responsibilities. It's not good to be so specialized.

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