So you want to be the CIO

Keith Powell was CIO at Nortel Networks for four years until June 2000 (what he calls the good times – before “”all hell broke loose””). Today he divides his time between serving on the boards of eight different companies, primarily technology companies in both public and private sector in the United

States and Canada. He is also a partner in a venture capital company called XPV Capital Corp. that invests in high-tech companies (both hardware and software). He is also co-chair of this year’s CIO Summit and has been coaching organizations on how to deliver leadership strategy to senior executives.

Powell believes the changing role of the chief information officer demands that IT managers need to develop their leadership skills and business acumen or risk hitting the glass ceiling if they want to make their way to the role of CIO. He recently spoke with about his role as chair of the CIO Advisory Committee for the IT Leadership Development Program launched by Ryerson University and the CIO Summit November 24. What do you think are the skills a CIO needs today?

Keith Powell: I am not an IT professional (prior to becoming CIO Powell was promoted through various roles in customer service, quality, operations, manufacturing and materials). I was asked to come into that role as a businessperson. When I was in my CIO role, and in dealing with many IT companies, I see the IT professionals are losing out on opportunities. That is because the CEOs of companies are looking for more business-oriented people to run their IT environments, and this is happening for a couple of reasons. The first is the CEO doesn’t understand whether he is getting a return on investment in IT-speak. He is really looking for someone who can translate all this stuff into something that is going to create business value and derive a return on investment as his business organization sees it, not as a bunch of technocrats perceive it.

Because the CEO is thinking more business-oriented, he is thinking, as (former Nortel president John) Roth did with me: bring the businessperson in to head up the function. Hence these bright people who should be candidates for the CIO role are coming up against this glass ceiling. It’s absolutely necessary they start to understand the impact they can have on the business and then be able to translate that in the way they deal with their peers and be seen as business-oriented information technology professionals.

ITB: Do most CIOs have a business background, not an IT background?

KP: More and more, CIOs are of my kind of background as opposed to the IT side.

ITB: Do you think IT professionals need to get an MBA?

KP: Clearly, an MBA would be useful, but you’re not going to take a whole bunch of senior IT people and have them rush off to get an MBA. What this (IT Leadership Development) program is really oriented to do is address the issue of the business environment they have to deal with. What is customer satisfaction and customer service? How do I translate what IT is doing into the strategic plan of the business? How do I take an IT organization and complement what the business’s strategic plan is so I can create value?

It’s about giving them exposures in that fashion with a goal of getting them to use not only the vocabulary of business but start to think in business terms. I often use the term IT to describe a business inside a business to get them to promote themselves as being able to provide that kind of value to the organization.

ITB: What about the politics of being part of a senior executive team? Is that something IT managers know much about?

KP: There’s no question, there is a huge amount of politics at that level and the whole issue of being able to work with your peers in a non-threatening fashion. What I’m seeing now is the IT world in the non-technology sector can come across as quite threatening. People start to feel concerned about job security and all these kind of issues. So how can an IT professional position what they are doing to their peer group so they can be seen as non-threatening and yet bring something to the table the business cannot get without going into this whole world of technology?

They start to walk this narrow path between motivating and capturing the best of the information technology world. Being able to translate that to the peer group in the political environment they are operating in, in terms of creating new values with business.

ITB: Can you give an example of where this has taken shape successfully?

KP: Wal-Mart is an organization that has truly taken information technology and made it a strategic underpinning for its success in the retail industry. It’s not a retail company at all — it’s an information technology company.

ITB: In the past, have you seen people who aspire to the CIO role that have shot themselves in the foot by not going forward with this strategy?

KP: Absolutely, it happens all the time. It’s very subtle because it isn’t like you shoot yourself in the foot and now you have a big cross on your back. It’s the subtle communications that go on in the hallways and in boardrooms and all this kind of stuff where people start to leave you out of the conversation and all of a sudden you are isolated in a sense from what is really going on in the business.

CC: At what level do you think this kind of business-thinking has to take place within the IT organization?

Powell: We really need to develop these skills at the director (of technology) level. My goal would be to see IT professionals getting on the short-list — whether they make the grade or not of becoming CIO. Then somebody is saying, gee this person has some capability and can do the job of the CIO.

ITB: What advice do you have for aspiring CIOs?

KP: IT is really the untapped potential in business today. People always talk about CRM and enterprise planning and you always hear about it on the negative side but I really think we are on the thin edge of the wedge of significant change to the way business is conducted and it’s because of that underpinning of information technology. If you just think of where wireless is going and that kind of stuff — it’s going to create a different way in which we operate in both business and our lives. And so the CIO has that burden on his back of being able to convince the business people they should be prepared to take the leap.

They need to explain it in a way that people can understand and yet not make it so risky to the business that they are not prepared to take the risk.

ITB: Is it a role of a chameleon?

KP: Yes, to some extent you change your colours depending on the environment you’re in and when you’re talking to IT people you talk one way and when you talk to business people you talk another way.


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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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