The path to the CIO's office: Real-world challenges required

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At one point, "we faced a critical decision about whether to keep pushing on the project or to reset the schedule," recalls Dunning. He pushed the schedule out, but knows he waited too long to do so. "Sometimes the competitive fire and desire to win will push you to do things that aren't best for the ultimate success of the program," he says, adding that it's important to think about the capabilities of your organization rather than your own.

MasterCard's Reeg knew Ones to Watch honoree John Meister was the right candidate to head the authorization and database management group in 2008. "He'd built a track record of delivering great results and would routinely meet or exceed goals," says Reeg. "That, combined with his own drive to succeed and learn, made it easy for him to work at different levels and roles."

But Meister was wary. "Authorization is the heartbeat of our business. If it doesn't work, MasterCard doesn't work," says Meister. He told Reeg the idea "scared the daylights" out of him. That's when Reeg knew Meister was ready for the role. "I would have been more worried if he was coming in thinking this was going to be a piece of cake," Reeg says. "We knew [John] had the technical, people and management skills to be successful."

Being new to card authorization had benefits. "John gets to ask 'Why?' a lot and challenge the status quo," says Reeg. One question Meister posed was, if MasterCard could give banks customer data that helped them build their credit card business, why couldn't it do the same for their merchants? From that question came a system for delivering valuable data to retailers, such as where the customers come from and how loyal they are, and how same-store sales compare over time. And MasterCard is building stronger relationships with merchants, traditionally a challenging audience.

Meister has instilled a more strategic focus in the card authorization group that has translated into increased funding for projects like the retailer data service, Reeg says. "It's a bigger risk, in my opinion, not to offer employees new opportunities and help them manage through failures that might occur."

And they will fail. Overnight success is rare in the IT leadership ranks. Savvy CIOs make sure their protégés build up the skills needed to handle the big tasks. "That's one thing I have a better appreciation for than I used to," says Finnerty. Rather than putting someone in charge of IT strategy all at once, he'll offer aspiring leaders less-risky opportunities first. They might participate in developing financial forecasts and annual operation plans, or take a class on strategic thinking, "so it's not such a shock" when they have to make big decisions, he says.

Have Their Backs

It's not enough just to make sure aspiring leaders are prepared to step up and tackle a big challenge. Smart CIOs have their backs, securing support up and down the company chain of command.

Ones to Watch honoree Ruchir Rodrigues, vice president of product design and development at Verizon, says broad corporate support was critical when he created a revenue-generating consumer R&D group within the corporate IT department. The organization had traditionally provided back-office support. If the company wasn't behind the new team, says Rodrigues, "we would have had sparks but no light."

The genesis of the product-development group goes back more than six years, when Rodrigues and his team worked with CIO Shaygan Kheradpir on ideas for digitizing Verizon's analog offerings. Doing so would give the millions of customers using Verizon's traditional public-switched telephone network (PSTN) the benefits of what we now associate with voice-over-IP, even before VoIP was a viable platform. They didn't need to rip out the PSTN, argued Rodrigues; they could write software to translate the information into something usable on the Internet. "Shaygan saw the vision of it," says Rodrigues. "He said, 'I will help you guys work on this.'"

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