The Pathway to CIO

The Pathway to CIO

Sometimes the business just doesn’t recognise what the best CIOs provide

Carsten Larsen, Executive Manager Information Services, Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA)

Carsten Larsen, Executive Manager Information Services, Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA)

From the Web site of one of the world’s most prestigious executive search firms, Egon Zehnder International — and under the heading of “Thought Leadership” no less — comes this chilling judgement... “Although CIOs are an emerging presence in the executive suite, few IT executives have the business qualifications or capitalist’s killer instinct for making money.”

There you have it: Chris Patrick, the global IT practice leader of an international force in headhunting telling the boardrooms of the world that the majority of IT executives don’t have the smarts or the daring to earn a seat at the big table. Putting aside the notion that only a pixel separates a capitalist’s killer instinct from fraud — Enron, WorldCom, HIH, et al — how has it come to this? Moreover, does it matter? And if so, what should be done?

From Tech Head to Business Head

The message is clear: Australia’s IT industry must take greater interest in developing its future leaders. With the Baby Boomers nearing retirement, the next 10 years will see more people leave the workforce than join. The perception among young IT executives is that IT is now a commodity, the profession’s rewards trail those of finance, legal or marketing, and the position of CIO does not have the gravitas of other C-level functions. It’s a perfect storm that makes it vital for incumbent CIOs to help ensure that executives with a technical background develop business skills to advance the profession. In a sentence: today’s CIOs carry the brief to groom the next generation of CIOs. It is no straightforward task.

“The problem is that there is no certified path to become a CIO,” says Carsten Larsen, executive manager information services, Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA). “If you want to be a CFO you become a CPA; engineers can become a certified engineer. As CIOs we come from many different places — some of them weird and wonderful. So we need to define a career path for people to become a CIO.

“And it matters because it’s part of being accepted at board level. CFOs enjoy high acceptance with boards. Boards know the CFO has a certified qualification, they know they are trained for that job. The CIO does not enjoy the same universal acceptance because we don’t come from a certified path. It’s a matter of respect. I want our advice to be highly-regarded because we are the CIO. Boards should ask for our opinion because, like CFO, our acronym stands for something. Too often the CIO just doesn’t get a voice.”

Enter Pathways

As befits the best C-level executives, Larsen is putting some walk to his talk. He is one of 11 Australian-based CIOs who are contributing to the Pathways ICT Leadership Development Program, created by the CIO Executive Council. The 12-month ongoing Pathways program is designed around two distinct areas of professional development: business and leadership — it does not focus on the technical. It helps participants build the commercial savvy needed to put them at the forefront of ICT and of the business.

CIO Executive Council general manager, Caroline Bucknell, says Pathways is a unique professional development program because it is designed and delivered by global and local CIOs. It combines best practices, thought leadership and customised mentoring.

“Pathways is self-managed and self-paced,” says Bucknell. “And it’s based on the nine universal core competencies shown to have the greatest impact on an executive’s success. “The benefits start with access to the CIO Executive Council’s Future-State assessment tool, which allows participants to map their current skills against the core competencies, as identified by more than 25,000 C-level assessments.”

Of the executive leadership competencies that are considered core to C-level executive success, the ones that CIOs typically have the least experience with—and therefore the weakest development—are those that are externally focused.

These competencies are also those most critical to becoming a Future-State CIO, which the CIO Executive Council defines as an IT leader who spends a larger proportion of his or her time driving and enabling business strategy, versus being primarily focused on running the IT function and enabling process transformation. The core competencies are: strategic orientation, team leadership, commercial orientation, external customer focus, collaboration and influence, market knowledge, change leadership, people and organisational development, and results orientation.

IT Has an Image Problem

Garry Whatley, another Pathways mentor, would go even wider to preach the IT gospel. The CIO of Corporate Express says IT has an image problem — of its own making — and that any push to correct this image should reach out to universities, high schools and the public.

“Too many people still think IT involves sitting in a corner programming, and not the raft of other jobs it encompasses,” says Whatley. “Yes, we still have image problems with boards, other C-level executives and the business in general, and Pathways will help to address that. But it’s such a shame that the public, specifically parents and people who offer careers advice in schools, just have no idea what IT is today.”

Whatley is passionate about how IT can make a difference not just to individual organisations, but also to the competitiveness of the entire country. “That takes much more than just integrating IT and business,” he says. “It takes leadership and that’s what Pathways is about — building tomorrow’s business leaders.”

Who Wants to Be CEO?

David Kennedy, CIO and director, Information Services Division, NSW Office of State Revenue, is another of the local CIOs lending his knowledge to the program.

“How do we get the next generation of CIOs a seat at the big table? By the current generation working with potential talent in programs like Pathways,” says Kennedy. “That’s why I’m involved. The CIO of the past got to that position purely on their technical abilities. That won’t be enough in the future. The CIO needs to be a visionary and a business leader, not the propeller-head in the corner. It’s not about technology any more. It’s about the value to the organisation that comes from leveraging business technologies. Everything we do must be user- and customer-driven. And we need to be part of every part of the business.”

“A great example of the dilemma we face is that if you asked a room full of CFOs who wanted to be a CEO, over 90 percent would raise their hands,” says Kennedy. “However, if you asked a room full of CIOs, not many would volunteer.”

If Chris Clark was in that room of CIOs, he would be one of the first to raise his hand. The CIO of Brookfield Multiplex Limited is, at 41, one of the youngest CIOs in the country. Earlier in his career Clark pushed for more business education, but to no avail. That changed dramatically with his last direct report at Brookfield Multiplex, Bob McKinnon, now CIO at Westpac.

“Fortunately, when I was in a 2IC role to a CIO, I had a few opportunities,” Clark says. “Having been in a CIO role now — and being one of the younger ones in my peer group — I joined Pathways to ensure people coming through understand what a CIO is, and to help businesses know what a CIO does. At the moment, a lot of companies still don’t have that awareness.”

Clark says when he chats with IT peers he knows within five minutes where they stand. Many have all the technical skills, but few have the knowledge of how to deliver IT best for a business. That demands leadership, team-building, creative thinking, listening skills, knowledge of regulatory compliance, and business ethics.

“There’s no shortage of information for us on all these things,” says Clark. “Gartner, McKinsey and the rest. Some of it’s too heavy. Some of it’s great. But there is nothing like learning from those who are in the role and doing it.

“I advertised recently for a business integration manager and of the top nine applicants there were a few about my age who aspire to be a CIO. They didn’t get the role with us, but they followed me up and asked if I’d be their mentor. I was flattered, but I told them I could do much better — I referred them to Pathways.”

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