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Sun 22 Mar 2009 04:00 AM

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The post-CIO future

In the second of an exclusive two-part series, executive development specialist Brinley Platts reveals to Imthishan Giado where CIOs need to be careful in their planning, how they can manage their departments more effectively - and where their career paths will take them.

In the second of an exclusive two-part series, executive development specialist Brinley Platts reveals to Imthishan Giado where CIOs need to be careful in their planning, how they can manage their departments more effectively - and where their career paths will take them.

What are some of the common mistakes that regional CIOs make?

You shouldn't believe what the vendors tell you. With the best will in the world, there are things that vendors don't know about their products. If you look at major ERP implementations, the number of problems and cost overruns can lead to costing people their careers. When you get in consulting support, sometimes it's still bad.

You have to do anything you can really, to give people an incentive to want to stay. If they stay three years, that should be their own investment in career skills to ensure their future path

What works well in London, for example, is that we have networks and communities where CIOs can talk to each other in confidence privately and say things they would never say in public about products, certain vendors, about mistakes made and learned from and wouldn't do again.

You need an environment where they can do that kind of sharing, at least on the end users' side.

The IT leaders in any area need to take ownership of their contribution to the business and their personal career. If they do, they can develop in the right ways, develop their teams strongly and make this contribution to the business which it needs.

How visible should CIOs be within their own departments?

Very accessible. If they've got a large staff, there has to be an organisational structure. It may be old hat, but managing by walking about is still one of the best ways.

Many CIOs started out as programmers 30 years ago, may have moved around a bit but have been in IT their entire career. They have a fantastic, intuitive nose for projects that are going wrong, conversations that do not sound right and so on. They can really tease things out when they are a bit suspicious.

They need to have access several layers down to be able to do that. They absolutely need to be getting information from different areas and levels. They need to have people very close to them that they can trust - but they must not rely upon them.

One of the big problems with leadership is when you get a pudgy middle. They would say that their door is always open - but the problem is that nobody seems to be coming through. That's because you've got several layers of middle management preventing anyone from getting there. You have to actively fight against that kind of culture.

I remember one big bank which has been in the headlines a lot recently - they were my biggest customer five or six years ago. Every month they would run a meeting in a big hall of their top 200 IT managers. We were told that they were not getting enough questions - they're not really engaged. We observed one of these meetings where there was a whole bunch of "telling" people and then towards the end, the CIO asked if there were any questions from the managers.

When one person asked a question that the CIO didn't like because it was a bit slanted, he just lambasted him in front of 199 people - and then asked if there were any more questions. He was totally oblivious to the effect he was having. When we took him aside and gave him a good talking to so that he understood it - reluctantly - he decided not to do anything about it. He preferred it that way.

What's the alternative? He would have to engage with people, make an effort to understand them, become more approachable, perhaps change out some of the people in his top team who protect him - why would he do all that? He's going to retire in three or four years.

How can CIOs sell IT projects at the boardroom level and better align business and IT?

I may be wrong, but I don't think they necessarily sell these projects. Vendors sell the opportunity to business leaders who then want it. Too often, especially if it's built and developed by a third-party, it's thrown over the wall to the IT function to manage this.It's wrong in any case for IT to lead in terms of what kinds of projects they should be doing, but they should be a really active partner. IT leaders need to be one or two steps ahead of their own internal customers and colleagues when it comes to where the business is going and how a certain kind of IT can enable a future which maybe the business doesn't completely understand or see. That's an important conversation.

Having been involved from the beginning, you can avoid the mistakes and vendors getting away with promises that can't be delivered. You make sure that resources and commitment are there. But in order to generate business benefits, the business has to change. And people don't like to change because change is often very hard.

One of the big problems with leadership is that when you get a pudgy middle. They would say that their door is always open – but the problem is that nobody seems to be coming through. That’s because you’ve got several layers of middle management preventing anyone from getting there.

What is the career path of the average CIO?

When we look in detail at the careers of the very top CIOs, they were basically on four different paths or places that they came from.

The average age of a startup CIO in a FTSE 100 company is between 40 and 42, which is very young. Ten years ago, that would have nearer to 50.

One group comes from the technology department. If it were ADNOC, for example, follow a technical career for ten years and then eventually become the CIO. If ADNOC has say 3000 people, their chances would be one in 3000 - which is obviously not good. I call those Professional CIOs.

There is a similar alternative. Individuals could be at say a bank for 25 years, then move into the IT department as a CIO. Why would companies do that? It's because they know the person, he knows the business, has a good track record and so on. All he's got to do is manage the IT function, which traditionally has not had good managers. I call these guys the Executive CIOs because they have no technical background at all.

Then you have the community of CIOs who move around every three to five years. When projects get into big trouble and firms need a turnaround, these guys will get parachuted in by a headhunter. These individuals are a permanent employee - they're not on a limited contract. They go in there to turn it around. It typically takes from three to five years to do and then they just leave.

I call these guys Paratroopers. When they leave, they hand over the job to one of the talented guys in the technology department.

The fourth lot are similar but they have consultant skills. They've been on the supplier side, they've worked with customers. They are good at change especially when there are burning platforms, good at customer focus and building relationships. These I call Consultant CIOs.

Where do they go next?

My hypothesis is that they have four futures. Some stay in the organisation and do other things. They may continue to be called CIO but they are now doing other big things at the same time.

Some join the supply side. They become consultants or they set up a consulting firm, or get involved with a startup firm. They take on non-executive directorships and run a portfolio career.

Some occasionally - and this is very rare - become chief executives.

And, I'm sorry to say, many finish up on the career scrapheap. They go into interim management, do bits and bobs like short contracts, become expats and do three years in places like the Philippines or Malaysia.

I do think that is changing. Since the average age is coming down, they're hitting that point earlier.

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