Survival as an IT executive in the late
1990's has become an even greater challenge. More complex technical
environments, more sophisticated end users, and soaring business expectations
all have made the job of an IT executive downright hazardous. One wrong move and
you could find your fellow business side executives either working to reduce
your IT influence and authority, or even worse, clamoring for your
Recently, our local Austin AITP Chapter invited Ray Bender, a nationally known IT
executive researcher and consultant from the Gartner Group, to speak regarding these "hazardous duty"
concerns. I had the good fortune of attending Ray's excellent presentation.
In the following two features, I would like to summarize Ray's main
points from this meeting, and then follow each with my personal observations and
comments. Part One will cover IT executive success qualities and survival
considerations. Part two will cover executive success traits and survival action
Top IT Executive Success
Ray first presented two slides which were based on studies done by
Michael J. Earl at the London School of Business. The first slide outlined the
key qualities an IT executive should possess to insure success:
- Communications Ability
Ray highlighted the central role of
the IT executive in business technology matters. This central role imposes a
requirement for clear communication regarding business strategy, technology
strategy, and work progress.
My experience has shown that a
successful IT executive must be able to communicate clearly with a wide range of
diverse personalities and interests. A typical day could begin with a detailed
conversation with a programmer, and end up with a 10,000 foot strategy overview
with top management. Communications ability is a vital quality in these varied
- Technical Knowledge
Ray made the point that to be truly
effective as an IT executive, you have to first understand information
While some exceptions may exist at companies where
"executive transplants" have occurred from the business side, I believe this is
an exception, not the rule. Over the years I have found that the most effective
IT executives came straight from the technology ranks. These are the people who
have a clear understanding of which technology is appropriate for a given
business situation. They are also the folks who have a credible technology
- Business Acumen
IT executives must be business
practitioners first, technologists second.
responsibilities include executive communication, strategy and budgeting, vendor
relationship maintenance, business problem solving, crisis control, and IT
management. In order to tackle these responsibilities, successful IT executives
must develop a sharp business sense. Equally important is sustaining a
perception by the other business executives that indeed you are a
relevant and valuable part of the business. This means addressing technology in
business terms at all times.
As an IT executive, you have the primary
responsibility for the facilitation and communication of the company's ultimate
IT strategy. This means you are the key provider of IT vision to the
Clearly this takes both confidence and courage.. and a
willingness to accept criticism. My experience has shown me time and time again
that this is the activity for which IT executives really earn their paychecks.
The fact that the IT executive is both the top IT business leader as well as the
chief technologist, puts the IT executive in the unique position of seeing the
total big picture. From this vantage point he or she must be the first to put a
"straw man" vision on the table. This is the key starting point for continuing
detailed business discussions, technology strategy formulation, and solution
Top IT Executive Survival
Ray's second slide outlined the key qualities an IT executive should
possess to insure long term career survival:
- Shared Vision of IT
Ray remarked that the IT executive must
be working towards the same goals as the business. A shared agenda must
To me, this is survival rule number one. A successful IT
executive must work every day to maintain an awareness of important business
changes, to establish meetings and forums for information exchange and
prioritizing, and to establish joint ownership and accountability for IT
initiatives. These activities go a long way toward insuring a mutual involvement
and ownership of important IT projects from both the key technology and business
executives. It also prevents unpleasant surprises.
- Relationship Building
Not only is an IT executive
responsible for strengthening relationships between the various technology
groups and the supported business areas, but he or she also must sometimes serve
as a catalyst for relationship building between distinct areas of the business
My opinion is that this is another area where the IT
executive brings tangible, bottom line value to the business. A good
relationship builder can apply these skills to critical situations throughout
the company. A wise IT executive uses his or her "big picture" perspective to
first spot these opportunities, and then to follow-up with action.
Ray pointed out that career survival sometimes
depends on understanding the "prevailing winds" within the company.
found this to be especially good advice. The successful IT executive must
understand both the evolving culture and the current business mood at all times.
In certain situations, a wise IT executive may find that in order to insure long
term career survival, he or she should drop a deeply cherished technology idea
or principal because it is simply not embraced by the business. Always take
the end user perspective, and pick your battles wisely.
The IT executive's credibility must be guarded
at all costs. Credibility and effectiveness are mutually dependent and
The business depends on the IT executive to be the
in-house expert on technology related matters. The IT executive must be able to
provide credible technology direction and vision. He or she should push for
change when the change makes good business and technological sense. Also,
the IT executive should be the first and the highest roadblock in the path of
"implementing technology for the sake of technology". The business should always
be able to depend on this IT executive level scrutiny. Honoring these
responsibilities can work wonders toward keeping one's credibility intact.