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BIG THINKER
“As the custodian of this IT organization one of the most fundamental things that I need to do as its leader is to leave it in a better place than when I inherited it.”
Dana Deasy, BP Group CIO
Untangling the CIO’s leadership DNA
Image: Nick Ballon
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Untangling the CIO’s leadership DNA

Kenny MacIver – October 2012

An adept networker, a great diplomat, a steadfast general, a savvy negotiator? DanaDeasy, BP CIO, on the skills and traits that help the ambitious CIO climb the career ladder.

What attributes do CIOs who lead the IT function at the world’s largest companies possess? Today, as the CIO of energy giant BP, a global corporation with $386 billion in revenues, Dana Deasy is not short of insight on what some of those characteristics are.

Great networking skills are key at every stage of a career, but particularly helpful at the start, he says: “To be a successful CIO you need to spend time early in your career developing an external network, building relationships with other CIOs, with technology firms, with thought-leaders.”

“In a global CIO’s job you’re always going to be asking about industry best practice: how other companies are solving a particular business problem or if your organization is working as intelligently as it can,” he continues. “You are going to be challenged by your board for an understanding of what’s going on elsewhere. And if you haven’t built that network along the way it can be very difficult for you to reach out when you have a real problem or when you have a crisis.”

And when that crisis does hit, the capacity to be highly professional is another litmus test of a high-end CIO, he argues. “In IT, it is inevitable that projects aren’t always going to turn out right, operations will sometimes go bad, areas of even the best security may be attacked, and events occur that cause you to be under enormous stress,” he says. It is how the IT organization and the CIO respond that counts.

Deasy should know: in January 1986, his organization was responsible for supporting launch-day activities for NASA mission control when the Challenger Space Shuttle exploded shortly after take-off, with the tragic loss of all seven crew members. Being able to deal with the heavy demands on the IT organization as colleagues sought an immediate, and then a deeper understanding of what went wrong and how it could be prevented in the future, was a formative experience and one that showed the strength of the capability – both organizationally and personally – he had built.
The art of diplomacy

Diplomacy is another facet of the top CIO’s skill set. Take, for example, the challenge of dealing with other, very senior IT people – often divisional or regional CIOs – within a very large organization. Elsewhere, they might be Global100 CIOs in their own right, but here they must serve two masters – their business leader and the global CIO.

“You have to know when to let them manage in their own effective way, and when you need to get involved,” says Deasy.

Regardless of the hierarchy over which they preside, top CIOs need to be able to have influence over both the groups they work with internally and their external partner network, says Deasy. And, with the increased use of IT service providers, there is a premium on those who can manage such relationships effectively. “Suppliers are such a key part of the CIO’s life,” says Deasy. “The CIOs who will be most successful going forward are not necessarily those who are managing the largest workforce, or who’ve got to own everything, but those who can manage the skills they control – both those they have direct control over and those they can influence to get things done. You really have got to bring suppliers in and engage them in a way that they become just an extension of your organization.”

He also points to the importance of developing expertise in regulatory compliance, governance and legal issues that have a bearing on IT – elements that get even more critical when a CIO is running IT for a larger organization. And he puts a high value on gaining wide exposure to the different operating models of IT in use at different companies – centralized, decentralized, federated – and the importance of applying the best, and knowing the pitfalls, of each.
Leaving a legacy

Lastly, every CIO should consider their own legacy - and this works on two levels. First, there is the legacy a CIO leaves their employer: in other words, what kind of IT organization – both operationally and culturally – will their successors inherit?

“As the custodian of this IT organization one of the most fundamental things that I need to do as its leader is to leave it in a better place than when I inherited it,” says Deasy. And the number one thing I can do there is people. Yes, I can put in great processes, build great relationships for the business, give it great technology. But what will sustain the organization over the long haul is going to be the people skills, their development and the principles that we put in place around capability.”

Second, there’s the legacy that a CIO leaves the IT profession as a whole, a subject close to Deasy’s heart. He was instrumental in the founding of Columbia University’s prestigious program for hothousing aspirant CIOs. Its Executive Master of Science in Technology Management took shape when Deasy (newly installed at Siemens’ Americas operation in 2000) was approached by Dr. Art Langer, a professor who was researching what distinguishes CIO careers that just seem to rise and rise from those that plateau.

After much discussion about some of the frustrations of cultivating talent and the scarcity of some fundamental skills in potentially top-flight CIOs, Langer asked Deasy to help construct a CIO masters course. What resulted was a 16-month program, only open to those with 10-plus years’ experience in using technology to further business goals and already with a strong record of professional achievement and clear leadership potential.

The program today focuses on the strategic application of technology to enhance business performance and how CIOs sell that vision to their boards (on the course that’s represented by a group of CIOs). Fittingly, a key ingredient of the program is the assigning of a full-time mentor to participants – usually a CIO who provides them with real-world insight and a highly critical eye.

Deasy was mentor number one, and today around 150 others support the program, including the CIOs and former CIOs of Ogilvy & Mather, JetBlue, Campbell Soup Co, HSBC and Pernod Ricard. To date, 315 prospective CIOs have emerged from the Columbia course.

Even with Deasy still years from retirement, his legacy both at BP and in the profession at large already looks set to be a much admired one.

Update: Dana Deasy is due to become CIO at JPMorgan Chase in December 2013.

First published
October 2013
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About: Dana Deasy
Dana Deasy, group CIO at energy multinational BP and mentor to aspiring global IT leaders, shares his unique perspective on what it takes to reach the highest levels of business.

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