I recently spoke with Alan Mumby, Executive Search Partner at Odgers Berndtson, and co-leader of the search firm's Global CIO/CTO practice. Earlier in his 33-year career, Mumby was himself a CIO, which gives him special insight into the role and helps him recruit the very best people for his clients.
Having recruited big-brand CIOs to big roles (such as Ian Watmore to the role of UK government CIO), Mumby is perfectly suited to talk about the importance of personal branding for CIOs.
Pat Brans: What does a CIO career path look like these days?
Alan Mumby: I think you need at least one degree these days. It might be in Computer Science. Then you might get a second degree in business. An MBA would be great, although it's a big investment. But some kind of management training is useful.
It's good to get certificates from examinations resulting from courses, rather than just attending a course. In other words, get serious qualifications.
In your work experience you have to do three things. You have to get some experience in operations and technology to understand how the stuff works, where it sits physically, and what the security implications are based on the physical environment. Then you need to get into the development of solutions to understand how solutions are shaped to the business need. The third thing is to learn about strategy, architecture, and forward-looking stuff. Learn about innovation.
It doesn't really matter the order in which you get these things, but it's important to have these three elements to prepare you for a leadership role. Leadership roles also obviously depend on your personal attributes. The personal attributes are the real differentiators once you get up to the leadership level.
PB: Is moving from one company to another a good thing or a bad thing?
AM: It's a good thing for lots of reasons. One is that it gives you a diversity of perspectives, which is useful - provided you don't do it too often.
I'm not sure what the right frequency is. On average, throughout a 20-year career, if you move once every three years, it's probably just on the safe side, but getting dangerous.
You should probably look to move your role every two to three years. You need to either move on or move out. It's easier to make bigger leaps in reward and easier to make bigger jumps when you go through the market, rather than do it internally.
This is slightly surprising, because you'd think that when people know you, they're prepared to take more risks. But that's not the case. It seems people are prepared to take more risks and go to the market.
You can move quicker in your career by going through the market, but you mustn't do it too often, because you'll be seen as a job hopper, and someone who doesn't stay the course.
PB: What does one have to look out for as one changes companies?
AM: I think you have to be careful these days, because of the ability to reference people - and by the ability to reference I mean to get right back to people you worked with to get some insights. It's a lot easier these days, because anybody can see who you're connected with on Linkedin. Somebody can just find out who you used to work with, ring them up, and ask a lot of questions.
Honesty and integrity are becoming absolute musts.
I've had a number of CIOs in the past who lied about the quality of their degree, or said they resigned from a position when they really got pushed. It's an awful lot easier today to find these things out than it used to be.
If you don't have honesty and integrity you will get found out, and you'll get a little asterisk next to your name with a note saying: "They don't entirely tell the truth."
Reputation is everything for all of us. A reputation within a company, or a reputation in a marketplace - both are important.
PB: Is it good to get out and work the conference circuits?
AM: What I'm about to say is a sweeping generalisation: Those who do the conference circuits are not always those who have the greatest impact in their role.
First of all, you need to have a predisposition for self marketing to do the circuit. And quite often you see people getting up on stage and talking about a variety of things as a precursor to getting out of where they are. It's common for people to try to get their names out there and get on the lists of headhunters as an attempt to move on.
We do look at people who tread the boards slightly skeptically, because they will inevitably tend to exaggerate the importance of their achievements. I have an example in mind. A CIO we knew wasn't happy in his situation was still out treading the floors, claiming this, that, and the other. It was almost a joke. His promotion and his branding became negative.
There comes a point where if you're constantly pushing, people are going to start to wonder where the focus is. Where's the value add? What is he concentrating on, self promotion or getting the job done? It's so easy to over promote oneself.
There's another danger. You can control your reputation to a point, but if something goes wrong and that gets out, it's better to have a lower profile than a higher one. Higher profile accidents are always more interesting. It's more fun to see somebody well known fail, isn't it?
The very best CIOs are quiet. They go to one or two conferences a year. They carefully select the conferences. They don't go to all of them. They get invited to CIO organisations, like The Research Board. This is as opposed to the ones where you just turn up and sign on the dotted line.
The best CIOs keep their powder a little bit dry. Through the rarified grapevine they are more impactful.
Besides, what's the point in marketing yourself to other CIOs? What you want is to market yourself to CEOs. The CIO circuit, the IT circuit, is probably not where you want to promote your personal brand. In an ideal world, you'd want your profile in the Economist or the FT. It's about picking the right vehicles and the right approach.
PB: How important is personal branding for CIOs?
AM: I think that brand is important because it's how people differentiate themselves. You need to differentiate yourself in this world. No one else is going to wave your flag for you.
It's a very personal thing. Different people have different approaches to doing their jobs. It's important to understand who you are and communicate that so people know what your approach is. For example, you might choose to differentiate yourself as a deep thinker if you're in the CTO domain. As a director you might differentiate yourself as a leader of people rather than as an individual.
A brand is also important in that it gives you something to align to. Rather than just being you in a mode where you are reacting to things, there is you in a certain style. There is you in a certain way, in a certain framework.
It's also important that you have a brand within your business. Within an organisation, rather than market just yourself, you need to market what the IT function has done for the business. On a daily basis, the business may have wonderful IT at 100% availability, and nobody will thank you for it. On the day when you have 1% failure, a dozen people will ring you up and say the IT is lousy and it's broken.
If you don't promote yourself and your achievements through those quiet days when everything's going well, you're asking for trouble, because the only dialogue people will have with you will be about the failure.
You need to promote more positive dialogue about your function and you need to get the idea out there that you are constantly adding value to the business, improving things maybe in small slices, doing things in a less costly way.
Be careful though. The business won't see it, and they won't thank you for it, if you go over the top and go into too much detail about what you're doing.
A good CIO with a decent brand should be able to fashion a good conversation with the business on behalf of their team. And if they don't, I don't think they're doing their jobs properly.
PB: Do you think CIOs are very good at selling themselves?
AM: No, absolutely not. I can say this, because I used to be a CIO myself. A lot of people go into IT because they like the science, they like the engineering, they like the bits and bytes. If they were people persons, chances are, they wouldn't have wound up in IT.
But that's how great CIOs stand out. Great CIOs are good with people. They have leadership skills. They have great stakeholder management skills. They're fabulous communicators. They are rare.
Communication and brand building are skills that are probably alien to many IT professionals. Many people who go into IT don't have those skills instinctively or naturally. They have to either learn them or do without.
The trick is to learn to work with people so that it becomes natural. You don't want to come across as mechanical. Making that kind of change is really difficult and requires digging very deep into what makes one tick.
PB: Can you give me an example of where a CIO stood out as having a really clear brand?
AM: I recruited Ian Watmore to the UK government CIO job when it was first created. He was the CEO of Accenture in the UK at the time. So he was a big hitter.
The thing that really turned me on about his candidacy was that I read some of the staff newsletters he'd written, which were ostensibly about him going down to watch football on a Saturday. But then he'd draw this relationship between what he saw at the match and what he'd seen at the latest programme review. He made these communications that were enjoyable, likeable, to the point, and memorable.
He really had - and he still does have - a great sense of how to communicate. It's rare. It's really rare amongst technologists. He stood out because of his staff newsletters about going to football on a Saturday.
I won't forget that, because it was so important to me. He knew the technology bit as much as he needed to. After all, he didn't need to wield a screwdriver in that job. But what he did need to do was communicate concisely and clearly - and with a certain amount of humour - to a vast array of stakeholders. And that's what he did par excellence.
A lot of CIOs could learn from his example.