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Fast track CIOs don’t give no for an answer

Leading Chief Information Officers (CIOs) actively build their own careers by taking a broad view of their role in the company and initiating engagements with the other C-suite leaders.

At the Fusion 2012 CEO-CIO Symposium produced by WTN Media, several CIOs talked about their work, outlook and goals. While a few speakers at the Symposium mentioned the historical, or mythical, role of the CIO as the person who just says NO, these three were definitely nothing like that.

Brent Leland, CIO of Trek Bicycle Corp., noted that last year the company had 10 key initiatives and four of them were technology. Tight budgets have been a fact of life for IT leaders, but Leland sees the issue, as not just cutting costs but investing in growth.

“Reframe the question. The whole idea of freeing up capital investment is to channel it into growth.” Leland is not about to have his role and department be branded as a cost center.

Rick Davidson, CEO of Cimphoni and Chair of the Symposium, asked how much work managing the IT plumbing entails and whether moving to software as a service (SaaS) will help a CIO prepare for a CEO role.
Bentley Curran, CIO of Brady Corp., said the company moved several applications to SaaS to free up capital.

“When we shifted some applications, it not only freed up capital but it also freed up IT architecture talent. Rather than focus on internal applications, the architects could focus on customers.” Some IT people are more comfortable with computers than people, but Curran found several who enjoyed getting out to interact with sales, other parts of the company and with customers.

CIOs who are looking for greater responsibility, and perhaps a shot at becoming a CEO, have to build up their organization so the day-to-day operations can work without them. Once they can leave operations to the team, they can move into more strategic business roles. Curran said it took several years at Brady but now while he has the ultimate responsibility for IT, he can leave the routine work to others. Last month Curran was appointed to the new role of vice president of digital business, reporting directly to Brady President and CEO Frank M. Jaehnert.

Tim Schaefer, CIO at Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance, said IT is now becoming an area for rising executives to get some vital experience of the business. Young people cycle in and out as part of their career development; five senior executives at the firm started in IT.

That was no surprise to Trek’s Leland. “We have the greatest cross-functional view of the business. We just need to look at that view in a big way to understand the business.”

Schaefer’s department at Northwestern Mutual has become adept at finding opportunities. One IT staffer heard that marketing was going outside to create a mobile application. He organized his team and they won a bid for it.

“Catch it early and mobilize the team,” was his takeaway.

Asked for a general lesson for success, Schaefer said, “Time management.”

“You need constant diligence about where you spend your time as CIO. Clear the calendar.” It takes continuous effort to spend your week strategically, he added.

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