The role of CIO is a delicate balancing act between technical expertise and interpersonal savvy. Much has been said and written about CIOs' need for better communication skills in order to be taken seriously in the C-suite. Speak the language of business, not technology terms, goes the most common advice. On the other hand, in the event of an IT emergency, the CIO had better know his technology.
There is in fact so much focus on getting to and being respected at the C-level--even making the CEO title, for some ambitious CIOs--that one might presume that having the word "chief" on a resume is the mark of a successful career. Is it?
Last week we lost someone whose career was, by anyone's account, one of the most fruitful and influential in U.S. history--and did not include the "C" word. Senator Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts (or, as this Bostonian liked to call him, "our man in Washington"), made one bid for the office of President--the chief executive of federal government--in 1980. It was a misguided and half-hearted campaign truncated by his party's nomination of the incumbent Jimmy Carter. To many Americans, it was also, in retrospect, the best thing to happen to the nation: the failed push for the Presidency ultimately gave us 46 uninterrupted years of Senator Kennedy, while a President Ted Kennedy would have lasted, at best, eight years in office.
Unlike his assassinated brothers before him, political scientist Norman J. Ornstein told the New York Times, "He was not a shining star that burned brightly and faded away. He had a long, steady glow. When you survey the impact of the Kennedys on American life and politics and policy, he will end up by far being the most significant."
So how did this 46-year career play out? Just as it is impossible to speak English without quoting Shakespeare, I would posit that it is impossible to live in the U.S., be American, or both without being affected in some way by Kennedy's work. If you voted when you were 18, you have in large part Ted Kennedy to thank. If you've ever had a job (I'm looking at all of you), or managed other people in their jobs (again, that's you) you've had to deal with HR regulations set by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), which Kennedy helped establish. If you've ever lost a job you may have taken advantage of COBRA, an OSHA program.
And on it goes. My point here is not to lionize the (already lionized, even in life) late senator. Rather, I'm asking you how you would define success. Is it necessarily a vertical rise up the ranks? Or is it knowing what you do best and doing it well enough to leave a mark--a legacy? Is where you are now--be it systems analyst or CIO--a respectable end in itself?
I'm reminded of a conversation I had this summer with Edward Granger-Happ, CIO of the nonprofit Save the Children. On becoming a CEO, Granger-Happ said: "I find [my CIO role] fulfilling enough in itself: By making good IT decisions, I help children get fed. I don't need to be a CEO."
What about you--what do you "need to be"?