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Life After IT: Going Beyond the CIO Role

What do you do when you get to the top of the enterprise technology heap?

If your answer is a French shrug, you are not alone. It's a question that's gaining burning status as the CIO role in India hits its stride and gains growing maturity.

But noses pressed flat against the corporate ceiling, a growing number of CIOs are choosing to reframe the argument: They are only at the end of their careers if they remain CIOs. But can they be more than CIOs? What challenges they will face if they become CEOs or COOs? And aren't some of the qualities that are inherent to being CIO diametrically opposite of those you need for the top job?

A Quick Over the Shoulder

The CIO title made a modest entry into India Inc during the 90s. But if the title was new, the role wasn't. "In those days they were called EDP managers or IS managers," remembers N. Kailasnathan, an erstwhile CIO, and currently the EVP and COO of Titan's Precision Engineering Division. Kailasnathan belongs to what's being called the first generation of Indian CIOs. Most of this generation started out as programmers or coders, like Kailasnathan himself.

"Those were the days before SAP," jokes Kailasnathan, referring to how, back in the day, all applications were homegrown and a lot more programming went into the IT function. "Our capabilities were tested on how well we were able to develop and support applications. There was no standard. You knew processes because you developed the application."

In those days, the technology playing field was also very limited, a fact that cast a shadow on IT's reputation. "I remember in 2000s, the only WAN link available was a point-to-point circuit. Look at the choice we have now," says Sanjiv Dalal, former CTO at Firstsource and current MD and CEO of Anunta Tech, a wholly-owned subsidiary of Firstsource. Dalal says that the lack of technology choices then led to CIOs being perceived as "status quoits".

That changed very quickly. Technology disruptions ensured that. In the last decade new technology, and technology delivery mechanism like outsourcing have freed up CIO bandwidth, allowing them to create solutions that address business needs­­--and maturing the role in the process. "Technology has undergone a dramatic change, making so much more available today," says Dalal.

From there, the CIO role really took off. Forward-looking IT leaders turned their departments from cost center to profit centers, from support functions to business enablers, from controllers to drivers of innovation.

And then, at the top of their game, some of them left it all to do other things.

Why Change Tack?

CIOs who have moved beyond the CIO role say they were motivated to do so by different things. For some it was natural progression of their roles within their companies, for others it was the ambition to build something of their own. But a common theme runs across their stories: They didn't move because they felt that their Career Is Over.

"Don't look for a shift because you're bored," says Chinar Deshpande, formerly the CIO at Future Group before he became the CEO of Criti. Like many CIOs, Deshpande was an engineer and computer science student, which prompted him to join IT. However, after a few years in the US and an MBA later, he changed his career path.

"My experience in large enterprises like Hindustan Unilever and Pantaloons gave me the opportunity to lead global projects and try out new business ideas. And working closely with a leader like Kishore Biyani, fuelled the spirit of entrepreneurship in me," says Deshpande. "I wanted to start something of my own."

Another common characteristic among CIOs who have moved beyond the IT role is that they did a lot more than handle IT while being CIOs, making their shift to other roles less of a challenge.

Take the example of Swaranjit Soni, former CIO of Indian Oil Corporation and currently an independent consultant. "As CIO, I headed a large team of about 400 dedicated professionals from IT, operations, finance, logistics and HR. This required not only IT proficiency but total business operations insight."

Kailasnathan is another example of CIOs who did more than IT. During his years as Titan's CIO, he was invited to join the board, no mean feat for a CIO even today. While heading IT, Kailasnathan also led numerous initiatives outside IT. He got into business excellence, knowledge management, ethics, social responsibility, and even corporate communications. His big break outside IT, he says, came from the top.

"I moved when my boss asked me to. He felt I could do much more outside IT," he says.

Don't Move Without...

Whatever be the move, a CIO must ensure all possible impediments are cleared before he can make the plunge. One of those is lining up a suitable successor.

It helped that Kailasnathan had groomed a next-in-line that could take over his IT role. "I could move on thanks to a good deputy. If you want to move first make sure you have accomplished everything and more as a CIO. But also make sure you have someone you can trust to hand over the ropes to," says Kailasnathan.

Dalal was familiar with both sides of IT having co-founded his own software company years earlier. So when the opportunity came to lead Anunta, he grabbed the chance with both hands. But it wouldn't have been as easy without a robust IT team that could fill up the void his move would create.

"I have been blessed by an old team at Firstsource that has been with me since I joined. Hence transitioning was a fairly straightforward job," explains Dalal.

Then there are the skills you need to master. The good news is that you don't need to be born with these skills, you can acquire them. "The CIO must first transform himself into a business CIO," says Soni.

Dalal who is a self-confessed techie says he picked business skills as he floated up the corporate hierarchy. "My roots are in technology. But along the way I've acquired reasonable experience in finance, HR, business strategy," he says.

While some like Kailasnathan grow within an organization, some need to look out for friends who support their career and push them into new territory. "Networking is essential. When you're looking for a change, you'll need people who have faith in you," says Deshpande, who got his CEO break through a well-wisher.

Finally, CIOs taking on new roles need to be ready to unlearn, advices Kailasnathan. "You have to lose the tech orientation you acquired over the years. You need to develop a flair for dealing with the external world, dealing with financial numbers, costs and balance sheets. You have to produce month-on-month results," he says.

What about learned behavior--like minimizing risk--that comes with the CIO territory? Does that make it tricky to take on a CEO's role, which demands a high risk threshold? "Absolutely not," says Dalal. "I don't think CIOs are averse to taking risks. The innovations happening in the tech space is changing the typical CIO profile. A lot of CIOs today are willing to look at alternative technologies and experiment."

What a CIO Brings to the Big Boy's Table

Although there is much for an aspiring CIO to learn, there are also a number of skills they posses that give them an edge their c-suite peers don't have. When Kailasnathan moved on to an operational role, for instance, he brought process excellence with him. "As a CIO, you have great knowledge of processes. I was able to bring process efficiency into our operations," he says.

A CIO's analytical ability also makes them excellent consultants. "People must understand that devices are dumb and they have to be defined precisely. This skill of process engineering and the ability to define precisely, to the smallest detail, can be applied to any field making the CIO adept at many functions," says Dala

Then there is the ability to push the benefits of IT beyond what ordinary CEOs can. "Being an IT guy at heart, I have been able to introduce IT solutions and process automation with more ease. I'm now a customer to IT, but I get preferential treatment since IT guys know me well," says Kailasnathan.

That's another common theme among CIOs who go beyond the role: A buried fondness for technology. "I miss the thrill of technology, of staying in touch with all that's new and emerging. In business, everything is holistic and less technical," concludes Kailasnathan.

You can take the CIO out of IT, but you can't take technology out of a CIO.


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