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 spends his time serving on the boards of eight different companies, primarily technology companies in both public and private sector in the United States
and Canada. In addition, Powell is partner in a venture capital company called XPV Capital Corp. which invests in high-tech companies. He has also been coaching organizations on how to deliver leadership strategies to senior executives.
Powell believes the changing role of the chief information officer demands that IT managers develop their leadership skills and business acumen or risk missing out on opportunities. He recently spoke with Computing Canada about his role as chair of the CIO Advisory Committee for the IT Leadership Development Program launched by
Computing Canada: What do you think are the skills a CIO needs today?
Keith Powell: I am not an IT professional. I was asked to come into that role as a business person. 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 reason is the CEO doesn’t understand whether he is getting a return on investment, in IT-speak. He is 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, as (former Nortel president John) Roth did with me: bringing the business person 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.
CC: 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 meant 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 complement what the business’s strategic plan is so I can create value?
I often use the term IT to describe a business inside a business — to provide that kind of value to the organization.
CC: 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.
CC: At what level do you think this kind of business thinking has to take place in IT ?
KP: 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.’
CC: What advice do you have for aspiring CIOs?
KP: IT is 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 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 — it’s going to create a different way in which we operate in both business and our (personal) lives. The CIO has that burden on his back of being able to convince the business people they should be prepared to take the leap.