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Qualities for the C suite

Qualities for the C suite

The low-down on what it takes to get to top level management.

The sort of leadership qualities required to reach the C-level is the subject of endless debate. There is much focus in the media on "strategies for success", as if following a 10-step programme can get you to the corner office. Meanwhile, tales of ruthlessness abound in modern fiction, portraying an image of power-hungry people clawing their way to the top. Nothing could be further from the truth. Not only is the degree of humility required greatly under-estimated, but the stand-out characteristic of an innate ability to get along with potential competitors is overlooked as a critical success factor. "People skills" can mean the ability to influence people and enjoy the company of others. But it also means the ability to fuse a team of people together and get them moving in the right direction rather than just removing problematic people and replacing them with more compliant individuals. "Hard work" is a given, as many chief executive officers, chief information officers and chief financial officers will testify. And of course you really have to want the job.

From interviews with several top CIOs around the region, some of the "must-have" leadership qualities that emerge are: Total commitment to the role-you have to want it, and you have to be married to it (hard work); communication skills-particularly listening, influencing and negotiating; the ability to build relationships with people you might otherwise detest; consultative character-allowing others to help you solve problems

Do you really want It?

BHP Billiton CIO Dave Richardson says it is important that an aspiring executive work out whether the top team role is what he really wants. "If it is what you want, you need to be honest enough with yourself about whether you've got what it takes and whether you are prepared to make the sacrifices necessary to get the top job. Everybody works hard these days, but there is a real commitment to this sort of role."

Richardson, who has had senior IT roles in a range of industries, from retailing with Myer and Coles Myer, banking with the ANZ and in the airline industry with both Ansett and Singapore Airlines, says a key success factor for executives is the ability to get up to speed reasonably quickly on the critical areas of your role-working out what's different and what stays the same. "That doesn't mean that I need to be an in-depth expert on everything about the business," Richardson says. "But I do have to understand the business, understand what the key drivers are, as well as the operational issues and opportunities. You need to work out what the real levers are and what's really important, as opposed to what's 'nice to know'." He says the way an executive earns his pay over a year is by carrying the load of a half dozen major decisions, while "the other stuff is done and executed through people."

The critical characteristic is to be a people person, Richardson says. "You are only truly successful through other people. You can have the best ideas in the world, the best strategy, the best judgment, the best experience. But things are going to get done through others." He says that if an executive does not have a real interest in helping to develop the careers of others, developing their skills and helping them communicate well, "then you're picking the wrong career and the wrong aspiration." Being able to work with people you may not necessarily warm to is also an essential ingredient in the mix, according to Richardson. "It's important to have people around you and reporting to you who in many ways are quite different from you and how you think and they may go about doing things in a way you wouldn't do," he says.

Three steps to success

Westpac's Michael Coomer, group executive for business and technologysolutions and services, says three main factors enable a C-level to be successful: the quality of the people the executive surrounds himself with; the quality of those the executive chooses to work with; and, the quality of the decision-making that follows. "You might be the best decision-maker in the world, but if you are not surrounded by the right people who can either execute or support the decisions inside the business, then your decisions are meaningless," he says. "It's all about getting that combination of the right people that are working for you, and then I think you can back your judgment."

In building relationships with diverse personalities, Coomer says he focuses on capability rather than personality. "Invariably you will be confronted with the issue of having people around you who make you feel very uncomfortable-and they make you feel uncomfortable because they challenge your own judgment. But provided their values are aligned and their motivations are aligned, you can cope with any of those issues well. However, the moment you believe their motives and values are not aligned culturally, then that's time to part company."

Coomer says that hard work is an essential part of the reason for success at the C-level. "It's a seven-day job, but again the key is the right people. The way I run my business is with people who plan, people who transform and people who run. Your planners will be the longer-term thinkers, those who transform will be the change people who are changing in the intermediate and immediate term, and the run people are those who just keep the wolf from the door by keeping everything in good working order. Those three are in equal portions-no one dominates the other."

Another key is networks, internal and external, formal and informal, Coomer says. Keeping in touch with a wide range of people in the IT industry enables him to keep up with trends. "You also literally absorb as much information as you possibly can. While accounting standards might be changed on a generational basis, IT standards change every day. You can't keep abreast of that by sitting behind your desk, so there's quite a lot of travel involved. One of the reasons for the high turnover of C-level and CIOs is that 'wear-out' factor."

Critical capabilities

Cathay Pacific director of information management and CIO Edward Nicol says the two critical capabilities for successful leadership are getting things done and getting along with people.

He elaborates on the two critical success factors:

* "Getting along with people' is not just about being liked and loved, it is about being able to understand people and to discern what drives them, how they view things, and being able to influence them in a collaborative way. It's about people

management." The term "people management" also includes clarity of communication, negotiating skills, influencing skills and the ability to partner with internal and external stakeholders. To be successful at a senior level you need to build relationships with people, even if personally you may not like them, Nicol says. "You have to put your personal feelings on one side and if it's important that you get along with somebody, you have to find a way to do so. People also need to be able to get along with you. If everybody hates you, if you're an unpleasant individual, you are not going to make it, no matter how competent you are."

* The ability to get things done-"This is absolutely critical. You have to make a difference. People should notice that something happens when you are there that would not happen if you weren't." Nicol adds, "If you can't answer the question, 'What do you contribute in your job?' you have a big problem."

A standout quality is an executive's ability to identify opportunities and to come up with a solution where none apparently exists. "You don't employ a C-level to keep things ticking over, but to make a difference, to get something done-to dramatically grow sales, profits or make acquisitions or whatever. In our case for example, it could be not just about getting the airline menus out on time, but about being innovative on menus or meal concepts or the structure of the contracts with the suppliers or how to deliver the in-flight service in the kitchen."

Strong Work Ethic

Canadian-born Coles Myer CIO Peter Mahler says that while intellectual capability is essential in an executive, "the primary thing" is the work ethic. "I could easily have come to Australia and worked in consulting in telco or airlines but instead went into something totally new. I had to do my homework at nights as well as my day job, to learn about the industry. I went out into stores and asked others who'd been in retail 20 or 30 years if they had the time to help me learn. And I must say they did. Look, if your day job is a 60-hour job, you still have at least weekends to learn the new technology or the new business."

Mahler believes in being consultative. His Mondays are usually completely blocked off-he spends time with leaders of all the big projects, and the layer beneath those leaders. "We have meetings from morning to dusk and I have these people coming at me from every level. It's time for them to spend with their CIO and bounce things off me and tell me their problems. That way I get a complete picture from the

ground up."

He says it is not easy for executives to work with those who may have incompatible personalities-"but you just cannot let personalities get in the way. You have to take emotions out of the equation. You have to look beyond their foibles and seek out their capabilities. They got to where they are for a reason."

Mahler says the "people compatibility issue" trips up most potential leaders at the middle management layer. He believes attention to detail is vital. "You see the big picture but check that your goals are being achieved," he says. "You can't delegate that. You have to have a real love affair with the job and be very involved."

Life After IT for CIOs

Westpac's Coomer has taken to asking chief executive officers in all industries: "How many of your senior executives could do the job of a CIO?" Not many, if any, is the answer. "Yet I think there is likely to be a number of roles a CIO could fill because of their domain expertise. Therein lies a glimpse of the future that says the day of the 'mastery CIO' is coming to an end, and I think the CIO who understands the business as well if not better at times than the business executive is where the future opportunities lie for IT executives." At Heidrick & Struggles, we see the next wave of CIOs facing demands that earlier generations of technology leaders could not have imagined. There are a variety of professional experiences and competencies that can spell success in the CIO position. The CIO of the future will play an ever-increasing role in managing information to drive decision-making, providing faster, better and smarter tools for running companies competing on a global scale.

Gerry Davis is head of the Heidrick & Struggles CIO Practice for the Asia Pacific region.

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