Career Turning Point: CIOs Can't be Just One of the Guys

Formative lessons from successful IT leaders

All it took for Michael Whitmer to know that IT was the place he wanted to be was a visit to IBM (IBM) in eighth grade. Surrounded by green-screen terminals and row upon row of tapes, he was hooked. Being fortunate enough in 1978 to attend the only high school in his county to offer computer classes solidified the calling. "It's the immediate satisfaction that you get from technology," he says. "You know when you write a program whether it works or not, and that's a fundamental driving force." Through high school, he pushed and prodded to find opportunities, then majored in computer science in college and found a co-op opportunity with AT&T that enabled him to work in the field while still in school. But having that passion for technology didn't fully prepare him for being a CIO.

As vice president of information services at a large company, Whitmer was second in command at the headquarters for a large project with wide impact, and he and his IT team were working long days to meet aggressive deadlines. In an effort to make life easier any way he could, he encouraged casual dress for every day of the week and adopted it himself. However, his team was in a separate building from the rest of the company, and when Whitmer went across the street to meet with the executives, he didn't think to change clothes. While it was never commented on, when they named a new CIO, it wasn't him.

The lesson Whitmer walked away with isn't groundbreaking, but it is an easy one to overlook or dismiss. Anyone looking to be a CIO needs to weigh the benefits of staff camaraderie against the benefits of projecting authority. "I was trying to be supportive of my team," he says, "but what they really needed--and what I needed to be--was a leader." At the majority of companies, CIOs are not people who can or should act like they're just one of the group, and Whitmer has taken that to heart as he has moved up into the role of global CIO and left the day-to-day IT operations--and casual dress--behind.

Michael Whitmer is global CIO and North American executive VP of operations at Hudson Highland Group.

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