Career management: The path to CIO

There are many routes to becoming a CIO, so whatever your career path you can always put yourself in the running. And as today's...

There are many routes to becoming a CIO, so whatever your career path you can always put yourself in the running. And as today's CIOs reveal, there is plenty you can do to boost your chances of success.

The path to enlightenment is different for everyone and it seems this is also true for those seeking an executive IT post on the board. There is no roadmap or documentation. Listening to CIOs' stories it appears that some arrive at their destination without realising it, while others struggle on an arduous journey.

According to one senior IT executive, at least one CIO of a utility got there the "jammy sod" way because he happened to be in the right place at the right time. The utility was being reorganised under privatisation and the newly recruited senior executive was in a position to write a job description for the new CIO role - and then step into it.

However, according to Mary Long of Inspirational Coaching, there is a distinct set of attributes that all CIOs share and some common mileposts along their path to executive stardom.

Controlling ambition

"They are a pretty distinct species," she observes and reckons future ones are easy to pick out at a training programme. "I'm not sure that any of them sets out with this ambition to be MIS director - but they do want to have control of the whole thing, rather than any little piece, and to get to the point."

Anne Munroe, director of European IT services at computer supplier Livingston Rentals, says a degree in German and Philosophy set her on a path that values logic and process. "I've never been a techie. I'm only interested in what technology can do for organisations and people," she explains.

If a career path exists for CIOs, key markers would include project management at an early age - usually by 25 - and then some experience in procurement or management, perhaps in managing an outsourcing contract, according to Long. More often than not this is followed by a spell in consultancy.

Munroe spent eight years at Touche Ross (now Deloitte Touche) in the 1980s and confesses: "Management consulting is a wonderful life from a career point of view. The opportunity to work in many different environments is a steep learning curve." But she felt the pull to return to "the real world" when, after experiencing many different client situations, the tasks nevertheless began to feel the same. "Ultimately, you don't have real-world responsibility," she says.

Reliable delivery service

A genuine passion for technology and desire to deliver are likely to be the crucial motivation and the means by which CIOs are spotted. Denise Plumpton is on her second tour of duty as CIO having spent two years in that position at the courier service company TNT, preceded by a three year spell as IT chief at Powergen.

Although Plumpton made a choice early on that would propel her into the IT world by taking a degree in computer science and statistics 20 years ago, she confesses that she's only ever written one program in anger and that was "functionally a brilliant success but performance-wise it was lousy".

Plumpton says an eye for an opportunity and a willingness to embrace change speeded her ascent. "I have no burning ambition and didn't set out in life to get to the top. It was more a case of grabbing opportunities and an attitude of 'I could do that job'," she says.

Long agrees that a desire to get the job done is likely to be far more important than any political behind-the-scenes machinations. "Politics is not a main driver for CIOs - they tend to be more customer focused. Their main battle is getting enough investment in systems. It's usually one of the first four things to be cut in a downturn."

Money matters

Until relatively recently, the IT director reported to the finance director anyway, and that's where the real turf wars are fought according to Long. This line of reporting left the old school IT chief relatively exposed in financial skills and managing big budgets, points out Colin Beveridge, interim IT director and a self-confessed aspiring CIO of a Fortune 500 company.

Beveridge believes financial skills are a must for the would-be CIO, alongside general management practice: "Unless you have a good understanding in this field, there is a danger that managing a big budget can get out of hand," he warns.

Plumpton stresses the need for broad experience and says she had more experience in matrix management than line management. But when the time came for people management at Powergen she took to it like a duck to water: "I enjoy sharing information and seeing people develop. In my role now, I am only as good as my team."

How they got there

Anne Munroe

  • Degree in German and philosophy
  • Worked for fork-lift truck manufacturer in IT department
  • Trained as Cobol programmer
  • Systems and inventory manager
  • Account manager for MRPII systems supplier
  • Joined Touche Ross
  • After three years in the fast track, became associate partner at Touche
  • Joined Livingston as director of European IT services with mandate to create pan-European strategy across European offices

"The most important thing is to get under the skin of the business. There is still a lot to do at Livingston. Increasingly the focus has changed from internal systems to Web-enabled, customer perspective.

"But whether it is Web-enabled stuff or good ol' Cobol, it's the way that IT is used to drive change that is important."

Denise Plumpton 

  • Degree in computer science and statistics
  • Joined British Leyland in operational research
  • Support role of mission critical software tool
  • Team leader
  • CIO Powergen

"If you have ambitions to be CIO it's important you get yourself broad experience. So if you are sitting in infrastructure support, put your name forward for a project.

"You have to look around and see where the changes are happening. It's no use waiting for someone to tap you on the shoulder - you need to be a bit cheeky."

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