A CEO's Tip for IT Pros: Stop Swaying in the Wind

Don Tennant
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Seven Major Projects CIOs Should Consider During the Next Three Years

If you're an IT pro who aspires to rise to the senior executive level in the company, here's a tip for you: Get your priorities straight and stop swaying in the wind depending on which way the corporate breeze is blowing.


That tip comes from Neil Giarratana, a retired multinational CEO and author of the book, "CEO Priorities: Master the Art of Surviving at the Top." I spoke with Giarratana earlier today, and I asked him what he's found IT pros to have particular difficulty with, compared to other workers in a company. Giarratana stressed that he holds IT people in very high regard, but he wasn't shy about sharing his thoughts on what he considers to be a weak spot:

I sometimes have criticized IT people for [their management of] the priorities, tactics and strategy that one has developed together with them for the IT department-the priorities and goals for the year, and also the middle- and long-term goals. Unfortunately, I have seen them wave back and forth a little bit, like a field of wheat in the wind. When the winds are blowing strongly from one direction, they tend to move away from one thing, and when the winds are blowing in another direction, they tend to move away from another thing. I have seen some good people fall down in the wind. I have found that IT people sometimes take the maxim "user-friendly" to the extreme. I have often sat down with my IT director and asked, 'How many projects have you got in your area or across the divisions, and how have you prioritized them?' I have found that IT people sometimes [fail to manage] conflicting signals from different parts of the company-from different division heads or different executive vice presidents, or even from the CEO himself, who may call and ask about a specific project. That suddenly becomes the project that's really hot, because the CEO has called and asked about it, and wants some information on it.

I also asked Giarratana for his candid assessment of whether CIOs tend to be good CEO material. He indicated that CIOs are somewhat handicapped, compared to the company's sales executives:

A CIO is a person who deals with numbers, who deals in a world that is very orderly. It depends on what the company is. I feel very strongly that the CEO must understand sales. Some of the younger people in the company, I would encourage them, and I would sometimes almost force them, to go out into the field and sell for one or two years, because I said, 'This kind of experience will come back to you 10 times the value of those one or two years if you should ever get to be someone very high in the company, or become CEO of the company.' CIOs are not into trench work, if you will. If it's a software company or a company that's involved in information technology, certainly the CIO could become CEO of that company. But if you've got a classic company out there where you're producing consumer non-durables or consumer durables, personally I would not eliminate [the CIO as a candidate] entirely. But I would certainly look very, very closely at the experience level and the attitude towards sales, and the use or misuse of the various assets of the company, particularly as it relates to field work and generating margin-strong revenues. It doesn't mean I wouldn't be for it, but the entry-level [bar] would be somewhat higher than normal.

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