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Across the Great Divide

Across the Great Divide

CIO Brian Feucht comes to work every day knowing that some of his subordinates will be out for his blood.

And he doesn't mind a bit.

Of course, it's virtual blood. Feucht, along with several of his IS staff members at Chicago-based outplacement firm Hire Quality, is an enthusiastic participant in "Half Life," a sci-fi computer game featuring sudden deaths and nefarious scheming. This might turn a few heads at many companies, where computer games are usually hidden from the boss, not shared with him. But Feucht, 28, sees things a little differently.

"How often do you get to kill the boss at work?" he asks. "My staff loves [playing the computer game]. It's a great morale booster."

This is the new, younger face of leadership. In times past, Feucht's passion for "Half Life," not to mention the fact that he spends office time playing it, would be taken as a sign of immaturity and mark him as a poor candidate for higher executive office. Today, however, Feucht's approach to building staff morale marks him as a guy with a grip on the zeitgeist.

And he's not alone. As more companies try to recruit business-literate CIOs, the title looks increasingly attractive to Young Turks who might earlier have dismissed it as a job for Poindexters. Demand for IT executives climbed from 7 per cent to 10 per cent of the overall executive recruitment market in 1999, according to New York City-based executive search firm Korn/Ferry International. What's more, many recruiters say that current business trends are breaking in favor of younger workers, including the rapid pace of technological and economic changes and the dizzying force of the Internet. Although no hard numbers are available, it appears that, anecdotally at least, more and more CIO positions are being filled by IT professionals younger than 40.

The CIO position is increasingly seen as a steppingstone to CEO, making it more attractive to younger, more business-inclined aspirants. This may explain why many younger CIOs haven't climbed through the ranks of programmers. Some have come from business functions, like marketing or sales. Others, like Steve Black, the 37-year-old senior vice president and CIO at Physicians Health Services , an HMO based in Shelton, Conn., first worked in the consulting industry. "IT has become more attractive to young people as there are more opportunities to be a part of the business strategy," says Mark Polansky, managing director at Korn/Ferry (Visit Polansky's executive IT career advice column). "The CIO isn't just a supporting actor anymore."

Still, the more things change, the more they stay the same. According to Korn/Ferry recruiter Philip Schneidermeyer, many companies-particularly large corporations-are still looking for CIOs with a few gray hairs in order to benefit from their years of experience. Combine the notion that younger CIOs are coming on with the idea that older CIOs are still in demand, and you could assume that the two age groups could strike up quite a conversation across the generational divide.

You would assume correctly.

For example, Feucht is the first to admit that he still has a lot to learn. Being a young, first-time CIO, he says, is a bit like "sticking a firehose in your mouth. You are just bombarded with new things every day, and you are trying to keep up with the expectations. There are many things that would be easier for me with experience."

Conversely, John B.W. Cross, who spent six years as CIO of BP Exploration and Production and five years as BP Group CIO before becoming executive vice president at Bethesda, Md.-based consultancy AppNet , says that older CIOs can get "stuck in a particular mind-set, and they can be afraid of change. There's a lot they can learn from younger executives about embracing risk and being able to say when they don't know something."

This being a big-tent kind of business world, there's room for CIOs of all ages, and even more room for the following tips, tossed from veteran to newbie, and vice versa.

The Veterans' Views

CIOs who have been around a few years suggest the following tidbits for younger, less experienced CIOs.

Don't be a sucker.

Vendors sometimes view a young,inexperienced CIO as nothing more than a big bull's eye for overcharging. Take nothing at face value, and double-check everything, from prices to fine print in contracts. For instance, Feucht says a telephone company vendor attempted to take advantage of his relative lack of knowledge by charging him a rate higher than the prevailing charges in his area. He caught the attempt by running the verbals of the contract by a mentor.

The bad old days were sometimes good.

Don't dismiss the viewpoints of older IT staffers who come from the often-maligned mainframe era. Don Heiman, who at 52 is the CIO for the state of Kansas, argues that the mainframe culture taught IT workers "tremendous discipline and attention to detail. You had to document everything and be meticulous. My main complaint with many of the younger IT folks-for instance, those coming in and working on Y2K-is that they feel that you don't need documentation with the kind of distributed computing you have now."

Respect your elders.

This is every bit as important in the corporate world as it was on childhood visits to great Aunt Liza. While many younger CIOs may have business-side chops, they may lack experience with executive-level meetings. Don't come in with a know-it-all attitude, advises Laraine Rodgers, 52, a former CIO who is now a vice president at Emerald Solutions , an Internet consulting company in Portland, Ore. "I've seen some younger hotshots fail because they were impatient and didn't take the time to learn their way" around the corporate boardrooms, Rodgers says. Instead, soak in the corporate culture and observe how things operate at the executive level before throwing any weight around.

Justin Yaros, CIO at Los Angeles-based 20th Century Fox, took this advice a step further: He hired an executive coach when he first became CIO. He says the coach gave him useful advice on how to handle the job of CIO and how to develop a leadership agenda. He found it so helpful that he hired her to coach some of his direct reports as part of an overall leadership development program.

Learn from your fellow geeks.

Build an informal advisory board of older, more experienced mentors, such as other CIOs, academics or even vendors. Often, the best way to do this is to network heavily. Cross, for example, is a devotee of industry conferences. "I always told myself that I just needed to learn at least one thing from a conference," he says. Jon Bridges, the 36-year-old CIO at Atlanta-based fast-food chain Chick-fil-A , turned to an older business mentor who wasn't afraid to call Bridges on his errors. For example, his mentor stressed that Bridges' habit of "pushing things" could also be construed as pushiness, making him difficult to manage. The mentor helped him develop better change management skills and less intrusive methods of working with other senior managers.

Project management skills are evergreen.

"Project management disciplines are just key," says Cross, and they can be learned only through experience. So jump right in. Rodgers advises those without significant project management expertise to not fake it: Acknowledge the lack of these skills and get involved with some big projects, posthaste. It doesn't have to be an IT project either; project management skills cross functions. For example, says Cross, "if you work for an oil company, learn about the pipelines and get involved in a technical project there." The point is to get to know the ropes because every CIO will need to know how to manage details with discipline, says Jim Sutter, a long-time CIO who spent five years as CIO at Xerox before becoming CIO at Rockwell International from 1983 to 1998. "There are so many details that can derail the CIO, and only people who have been through big systems implementations know to insist on the precision necessary," he says.

Tips from the Young Turks

Next-generation CIOs offer the following strategic suggestions to their veteran colleagues.

Don't hunker down in your IT bunker.

Linda Pittinger, president and CEO of Somerset, N.J.-based People3, says that the role of CIO has evolved from management of an isolated IS fiefdom to that of a change advocate who has influence across functions. "The new job requires an individual who thrives on constant change. In some ways, younger executives can be more comfortable with this need for reinvention," she says. It helps, says 20th Century Fox's Yaros, to toss out preconceived notions of where IT fits in the company. "CIOs should insist on equal footing."

You don't have to be a kid to ask questions.

Not even Bill Gates can keep up with technology all by himself. So treat the job as a constant opportunity to learn from coworkers, no matter what position they occupy. Physicians Health Services' Black says that he disarms executives and clients "by admitting upfront that I don't know something." And that gives him the opportunity to ask all the questions he needs.

Cross says that Black's trick of lowering his guard is a tough but vital lesson for older CIOs. "You have to admit what you don't know in order to learn new ways," he says. This is especially important with new technology. "Take vendor courses, whatever it takes to keep up with learning," he advises.

Toss out top-down managerial rigidity.

When Yaros became CIO, he started with a symbolic change that immediately let his staff know that the old regime was out. Yaros says he inherited an office from an "older-style CIO" that was dark and dank. "He kept his door closed and the blinds pulled," Yaros says. "The message was, 'Don't bother me.' When I had the office renovated, I had big windows put in. I keep the blinds up and the door open, and people noticed right away." Yaros followed up with regular staffwide meetings and offsite staff sessions that promote team-building and develop leaders. He's trying to make communication a two-way street, and his efforts have paid off. For example, turnover is a relatively low 10 per cent-he says that other studios are reporting IT turnover of between 25 per cent and 30 per cent.

Black held a staffwide Q&A session when he was first hired. The questions were submitted anonymously and he answered them live, even though there were some zingers about his lack of experience as a CIO. "Some of the questions were pretty hot," Black says. "But I addressed the misperceptions, and the fact that I did this earned respect."

Embrace change.

Schneidermeyer says that, in general, younger CIOs are able to view their job as "not managing technology but as leveraging it to improve business processes. It just seems that younger CIOs have gotten that message sooner because they don't have the baggage of previous technology eras."

For example, Yaros says that one of his goals at Fox was to overcome a view of the IT department as stodgy and out of touch. Yaros says, for example, that one of his first acts as CIO was to meet with top business executives to discuss their priorities and technology wish lists. In fact, one such executive told Yaros that this was the first time an IS executive had ever asked his opinion. By listening rather than dismissing new proposals, "I struck them as more willing to accept new ideas and to be more adaptable to change," he says. "I didn't appear premolded to these business execs."

Find ways to relate to your younger staff.

The business world has changed vastly in the past 10 years alone, and many newer people have little patience for traditional corporate mores. Nowadays, CIOs need to do a little reaching out. Bridges, for example, believes that inspiring team building can happen through outside activities. For instance, he, along with a few other IT staffers, took an unpaid day off recently to help another employee paint her house. And the entire department is planning a horseback riding jaunt this year.

This may be a little too chummy for some CIOs, and trying to fake such intimacy will show. But Cross says that each CIO must find his or her own way to get closer to staff. "You can take a real personal interest in a project rather than having a hands-off management style-you can roll your sleeves up and show you feel their pain," Cross says. But CIOs must get involved with their workers in order to build a team out of an aggregate assortment of people.

As Yaros says, "being geeky now is cool." And right now there are plenty of jobs for CIOs of all ages-but don't make the mistake of sitting back and getting too comfortable. "I think this is the most exciting time in 20 years to be a CIO," says Sutter. "But it's important, too, for CIOs to force themselves to challenge the way they have been doing things and make sure they are current. If they think they are too busy to do that, they will lose."

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