Perspectives From Women CIOs: Success Comes From Our Ability To Steer Conversations To Solutions, Not Products

Women in the traditionally male-dominated IT industry are often up against a unique set of challenges that their male counterparts don't experience. And these challenges don't disappear for the women IT leaders who have worked their way up the ranks.

At the Women of the Channel Leadership Summit in New York last week, a panel of women CIOs shared how they are moving their respective company's IT strategy forward while grappling with the rapidly evolving industry. The CIOs talked about their strengths, how to get what they need from their partners and technology suppliers, and the importance of helping their fellow colleagues rise within the IT industry.

Regardless of gender, CIOs of companies of all sizes are facing a lot of the same challenges. However, women and men often bring different strengths to the table and even speak a seemingly different language at times. More women in IT have come up through the organization on the "business side" as developers, programmers and analysts, which is impacting how women leaders in the IT department are interacting with vendors and fellow internal employees, said Felise Katz, CEO of PKA Technologies, a Montebello, N.Y.-based IT solution provider who moderated the panel.

[Related: WOTC Panel: How Suppliers Can Help Partners Win More Solution Sales Through Customized, Not 'Cookie-Cutter,' Channel Resources]

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"[Women] IT leaders really have an overall view of the business, and it gives us a little bit more of an understanding and ability to communicate on a business level. On the other hand, folks that have come up through the networking or technology side speak technology fluently and have this credibility immediately," said Tammy Barr, CIO and vice president of information services for Continental Mills, a privately held food manufacturer based in Kent, Wash.

Unfortunately, this can create an unconscious bias when it comes to working with vendors, Barr said.

"Sometimes, the vendors start gravitating and communicating more with the men, and we're not getting to be a part of that conversation," she said.

The good news is that women, often more so than men, have the ability to steer the conversations with vendors away from product selling to solution selling.

"We're really looking for that big picture," Barr said. "Our [users] are asking us how they can be successful more than they are asking for a new network or ERP system."

Michelle Kaufman, vice president of technology for Distribution Management, a wholesale technology provider and third-party fulfillment company, added that being able to brainstorm solutions without talking about specific products is a specialty that many women have, which can be an advantage over their male counterparts.

Talking about solutions requires being in tune with what end users need. As the leader of her company's IT department, Mary Wyderski, vice president of technology for Professional Service Industries Inc. (Psi), a construction materials testing and consulting firm, makes "partnering" a priority, she said.

The IT organization historically has stood on the sidelines and decided from afar what the business needed, but IT needs to be a part of the business so it can better understand what users need, Psi's Wyderski said.

"In our role, we have to be out there forming relationships with the rest of the organization to build that level of trust and rapport, and we really do have to understand what they want," Continental Mills' Barr said.

To ensure that the role of CIO evolves alongside user needs and the ever-changing IT industry, IT leaders should strive to build a road map with plenty of room for flexibility, said Wyderski.

"In the past, as IT leaders, we had plenty of time and projects would go on for years at a time. Now, people expect to download an app on their phone. There's an incredible pressure on us to be able to innovate and predict the future, so we need to be able to see where things are going," she said.

In addition to their evolving day-to-day role, women in the leadership seat within the IT organization who have a better view of the rest of the organization are the most qualified to bring in other women, the CIOs agreed.

Distribution Management's Kaufman shared how she invites women from other departments to lunch to get to know them and encourage their career growth goals. Bringing other women along, the CIOs unanimously said, is the best way to encourage women to stay – and rise – within the IT industry, but there's still a long way to go.

"There's no short-term solution to this," Kaufman said. To me, the biggest thing is relationship building. I think if we build up each other, we all win."