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Building Business Skills

By Brian P. Watson  |  Posted 08-31-2009 Print

But it seems there are less CIOs talking the talk than actually walking the walk.

Carter: It's easy to tell people that they have to go out and build relationships or to not be so techie--and those are probably true statements. But the most important thing is to go out and add value to the discussion. You have to be someone who's engaged and a part of the discussion rather than sitting back.

So is an extensive business background the new must-have for CIOs?

Carter: IT or business technology is a true discipline. I sit on boards of directors and audit committees, I have an MBA, and I've spent a lot of time getting a general understanding of how financials work, but I would find it difficult to be technically savvy enough to be a world-class CFO. And frankly, I think the IT discipline is equally complex and oriented to experience and table-feel.

I hope I don't alienate the folks that have crossed over from the business side, but there's usually not a very good understanding in the business of what really goes on in IT. It's assuming you can drop someone in there, and it'll get a lot better.

There are some great examples of people who have been successful coming across, but there have also been some catastrophic failures of people that came in and said, 'I'll fix this thing,' but had little or no table-feel for what was going on. IT is an engineering discipline and a business discipline, and it has a great deal of structure when it's done correctly.

Much of the problem exists when those activities are not well-understood by the business and IT, and the business gets sideways, and misunderstandings occur, and the answer seems to be to put someone in IT that speaks the language of the business. But if they can't strike the balance between understanding the technology and understanding the business and the marriage of those two things, you could be asking for trouble.

Is rotating throughout the business to get broader exposure a necessity for aspiring CIOs?

Carter: Back to my theory that IT provides a lens into the business, my honest preference is to rotate IT assignments so that you support various parts of the business--operations, finance, customer-facing or e-commerce, etc., so you get a broad perspective of the business through the lens of working closely.

If you're doing that right, you'll find yourself sitting in those same staff meetings that you would have been in if you were in that on-the-line rotation, and you'll find yourself getting the same experiences in sitting side-by-side with the same teams.

My bias is certainly one of rotation, and I've forced a lot of rotation among the management team here. There are certainly occasions when those rotations make sense, like when you have a business expert who's imminently qualified and needs to be put in that job.

But in general, you shouldn't have to force it to happen. It should happen opportunistically based on that person's executive, managerial and leadership capabilities.

What other skills do IT leaders need?

Carter: IT professionals need to have a sense of confidence about their ability to bring value to the business--not just from a technology standpoint, but from a process and leadership standpoint in helping to architect the way business works.

That's what all executives are trying to do; they're trying to optimize the way business works, the way it interfaces with customers, the way it performs productively inside its own four walls, the way it reaches out across boundaries between suppliers and customers.

At the end of the day, those are all systems issues. None of those would exist without supporting technologies and capabilities that make them happen effectively.

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