The business CIO

Now more than ever, experience outside IT counts.

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When research firm Gartner Inc. asked the largest IT recruiters to discuss what their clients want in current and future CIOs, it found that they're increasingly looking for people with professional experiences outside of the IT department. Specifically, it found that senior executives want CIOs who have managed a non-IT business unit at some point in their careers.

"We've heard for a couple of decades that the IT delivery mechanism can be enhanced when driven by people who are more acquainted with the business. It's also very clear that that was inadequate for many, many companies. Therefore, they've raised the bar," says analyst Ken McGee, who wrote the January 2008 Gartner report "Meet Your Next CIO."

"Not only must you have experience from the business side," he says, "but now you have to have that profit-and-loss experience; you must really have guided a department or a division other than IT."

CIOs who have such experience have a business sense regarding what works and what doesn't, and regarding what should be undertaken and what shouldn't, McGee says.

"You have a capacity, which is very difficult to teach, that determines from the outset whether an IT idea is worth pursuing in support of the business or whether it's nice to have but won't do anything to improve the income statement," he adds.

Few CIOs today have had P&L responsibility, even though more companies are looking for it, McGee says. That type of experience is particularly important now, given the current economic volatility.

"This is a hugely turbulent environment, but business has to continue in the face of all that, so someone in IT -- where expenses are not small and impacts are not small -- has to understand how IT can move the business," says Barbara T. Grabowski, a professor of MIS and director of the master's in MIS program at Benedictine University in Lisle, Ill.

While acknowledging that leaders who move up the IT ranks can do that, Grabowski says that those with broader experience bring a broader view that can help them formulate an IT strategy that best fits with an organization's wider agenda.

"Anyone coming up through any specific unit is going to have the same narrow view. If I'm an IT expert, I'm going to see everything through the lenses of IT, just as if I'm a financial person, that's the lens I'm going to have," Grabowski says. "But moving around the organization adds some dimension that a single, vertical path won't have."

Riley concurs. He says his experience in product management, sales and marketing gave him a perspective on business requirements that can be gained only by doing such jobs. Specific skills he honed in those roles include building relationships, packaging a vision and communicating that vision's value.

Going Deeper

But business-side experience is about more than developing certain skills, Riley says. It's about understanding what makes the business tick.

As a product manager, for example, he had to have a constant focus on service because the customers could leave if they were unhappy. Riley says he had to make sure he was delivering value to those customers but also providing a profit to the company. And he had to learn to present his ideas to his CEO and the board.

"Those are all great skills you can get in some IT organizations, but you generally don't get them to the degree you do when it's your livelihood," Riley says.

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