The CIO and the A-Team

Every IT leader needs a posse of proven deputies if they are to succeed.

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Every big-time CIO knows you can't rise to the top without reliable people around you. And the smartest CIOs build a battle-tested posse to bring along from company to company, city to city.

And why not? A turnaround CIO wants a trusted operations expert with him when he lands at a troubled company, to help scope problems and not stab him in the back. A strategic CIO wants a grade-A communicator to help script messages and convey ideas to perhaps reluctant employees or nontechnical executives. What CIO wouldn't want to take along a project leader who has expertly planned and managed global software rollouts?

Glen Salow, executive vice president of service delivery and technology at Ameriprise Financial, a US$10 billion financial planning firm spun out of American Express, keeps tabs on 25 to 30 people he's worked with over the past several years. He brings them into his inner circle whenever he can. Today the entourage includes two communications pros and an intellectual property attorney.

One of those communicators is Kathie Wilson, a change-management specialist; they've worked together 11 years, beginning at American Express. Among other tasks, Wilson monitors how her boss' technology changes are received by Ameriprise advisors and staff and helps position his communications to address those concerns.

"What gets you is not what you worry about, but the things you don't know you need to worry about," Salow says. "The way to deal with that is to surround yourself with diverse perspectives." Most CIOs, he says, "keep a list of a dream team and you reach out to them often." Salow himself was recruited to Ameriprise by chairman and CEO James Cracchiolo after the two worked together at American Express. Salow is among the highest-paid technology executives at a public company in the US; according to SEC documents, he earned more than $7 million in 2007. (See " Million Dollar CIOs.")

CEOs, of course, have recruited favorite managers to new gigs for a long time. CIOs with peeps, though, signal that technology executives know they have every bit as much on the line as a CEO, says Chris Patrick, partner at executive recruiting firm Egon Zehnder International and global leader of its CIO practice group. When superstar CIOs manage thousands of people and billions of dollars, Patrick says, "mistakes can move the company's stock price in the wrong direction. You have to have trusted lieutenants."

At these lofty levels, a CIO entourage can include a publicist to sculpt the image of the executive and sometimes his entire department, both inside and outside the company. A trusted right-hand man or woman gathers intelligence from the IT ranks and the influential players outside the technology group. A sharp lawyer negotiates with vendors and protects intellectual property. A technology operations specialist troubleshoots and fixes daily problems. A recruiter learns your work style and fills critical job openings with people skilled and compatible with the team.

Ken Harris, a former Pepsi CIO, credits a chunk of his success leading technology at Nike, Gap and now Shaklee to having found, and continued working with, project leader Rhonda Sias. What she adds to his entourage are technical excellence, business knowledge and smooth interpersonal skills. "It is rare to find someone who is highly developed in all three of these areas," Harris says. In the past decade, the two have worked together at four companies. Sias has, says Harris, "saved my butt."

IT execs now reaching for superstardom can also make use of a posse. Jeff O'Hare specializes in turning around IT groups gone awry. Now CIO at West Corp., a $2.3 billion business process outsourcing provider, O'Hare was previously senior vice president with enterprise wide responsibilities at Cendant, a $20 billion services conglomerate that was later split into four companies. Cendant hired him to fix a $1.5 billion outsourcing deal with IBM that had turned ugly. From Cendant and other companies where he has worked, O'Hare stays in touch with a group of IT professionals with specific, sought-after skills. These include technology purchasing and the financial intricacies of outsourcing contracts.

When he enters a turnaround situation, he wants tested and trustworthy people with him, he says. "Knowing the ins and outs of how your key reports work greatly accelerates your ability to initiate change and provides you with additional eyes and ears," he says.

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