Planning ahead: Sound business skills are vital for making the leap from IT manager to director, and industry programmes aim to provide the tools you need to succeed.
Everyone likes to imagine what they would do if they were the boss. Although few get the opportunity to get to the top of IT organisations and act on their ideas, a recognised career path is becoming more established.
Unlike lawyers or accountants, IT professionals have struggled to achieve recognition for their skills in the broader business, and IT does not have a structured path that leads to a place on the board.
However, in May, the heads of four major IT organisations formed a pact to put IT on a more professional footing. The Professionalism in IT (Profit) programme, involving the British Computer Society, the National Computing Centre, IT suppliers association Intellect, and sector skills council E-Skills UK, covers a host of activities designed to get IT recognised on a broader business footing.
Elements such as continued professional development, ethical integrity, commitment to standards, regard for the public good, and social responsibility can all help IT professionals reach the top.
Achieving this kind of experience is essential for those with ambitions to get onto the board, according to Jim Norton, senior policy adviser for e-business and e-government at the Institute of Directors.
"The key to an effective board role for an ICT head is to combine solid technical skill with broad business knowledge and interest," he said. "The person must be genuinely interested in all aspects of the business, and not just ICT. They must understand in some detail how manufacturing, operations, sales and marketing work and what their key challenges are.
"The ICT head must also relish involvement in business change. ICT-enabled business change must be led by the functional directors involved, but ICT is a vital partner and enabler."
With 20 years' experience at the top level of IT, Roger Marshall, IS director at the Corporation of London, is all too aware of how critical business skills are. "You have got to take a business view rather than a technical view. Generally speaking, if you are acting as a manager within IT, issues are largely technical. When you get to the director level, you are more involved in business issues, but you need to keep on top of both," he said.
As well as a strong understanding of how businesses develop their strategies, IT directors must have a more subtle understanding of the relationships that keep businesses moving forward. "Written strategy is only half of the picture," said Marshall. "It is personal relationships that make the world go round. You need to get to know your customers - the other departments in your business."
Laurence Levy, managing director of recruitment consultancy Levy Associates, said this is what employers are looking for when they fill the top IT posts. "To get to that level you need business acumen, communication acumen and must be able to engage people. It is a big step up from being a technician," he said.
IT professionals ambitious to reach the top must construct a career path that gives them the right mix of technical and business experience. "You have got to think where you want to be in five years. Even if you don't know for sure, you have to have a goal," said Levy.
Although all jobs come with certain responsibilities, at board level these can be explicitly laid out in legislation and industry regulation. Michael Gough, chief executive at the National Computing Centre, has counted 36 legal documents that affect what people do with information in a business. "The thing that makes a difference between board-level jobs and other IS roles is accountability. The transition from IS manager to CIO is through accountability and leadership."
Being on the board also creates personal liabilities, and with changes to the Companies Act on the way, these liabilities are likely to increase. "Prospective directors need to understand what they are getting themselves into," said Gough.
The Institute of Directors runs a chartered director qualification that can give prospective CIOs an understanding of these liabilities. "I think the programme is a good idea. It is a consolidated programme of education that brings it all together. It would demonstrate knowledge and ability to others and make you more attractive to employers," said Gough.
IT managers lower down in the organisation can start to build a CV and demonstrate a knowledge of business issues and personal accountability, Gough said. This is likely to involve networking with peers in other organisations through user groups.
The BCS runs a chartered IT professional qualification that covers legal and business responsibilities. Pete Bayley, director of qualification products at the BCS, said, "These are the sorts of things that are highly valued at the top of the IT profession.
"IT professionals tend to come from a specialist background and find it difficult to break into the most senior positions unless they can broaden their outlook. You have got to get communication, negotiation and business skills."
Chartered director: www.iod.com/chartered
Chartered IT professional: www.bcs.ord/server.php?show=conWebDoc.1076
Professionalism in IT: www.bcs.org/server.php?show=nav.7532