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Ambitious IT pros seek COO role

Beth Stackpole | March 19, 2014
With technology the cornerstone of most businesses, the lines are blurring between IT and operations -- leading some IT pros to think of COO as their title of choice.

"We don't have the time to think about business requirements and then translate them into IT requirements and then start programming with a waterfall approach to building systems," she explains. "We needed a more iterative 'test, learn and change' environment, and to move that fast, we couldn't have all those handoffs in the organization."

Hamburger is using a similar approach to building out her team. "I don't run a technical or operations team any more -- I run a combined team," she says. "We're not just combining things at the C-level, we're integrating operations and technology at the next level because it makes for a more efficient organization."

Unique skill set required

While there are synergies between the CIO and COO skill sets -- strong communications skills, deep knowledge of the business and robust leadership chops -- not every CIO has what it takes to win oversight of operations. While CIOs typically have a keen understanding of metrics and key performance indicators, a COO needs knowledge of how the business is performing and what levers to push to drive the necessary outcomes, says Tekexecs' Stanley.

Profit & loss (P&L) experience, understanding value creation across the business, and earning the confidence of the rest of the C-suite are other characteristics that will help a CIO move confidently into COO territory.

"A good CIO receives strategy from other members of the C-suite or division heads and recognizes the IT components articulated in those plans," Metis Strategy's High says. "The really great CIO-plus recognizes that there are themes emerging across the different strategies, and from that strategic perch within the organization, starts to tie things together across divisions."

Then there are some tried-and-true IT habits that will have to fall by the wayside, says Stanley. "You have to purposely forget to be a 'techie CIO,'" he explains. "And you have to have an intellectual curiosity about things that traditional CIOs find a little ephemeral or distasteful" -- like brand marketing, for example.

Barry Carter says it was his ability to recognize and articulate how to solve operational issues in the language of the business that ultimately won him the CIO/COO spot at EFG Companies, which develops consumer protection strategies for businesses. Carter, who came in as CIO reporting to the CEO in 2012, had P&L responsibility at a previous post as well as operations experience, which primed him for taking comparable responsibility at EFG.

"As CIO you get to see the business from end to end," he says. "As you automate processes, you start to see the macro picture on how to influence the business, and pretty soon you get really good at knowing what's needed to run operations."


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