Information Technology is becoming much more of the business by the business and for the business than ever before. This is true because almost all business trends have deep technology components to them. Not only every industry, but practically every function within every company needs IT to run its most strategic processes and platforms. Lastly, customers are becoming ever more technology savvy. As a result, companies are demanding that IT leadership reflect this business-centricity.
It used to be commonplace that the chief information officer would grow up in the IT department, often from the level of programmer, working his or her way up the hierarchy until reaching the highest point. It also used to be that this was the end of the journey, by and large. This level of grassroots knowledge of IT was all the more important in an era where IT’s infrastructure was all on premises, and largely homegrown.
Now that substantial swathes of IT are managed in the cloud, and as more systems are leveraged in their “vanilla” state off-the-shelf, and as more of the actual IT work is done by vendors, a growing number of CIOs are taking on this role after having spent most of their careers in other functions.
The advantages of doing so can be tremendous. As IT becomes the business (rather than something separate from it or a support function to it), it is essential that IT leaders have greater business and financial acumen. This can come from an IT executive who has an MBA, or from a CIO who had a stint in a function other than IT while spending most of his or her career in IT. More companies are finding that it makes sense to have IT leaders who have walked a mile in the shoes of other functions.
Examples include Marriott International Global CIO Bruce Hoffmeister, who grew in the Finance function before taking over IT. He developed a training module to teach financial acumen to IT resources. Before long, he was the leader of that function. Jamie Miller also has a finance background, having been Controller and Chief Accounting Officer at GE before becoming CIO. She now brings the financial rigor and discipline to the IT function, ensuring that IT delivers the business value promised across its portfolio. Rebecca Jacoby, the CIO of Cisco Systems, was a Supply Chain leader before taking over IT. She has indicated that her expertise in cost accounting has allowed her to constantly monitor the many facets of IT to ensure that the right cost models are applied across the portfolio of IT. Whereas many CIOs are pressured into outsourcing IT functions, Jacoby constantly has the data at her fingertips to understand how the cost to build and manage things in-house compares to outsourced options. This is an essential skill today.
Other CIOs who came from other functions include
- Kelly Breitenbecher of PETCO, who was a Merchandising executive before taking over IT
- Bill Klitgaard of Covance, who was that drug development services company’s CFO
- Eric Pearson of IHG, who was that hospitality company’s CMO of the Americas immediately prior to his current role
Some of these executives will be profiled as part of my “Business CIOs” series in the coming weeks, starting with my interview with Jamie Miller of GE this week. (To get notice on future articles in the series, please click the “Follow” link above.)
This is not an easy path for these CIOs, but they are often chosen because their strengths align with the weaknesses of the department historically. A transparent and accountable executive of another function with a history of collaborating well with IT can be a solid successor to a CIO who was opaque and who lacked accountability. Often CIOs who come from other functions also elect to hire a chief technology officer to run the most deeply technical aspects of IT.
This by no means the death knell to IT leader who grew up in the function. Rather, it means that those IT employees who aspire to become CIOs ought to spend time working in close collaboration with other functions if not spending time in another function entirely for a time. Depth of knowledge of technology coupled with a breadth of experience across the company is often the best combination of all.
Peter High is the President of Metis Strategy, a business and IT advisory firm. He is also the author of World Class IT: Why Businesses Succeed When IT Triumphs, and the moderator of the Forum on World Class IT podcast series. To read his series on CIO-pluses, visit this link. To read his series profiling CIOs who have risen beyond that role, visit this link. Follow him on Twitter @WorldClassIT. In September, Wiley Press will publish his next book, Implementing World Class IT Strategy.