Dec 16 2011   3:01PM GMT

To be executive material, CIOs need passion, must be in fighting trim

Linda Tucci Linda Tucci Profile: Linda Tucci

I check in with headhunters this time of year to get the lowdown on hiring — and more important, on what companies are looking for in their CIOs. What’s considered executive material these days? This year, I asked that question literally because — call me superficial — I’ve noticed lately that CIOs are — how do I say this? — a lot hotter than when I first starting covering IT seven years ago.

I’m not talking about CIOs moving away from being the bespectacled IT guy in white socks, short sleeves and pocket protector. That stereotype was stale even when I started writing about IT. CIOs are dressing for success: sharp suits on both sexes, high heels for the women; an iPad nearby.

What I heard back from headhunter Shawn Banerji helped explain what’s going on. And it involves more than a well-cut suit and the latest gadget. Banerji, who’s at New York recruiting firm Russell Reynolds, described for me a new breed of CIO executives: Ramon Baez, for example, who was recruited to head IT at Kimberly-Clark. The maker of Kleenex was in the midst of a huge transformation, and its expectations of IT were huge too. Once Baez agreed to take the job, he hired a personal trainer, dropped 20-something pounds and got himself into fighting trim.

“He told me that if he hadn’t gotten himself in shape, physically and mentally, he would have broken down; and irrespective of how capable an IT leader he was, he could not have been effective in the role,” Banerji said.

That’s the executive material required for the CIO job, Banerji said. “You’ve got to have a really strong constitution, mentally and physically. I liken it to professional athletes.”

And athletes not only good for the short sprints, he added. The journey of business transformation that many companies are on is so accretive that they can’t afford to lose their best executives. Corporations, need to create “a culture of performance for their top executives that is sustainable,” Banerji said. That’s hard.

“People say, ‘It’s a marathon not a sprint,’ but do you see how fast those people run in a marathon? Companies cannot afford to have CIOs working for a year or two and then getting burnt out completely,” he said.

CIO executive needs passion — and not just for enterprise architecture

According to Banerji, part of the new CIO persona comes from the fact that CIOs these days often have some major passion outside of work, and they really work at it. “These are people who are able to carve out specific blocks of time to do things that are meaningful to them outside the context of work,” he said.

One of the high-powered CIOs he knows races cars. Another races motorcycles. I wondered if he has come across any CIOs who write poetry or raise orchids. He hadn’t, but doesn’t doubt they’re out there. “The reality is, it’s not what you do but that you do something and that you carve out the time to do these things,” he said. Apparently the ability to turn off work and take a breather is an absolute must if one wishes to sustain the level of performance a company expects.

Some of these CIOs are flying a million miles a year. They’re responsible for operations around the globe. And forget about those long, alcohol-fueled dinners with your favorite vendor rep. “What happens if something goes down in Asia and they want you on the phone? Are you going to tell the CEO or CFO or the board of directors, ‘Sorry, I was half a bottle of Pinot Noir in.’? Doesn’t work that way,” Banerji said.

The new CIOs: more Marine than Mad Men and Mad Women! More polymath than Poindexter!

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