David Lister, CIO at Reuters, is in no doubt about the pivotal moment in his career. It happened when he became a management consultant with Coopers & Lybrand.
Until that point, Lister had followed a well-trodden path for IT professionals - from systems analyst to project leader to systems development manager. But consultancy was something completely different. "It gave me a whole new package of skills, competencies and techniques that I then took back into IT," he recalls.
These skills were the ability to communicate with managers in other disciplines, to negotiate about priorities, targets and deadlines, to market the value that IT can bring to a business and to sell an idea to sceptical managers.
"Then there is the whole package of process consulting skills that were being developed around the time I was in consulting in the mid-1980s," he says. "In short, it is about developing problem-solving skills.
"It made me look at IT from a very different perspective. I suppose it was the turning point, because I never looked at IT in the same way again. For me, IT became about delivering business value, understanding what the role of the shareholder was and the importance of knowing what a good investment looks like.
"It became about not promoting IT for IT's sake, but finding opportunities in companies to invest in IT that would deliver a return."
The first handful of projects Lister worked on as a consultant had nothing to do with IT. They included the privatisation of the Royal Naval dockyard at Rosyth and setting up a project office for the Office of Population, Censuses and Surveys in London. "I found these projects fascinating," Lister says.
After Lister quit Coopers & Lybrand, his career in IT powered forward at a pace he had not known before - to senior roles in no fewer than four companies that at one time or another graced the FTSE 100.
So could other young IT professionals turbo-charge their careers with a spell in general management consultancy?
First, they need to be interested - inspired, even - by the world beyond the bits and bytes of the IT department. Lister already knew that in his own mind, even before he stepped through the doors of Coopers & Lybrand's Edinburgh office.
He had discovered in his first job at Highland Electronics, a small Scottish company, that what really interested him was not programming languages, but how organisations worked. "From relatively early days I was more interested in how to help people be more successful in their organisations," he says.
He broadened his outlook by working in management services for Lothian Regional Council, where he also fattened up his early CV with some useful training. "In those days, back in the early 1980s, local government was one of the best places to get that sort of development," says Lister.
After Lothian, Lister underscored his management potential by working as a systems development manager at Croda Polymers International. "It was the first time I had a group of people working for me other than for a specific project," says Lister.
By the time he left, he had provided the company with one of the UK's earliest enterprise resource planning systems and consolidated its IT into one place.
Second, and equally important, is what IT professionals want to gain from each of their jobs as they move their career forward. "I suppose my own philosophy is that it is not necessarily what you do, it is what you learn and how you apply it that is vital. Achievements are important, but I think it is what you take from those achievements that helps build your career," says Lister.
"One piece of advice I would give is this: do not just pat yourself on the back for a good job delivered. Think about what you have learnt from it and what you could have done better. Then think what you need to do to go on and learn about building on what you have done and how you can develop what you are doing."
This is an approach that has clearly been important in powering Lister's career to the top since his consultancy days. When he left Coopers & Lybrand to join Guinness, not long after it had acquired United Distillers, he found himself in the challenging role of general manager for what became United Distillers' global manufacturing operation.
The broader business skills he had acquired during the consultancy years immediately came to the fore. "I was in a job where, on the one hand I had to articulate a strategy - what we were going to do and why we were going to do it - and on the other hand, engage with multiple facets of the business to develop the strategy and move it forward."
The old slogan "Guinness is good for you" proved true in Lister's case. During his period with the company it became a pioneer in understanding how change management skills can be harnessed to drive successful projects. Lister's consultancy background in making change happen proved a critical strength.
"At Guinness we stopped talking about IT projects and projects that deliver business value," Lister recalls. "We did that by understanding the behaviours that were at play in helping to change whatever we were trying to realise and then using IT as a mechanism to embed new ways of working and new practices in the organisation. This approach moved IT back into my mind as a fundamental enabler of these changes, but ultimately, not the primary purpose."
The skills Lister had picked up as a consultant were vital in 1991, when he was sent to Spain by United Distillers to integrate the IT of seven brewers. "My time with Coopers & Lybrand was absolutely critical, and those early influencing and consulting skills helped me to recognise that if I was going to be successful in the project I had to do it in Spanish.
"It made me think long and hard about the cultural aspects of the change and what I would need to do to get the full engagement and buy-in from the people in Spain. Taking the time to think it through dramatically improved the chances of the project being successful - which it was."
Since then, this ability to take the broader view alongside the skills needed to drive complex change has taken Lister to the CIOs' chair at pharmaceutical firm Glaxo Wellcome (now GlaxoSmithKline) and high-street chain Boots (now Alliance Boots). At both, he led major change projects.
At Reuters, Lister has a broad range of responsibilities that reflect the management style he has developed. "I am responsible for delivering IT services that support the business in its day-to-day operations. That stretches from providing more commodity services, such as e-mail, through to re-engineering our customer-facing administration systems and the way our customers interact with our products.
"So my responsibilities range from the relatively straightforward to the very complex. I report in to David Grigson, the chief financial officer, but also sit on the Group Leadership Team where I get to exercise a broader remit."
So would Lister recommend all IT professionals with their eyes on a CIO's chair in a FTSE 100 company spend a spell in consultancy? He acknowledges that the big systems integrators have moved away from the kind of general management projects that he worked on, but adds, "I would certainly recommend that people think about broadening their careers by looking at a business from the inside out - and also by developing the particular set of skills that consulting brings you."
But he is convinced that a spell in general management consultancy delivers something richer than merely ticking the boxes on a list of skills. "I think it helps you to develop different perspectives on a business," he says.
"I am a great believer in that one of the dangers is becoming too insular. If that happens in IT, you become almost part of the problem. You need to be able to take a step back and apply your capabilities by taking a view of the business."
CV: David Lister
● Studied architecture at Edinburgh University, but quit course to go into IT.
● Started IT career as systems analyst at Highland Electronics and project manager at Lothian Regional Council.
● Gained first management experience at Croda Polymers International as systems development manager.
● Broadened skills by moving into consultancy with accounting firm Coopers & Lybrand in 1984.
● Joined Guinness in 1989 as IT director for United Distillers' manufacturing division.
● Moved to Glaxo Wellcome as IT director in 1999.
● Joined Boots in 2001 as CIO to implement major change programme.
● Head hunted by Reuters in 2004 as CIO.
Lister's current role
David Lister heads 600 IT staff across 130 countries. Lister works through a number of staff that report directly. These employees cover: shared services which looks after global service delivery, solution delivery which works with the business to deliver new solutions, systems and capabilities, and a business relationship management team.
The team consists of a manager in Singapore who looks after Asia, and one in New York who covers the US. There are three managers in London who manage, sales and service operations, corporate applications and editorial support. Lister's other directly reporting employees include the head of group sourcing and a chief architect.
Reuters' IT supports 20,000 staff ranging from journalists, to financial specialists and sales staff.
This was first published in October 2007