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7 Steps to becoming the CIO

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Peep into an ant-hill and you will know what seamless order and perfection is. The tiny insect cousins have truly evolved a highly complex organizational structure that in spite of being hierarchal is also highly efficient. At the very apex sits the queen, cynosure of all the domicile ants, and does little work except fawn and procreate. Below the queen, there are the scores and scores of workers ants that toil endlessly to ensure that queen is unperturbed and amply at ease.

Were we to project this organizational structure on to a standard enterprise, more so on to IT function of the typical enterprise. It will be fairly evident, that the CIO is the queen of the IT-hill, fawned upon by the rest of the managers and professionals. The IT function head has little to do with IT these days and frets and fumes over mundane things like RoI, people management etc.

For the sake of illustration, take the case of Mr. O, who is a CIO of a fairly large pharma company, leads a lifestyle that could be the envy of many. More often than not he is constantly touring the country and globe for work, conferences, etc. He is courted by vendors, analysts, journalists, and others who are all ears for every word that escapes his mouth. The CEO of the company is all ears, whenever Mr. O has a new proposal or strategy. He moves along in hallowed circles receiving awards and recognition with amazing regularity, has a spacious cabin with all the works.

So when does Mr. O work? Well, honestly he does not really work, but merely gets his work done. Over the years, he has outsourced much of the infrastructure management to external vendors. Even so, he still has a small and cosy team of managers and IT professionals that handle the day-to-day functioning of the IT infrastructure and the data center. The ant-hill isn’t much different from the IT-hill, isn’t it?
One cannot be sure if the worker ant within the ant-hill aspires to be the queen, but the IT manager at the IT-hill surely desires to be CIO. This was evident, when we floated out a survey on what it takes to be a CIO to sample of around 500 IT mangers drawn from different verticals, cities, and profiles. To say that the response was overwhelming would be an understatement; close to 300 IT managers had completed the survey within 2 days, while the others continue to do so over the next few days. The dozen odd questions were designed to capture the ‘essentials’ of what it takes to be a CIO. Once, the verdict was out from the IT manager’s end, the same question was posed to the CIOs and external consultants and they were asked to share their views on a similarly designed survey.

Based on the findings of the two, the IT manager survey and the CIO & consultant one, we present the 7-step guide to being a CIO. While much of this may seem fairly obvious and common sensical, yet, remember that it is the small things that make a CIO. And it is these traits and specialities that need to be imbibed and displayed to earn the CIO cap. While the steps might seem fairly easy, they require a complete change of mindset. So, if you are ready for the challenge, here is the way, presenting the IT Next’s 7-step guide to becoming CIO.

  • Be business savvy
Over the past many years the role of the CIO a 180° turnaround. While, he continues to remain the king (or the queen) of all things technical, the role has expanded in a way to encompass all the organization. Thus, a CIO is no more chained to the data center or the IT department, but is expected to take on a much bigger and strategic role within the organization. Also the fact that with rapid digitization, IT and technology is not merely backend, but very much front-end as well. Thus, while a retailer might be concerned about implementing the best inventory and warehousing system at his shop, he could also look at the Web and mobile as an additional front to reach out to the customer. Herein IT provides him a completely new revenue stream that did not exist before. The CIO in this case needs to be the change agent that brings about such a transformation, not reactive but proactive.

The IT manager too needs to inculcate a business conscious approach. The first step to it is to familiarise oneself to all the business concepts like RoI, EBITDA, PAT, etc. It is not merely sufficient to know what your company does, but also where does it stand in the scheme of things, how is the financial standing, what is the market share, how is the market scenario, who are the competitors and what strategies they are adopting. Considering that IT today plays a very crucial role, the CIO is expected to don a business hat at all the juncture. And the IT manager, who desires to take on the CIO role, needs to be very much at home wearing the business hat. So, start practicing it right away.

“CIO is an interface between business & technology. It is expected that CIO has the knowledge of both the world.  It is very obvious that he can map the technology to business processes & requirements easily coz of his understanding about both. Now if a manager is aiming to become a CIO, he has to bring a major change in his thought process. As a manager he is looking at the business from technology perspective, while as a CIO he has to look at the technology from business perspective. This change can be made possible when he starts understanding the business. Once they develop business acumen, technology is anyway their strength & they can start mapping technology to business,” says Ketan Shah, Associate Director, Angel Broking.

  • ‘De-techinicalise’
Read any Dilbert comic strip and you will realise what the IT guys think about the world and in return what the world thinks about it. Even today, with the ubiquity of computing lingo, it is hard for a layman to have a conversation with a techie. It is not surprising, considering that techies are often considered as geeks who will be more at home talking SSL than IPL. This image or rather a stereotype that has been formulated over the past many years still persists.

Meanwhile, the CIO who now plays a much more broadened executive role is expected to work in close tandem with the other non-IT functions of the company, be it the accounts or the HR. He might not lead those functions, but plays a crucial role in deciding whether they are a success or a failure. Considering that, he or she has to be fairly conversant with them, at home talking about the impacts of slowdown to discussing ways and means of curtailing the attrition.

Hence, the IT manager wishing to make the transition to the classy glass cabin needs to de-technicalise himself. He/she needs to engineer awareness of the other functions within the company and be able to discuss them without a hitch. In fact, the CIOs emphatically highlighted the same in the survey, making it the second most important trait or behaviour that is essential to make the shift. Thus, next time you step out for a break or a lunch, ensure that you do so with a non-techie. Though, it might be a bit tough to discuss IPL when there is more interesting SSL or VBL, but once you get a hang for it, it won’t be tough at all.

“The mantra for success is to be a very good team player, understand team emotions, be a listener, it makes you very effective collaborating with peers. And most importantly, translate technical jargon into business language” says Sanjeev Kumar, CIO, Polygenta Technologies.

  • Be the gauntlet guy
Some years back there was this relatively small BPO firm that acquired this major transnational operator in a big M&A deal. Suddenly, the player that operated out of a few offices in India had a huge global footprint that stretched across continents. The huge addition of manpower, infrastructure, and business was truly mindboggling. The management of the company decided to form a core transition team for the amalgamation to be done. The CIO of the company took a proactive lead and indicated his eagerness to lead the team. Needless to say, he was asked to lead the team and then within a year when the whole companies were successfully integrated, the kudos (and bigger management roles) came his way.

The moral of the story above is simple, if you don’t have the stomach to take on challenges, you cannot be trusted to be a leader. Hence to impress the management that you are the apt guy for the CIO post, you need to proactively take more on your platter, than what is expected from you. In fact, if some challenging project, like a new implementation or productivity measures are likely to be undertaken, don’t forget to vouch your name for the same. The setbacks in the project will teach you a lot, and the success of the project will teach the organisation to take you seriously. Remember always, that picking up the gauntlet always pays, even when it might not seem so.

  • Become innovative
One CEO shared this interesting insight; a few years back when his company was looking to fill the CIO position, he was caught in a quandary. There were two senior managers that had the requisite experience to merit the cap. Both had spent years in the company, and both were almost similarly placed in terms of education and personal profile. Yet, there was something that bothered the CEO; he did not want to elevate a manager simply for his experience. “While, I respect experience but what we desired was innovation and expertise,” he says. These were the qualities that were found in the HR head of the company, who had taken a rather proactive role in the ERP rollout and other such initiatives. Needless, to say the CEO was ready to bet on the HR guy’s innovation than the senior IT manger’s experience.

It certainly does not mean that experience is secondary when it comes to bagging a CIO cap, for instance in the survey a vast majority felt that around 15 years experience was required to make the transition. But innovation can be a big distinguishing factor. So, as an IT manager look at the ways and means you can bring innovation in the business processes of the company. The innovation could be on anything, can you automate the temporary staff muster, or can you make a tool that helps in comparison of IT equipment purchase. Even Green IT could be a major drive that you could lead within the organization. To be innovative, you need to be attentive to the needs and ways of doing business. Make a point to study case studies, interact with peers and try and imbibe the habit of being innovative.

“In my opinion, the transformation from being an IT manager to a CIO starts with change in mindset, attitude & approach. A typical IT manager is the one who would spend most of the time in managing IT like incident management, support management, building IT, running IT systems & infrastructure etc. To graduate from IT manager to a CIO, one needs to start looking at the business value of technology & matching it with the overall organization’s goal, being proactive in understanding technology needs of upcoming products/services & work with business closely to develop, innovate & implement IT solutions rather than just being a re-active partner by executing the standard IT solutions available in market or advise by business.

The IT manager needs to broaden his horizon by getting more involved with all the business functions like HR or marketing or sales etc to understand the underlying organization processes & improve his own business understanding,” says Prasad Dhumal, senior director IT (South Asia), DHL Express.

  • Be a people person
The trouble with interacting with people is that they seldom behave in a rational manner, i.e., they are not binary in nature, as in ‘on’ when happy and ‘off’ when sad. Unlike computers and data centers that can be easily managed, human management is infinitely more complex. And this is the key requirement from any leadership role, including that of a CIO. A CIO needs to get his work done from a team of trusted professionals; he or she needs to inspire confidence in his team mates. Also, he needs to ensure that the aspirations and ambitions of the team member are well met; he should not seem like a management guy wanting to get the job done. He or she needs to be looked upon as a mentor, a leader, who is trusted and respected by the team members. This is a very key requirement for the CIO.

The IT manager needs to do an analysis of how well or badly placed is he as a co-worker. Is he or she a source of inspiration for the juniors in the team, who often come with their problems to be solved? Is he or she able to get the work done with minimum resistance from the other members of the team? Has he or she be to ensure that the best members in the team are able to grow and do not leave the organization? Answer these questions honestly, and then either pat yourself on the back or change your working style. Remember that while as an IT manager you need to get your work done from the servers and desktops, but as a CIO you are required to work your way with IT managers and other professionals. So, start being a people person in case you are not.

  • Get networked
Have you noticed how many seminars and events the CIOs attend? Or how many memberships to different clubs and association they boast of? In fact, the Indian CIOs are amongst the most networked amongst the world, they have formed different clubs both in real and virtual worlds, wherein they meet, discuss, deliberate on various important and unimportant things. Here is a simple test, think of any renowned well respected CIO, and search him on Linkedin.com, you will find that he is well connected to his peers and others and also member of several groups. Networking, according to the CIOs, is an important way of learning about new technology and solutions.
Hence, the IT manager should take some time out look at the various options he or she has to connect with peers and others. While on the online front, there are the various social networking sites, like Facebook, Orkut, MySpace, etc. But from a professional perspective LinkedIn seems to be the best bet when it comes to networking. Make a nice, decent profile that fully captures your achievements and strengths and start connecting to friends and seniors.

These days a lot of companies are using LinkedIn services for recruiting people. In the real world, find a club of like-minded professionals and join them. In fact, very soon IT Next will be starting a club for the IT managers in different cities, like Mumbai, Delhi and Bangalore, where knowledge sharing among the community will be promoted. Watch out for more details or drop in a line, we would buzz you when the club comes to your city.

“It is fairly important to network as it helps in getting inputs and sharing experience is an integral path of the growth. This network will also sustain you when you reach your goal,” states Rajiv Gerela, VP, Deutsche Bank.

  • Turn into a be-all person
One of the interesting things that was thrown by the survey was that a CIO is not a master of one skill or talent, but more of a ‘jack of all’. And to be a CIO, it is very imperative that the IT manager keeps that in mind. Remember that as a CIO you are expected to do a whole lot of things that go beyond the traditional role, right from business alignment of technology to dealing with the vendors. The job of a CIO entails a multitude of such small things which might go unnoticed. Thus if you are seriously considering taking on the big plum CIO job be ready for all this and more.

Like Arun Gupta, Group CIO, K Raheja Group, says, “Ask yourself the following questions; Can you confidently present in a management group meeting without being tongue-tied? Do people within your team and your users trust you? Can you negotiate well with a vendor or a user? Are you able to resolve conflict? Are you able to hold your head high and have a disagreement with your boss without getting beaten up? If the answer to anyone of those is negative, start working on them before you can think of being a CIO.”

Another important factor that can ease the transition is of course the guru or the mentor. Though finding one can be a real tough exercise. Like Alok Kumar, IT Consultant, Sears Holding, puts it, “It is extremely important for every emerging leader to have a mentor who will guide him and shape up his career. Anyone with a dream to become a leader like a CIO without a mentor would be very difficult to come true in real sense.” Interestingly in the survey, a majority of respondents both the IT managers and the CIOs stated that a CEO is more appropriate mentor for the manager. Probably, it could be so because at the end, it is the CEO who takes the call on who to appoint as the CIO.

In the end, it must be fairly clear by now that the life of the CIO while might seem akin to a queen-in-the-anthill, is anything but it. To be a CIO, one requires to be multi-talented and multi-faceted. The job requirements are tough and challenging. So if you have the stomach for same and the heart set on becoming one; it is time to use your brains to attain the goal. And in this journey, you can bank on us to guide you along the way. So as the catch line in the IT Next adverts goes, “are you ready to be Next?”, ’cos we surely are.


—– To read other stories in the first issue of IT Next Magazine,click on http://www.scribd.com/doc/25549135/IT-Next-Vol-1-Issue-1
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Written by Shashwat D.C.

January 22, 2010 at 7:17 pm

Posted in IT Next Stories

Tagged with , , ,

One Response

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  1. Very appropriate points.
    You can very well start a series of education & guidance articles on Manager to CIO and CIO to CEO role.

    Alok Kumar

    January 31, 2010 at 9:18 pm


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