We spoke to three top IT directors on what lessons they learned from working in another area of the business.
Company boards now demand greater business acumen from IT decision makers, and one of the best ways for IT managers to widen their understanding of general business is to work in it.
Yasmin Jetha, Group IT director at Abbey National
Jetha was a systems manager when she was picked from a corporate senior manager assessment programme to run Abbey's mortgage service.
"I had only ever done IT, so they were taking a risk on me," she said. "My first shock was having to manage 49 mortgage centres and 1,500 staff, when I was used to 100 staff in one location. I learned that to deal with remote people you have to work through the management line."
After going back to IT for a year, Jetha spent the next six years running business areas such as mortgage marketing and after-sales service in retail banking, with profit and loss responsibility. "It covered everything from servicing accounts to closure, debt management, repossessions and selling on," said Jetha.
Then Abbey National's chief executive lured her back to IT with another promotion. Jetha now sits on the bank's board and reports to the chief executive.
Jetha believes her experience outside IT has helped her career, but it was not essential. "It certainly helped, but it wasn't actually necessary - my predecessor IT directors had no business experience and they were both main board directors," she said.
"Although I would advise taking the opportunity to work outside IT, I would not do so that strongly. However, you [the IT director] do not understand business conceptually - if you run it, you understand it. But it is not a given that you have to have experience of both IT and business to be a CIO.
"When I look back, if I had not taken the daunting opportunity to work in the business I don't know how my career would have gone. So, if you do get the opportunity for different experiences, go for it. It gives you a different perspective and diverse range of experience."
Margaret Smith, director of business information systems at Legal & General
Smith moved out of IT to set up the insurance company's direct sales life and pensions business in 1995. Three years ago she went back to head up IT again.
"I had my own profit and loss responsibility, a new building, I hired my own people - it was wonderful," she said. "We became number one in the life and pensions sector for Direct, and did 10% of Legal & General's business."
Smith later set up Legal & General's web-based business, explaining e-business to City analysts and arguing the case for her controversial, but successful, strategy of selling to brokers, not consumers.
"Second time around, it is different. I am more senior," said Smith. "I am at board meetings and results rehearsals with the chief executive, finance director and UK managing director. When I had only been in IT I would never be invited. IT gives estimates with caveats, but business needs to price a product and cannot have the IT cost component fluctuating."
The most valuable lesson Smith learned from her time in business was that "influencing maps" - how to work the network - is vital. "I have understood that far more since my time in business," she said.
"The most difficult thing about working outside IT was gaining the credibility to be a business director, not an IT director, although my chief executive was totally convinced I could do it.
"I did crash courses on marketing. I really enjoyed learning things - IT people are addicted to learning.
"You have to expect the first three months to be a series of 24-hour days and learn, learn, learn. You must not accept standard answers and do whatever everyone else does, but do not bin all advice. Manage your internal relationships actively."
Greg Meekings, chief information officer at Reuters
Meekings has moved between IT and business roles throughout his career. His business stints include running Reuters' global trading systems and foreign exchange transaction businesses.
Explaining the similarities between running an IT department and running a line of business, Meekings said, "When managing people, it is very similar to managing IT. You have got to be good at building teams, motivating people and so on. But your focus is different - it is sales, revenues and installation rates. Unlike softer IT targets, they are not arguable.
"You are very exposed. If you deliver the numbers you are a hero and if you don't, you have failed. You are entirely dependent on your customers - the ones we don't get to meet in IT. It is a salutary experience: very valuable, very challenging."
Meekings found his IT background came in useful when he moved to a business role. "IT people tend to be natural project managers and implementers, and they are reasonably disciplined, which is useful in business - if you are a competent IT manager, there is no way you can lose," he said.
However, he offered a word of warning to others that follow his path. "Do not try to run IT from the outside," he said. It annoys IT and makes business peers think you are still in IT.
"You are in a much stronger position to empathise with business if you have been part of it and they trust you more too. If you want to climb the management ladder, you absolutely must get business experience outside IT. If you only appreciate commercial realities at board level, that is too late."
Though Meekings has returned to IT in the new Reuters role as CIO, he believes his business track record makes his career more secure. "I am more valuable and less expendable - if the grim reaper calls, I am further along the queue," he said.
Pros and cons of a move out of IT
Robin Laidlaw, former IT director at British Gas and president of the Computer Weekly 500 Club, believes a move into business can be a positive one for IT managers, if it is handled in the right way. He highlighted the following practical considerations:
Director-level roles in departments such as finance may require the applicants to hold professional qualifications, for instance an accounting qualification
- A senior management role reporting to the director is generally easier to arrange and will also allow the IT manager to receive more guidance in the new role
- Many IT decision makers worry that they will lose touch with the technology market if they leave it for few years. Think about how easy it will be to get back up to speed on returning to the IT department
IT managers, who tend to move jobs relatively frequently, may have to convince a sceptical human resources department that they will stay in the new business post long enough to justify appointing them.