Confessions of an Accidental CIO | Straight Talk

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Moving from the law to IT had been an unexpected move for this future CIO. But she learned – and shares here – some valuable career lessons that they don’t teach you in computer science classes.

I fell into technology accidentally.

I had finished university with a degree in law but found myself disillusioned with the idea of becoming a lawyer. I’d been drawn to law by courtroom dramas like Rumpole of the Bailey. But in the end, I didn’t see nearly as much room for creativity in it as I had imagined. While I decided what to do next, I took a job as a temporary worker at British Gas.

On one of my first temp assignments, I was sent to work on an IT project and it didn’t go particularly well. After we had implemented it, I fielded a lot of queries from people saying, why isn’t this working? Why isn’t that working? Having worked closely with the development team I had learned some basic coding, and I was able to go into the database and run simple queries to answer the questions.

I suppose my career grew from there, really. I became a business analyst, then a systems analyst, and then a junior project manager. From there I moved up the project management chain, delivering bigger and bigger and more complex programs. At first, these were mostly technology programs, but then they became much more about business change and business transformation. Eventually, I became the U.K. Head of IT in National Grid, and when National Grid sold its UK gas distribution business (now Cadent) in 2017, I became CIO for the new business.

I’ve found corporate IT to be very challenging and creative work. My favorite parts are at the beginning of new projects and ventures, when there’s a lot of ambiguity about what needs to happen.  You spend a lot of time talking to people, understanding the problem, bouncing ideas off each other, and shaping your strategy and approach into a clear road map. The other part I really enjoy is building a strong team. It’s satisfying to see people grow and develop.

Information technology has changed so much since I started, but I think some things I learned on my journey are probably still applicable:

  • Train your replacement right away. I always tried to train someone who could take my place as quickly as possible. It may seem counterintuitive, but if you’re seen as irreplaceable in your role, you won’t be considered for other opportunities. By developing people within your team and demonstrating that they are ready to move into your role, you will move up faster than you would if your boss considers you “indispensable.”
  • Get to know your boss’s boss. The hard fact is that your boss can’t promote you but your boss’s boss can. If you want to move up, you need to think beyond your relationship with your immediate boss. Do your boss’s bosses know you? Do you have any opportunities to meet them? Is there any way for them to become aware of you as an individual, and about your capabilities and your potential?
  • Take only the risks you need to take. Even if you don’t feel confident about a promotion, chances are it will work out all right. As a rule, organizations don’t put people into roles to fail. However, you should make sure you have the support mechanisms you need when you take on the job. If you think you are weak in certain skills, you may want to say, yes, I’ll go and do that project, but I’m going to need some extra support in this or that area. Similarly, if you’re offered a job that doesn’t interest you, don’t be afraid to negotiate a revision of the job description that will make it worth your while.  
  • Find mentors who aren’t like you. Don’t look for a mentor who is the same as you, because all you’ll do is violently agree with each other. You need to find somebody who will challenge your way of thinking or your way of doing. You will make your biggest gains from a mentor who can open your eyes to a different way of thinking. For example, one of my most successful mentors was an auditor from EY, who had a very structured way of doing things that was quite different from my style. We would meet about once a quarter. I would describe a challenge or an opportunity that was coming up, and he would say, “Well, this is what I would do,” and his advice was always very different from the approach I would take. I didn’t always do what he suggested, but seeing another set of options was always helpful.
  • Offload your weak points. Be aware of your strengths and weaknesses, what you are good at and not so good at so that you can add people to your team to help you succeed. For example, I prefer not to pore over spreadsheets of detailed financial information, so I’ve got amazing right-hand people who are much more comfortable with that stuff. This kind of “playing to your strengths” is important, especially as you move higher up in your organization. I have also found that as I have moved into more senior roles, success has depended less on the technical aspects of what I know, and more on the strength of my relationships with my colleagues and understanding of the business.

Finally, your success will depend to an extent on your breadth of vision. As we all know, IT executives increasingly need to think beyond IT, need to understand the business and its problems, so that they are not pigeon-holed as technology people. But there is still a tendency for business services, whether it’s HR, finance, or IT, to be sidelined as “the support guys,” the order takers. That may have been good enough in the past, but these days, you need to be a partner.

The Takeaways 

In the beginning, your success depends on your skills, but as you move up in the organization, it depends more on the strength of your team and the network you’ve built.

The most valuable mentors are often people who don’t think like you. Look for people who have a different temperament or set of skills.

If you’re offered an opportunity, don’t be afraid to negotiate so you have the support you need and it includes projects you find interesting.

Create a team which is balanced to maximize expertise.