CIOs seek advice from their elders

Nonprofit mentoring program aptly named CIO-SAGE

Council for Excellence in Government Web site

When Carlos Solari took over as chief information officer at the Executive Office of the President three years ago, the job seemed daunting, he said. Solari knew he had to develop a technology strategy and performance measures, but he felt snowed under by hundreds of regulations, laws and initiatives.

"When you are first faced with those things, it seems overwhelming," said Solari, who now runs a consulting firm.

After his "holy cow" feeling faded, Solari figured he might need some help. In late 2002, he sought advice from CIO- Senior Advisers to Government Executives (SAGE). The nonprofit Council for Excellence in Government administers the CIO-SAGE program, which matches former government CIOs with new government executives, many of whom are CIOs.

About three years after its creation, CIO-SAGE continues to be a valuable mentoring program, many former participants say, and its leaders hope to expand it.

The CIO-SAGE program provides what its leaders characterize as collegial support. Executives can reach out for advice in a structured venue, said Dave McClure, the council's former vice president of e-government. Other venues, such as conferences, are useful to CIOs, but CIO-SAGE lets them spend valuable time with a small group of experts, he said.

"It has worked unbelievably well," said McClure, who is now a research director at Gartner and a CIO-SAGE member.

The group's members, whom the other members choose and vet, have been asked for advice on a variety of topics, such as the creation of information technology performance metrics. CIO-SAGE members have held recent meetings with the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts about developing an IT strategy.

CIOs face many issues on which they want an outside perspective, said Alan Balutis, a former Commerce Department CIO who is now president and chief executive officer of government strategies at the market research firm Input.

Creating CIO-SAGE within the council provides structure and a buffer, allowing former federal employees to mentor as peers rather than as company representatives, McClure said. Rules and guidelines for the program aim to ensure that the relationship remains a mentorship.

"We make it quite clear that this is not a marketing arm for any company, and that this is peer-to-peer conversation," McClure said.

The program gives former federal CIOs a way to continue their public service after they have left government, Balutis said. When former CIOs participate in CIO-SAGE, they aren't selling anything, he added. "You check your company at the door. You want to contribute to the community you were a part of for so many years," he said.

John Palguta, vice president of policy and research at the Partnership for Public Service, said the most important aspect of a successful mentoring program is the initial match between a mentor and the person receiving mentoring. "I don't think you can simply go down a list and say this person is available," Palguta said. "You need to make sure you have some chemistry there."

A mentor program should also be carried out over time rather than in a single meeting, Palguta said. The structure of the program should ensure an ongoing relationship through activities such as shadow days or monthly meetings.

Mike Davis, executive director of the Center for Innovation in Public Service, a research organization that provides a forum for exchanges among public, private and academic officials, said good mentor programs set clear expectations. Programs should be used to share experiences and build relationships rather than convey textbook-type knowledge, he said.

Although several federal career development programs have a mentoring component, CIO-SAGE is unusual, Palguta said. In other federal programs, the mentors are usually still working in government. But even those programs are limited in number, he said.

One reason more mentoring is not available might simply be lack of resources, Palguta said. "Not everybody is particularly suited to be a good mentor, and the folks who are going to be the most effective are the ones who are the most accomplished and probably the busiest."

The success of the CIO-SAGE program has led organizers to consider expanding its scope to include a greater focus on state CIOs and administrators. Fred Thompson, the council's vice president of management and technology, said the council is also considering reaching beyond IT.

"We have talked to folks in human capital and financial management and had some conversations around acquisitions," he said. "I think it can operate in a lot of different disciplines."

Michael is a freelance writer based in Chicago.

Tough basics taught at CIO boot camp

Incoming government chief information officers say they often don't have much time to learn on the job, and it's difficult trying to get up to speed.

But some have spent time learning the basics quickly at the first session of Federal CIO Boot Camp. The Council for Excellence in Government sponsors the camp, and the CIO Council pays for it.

The boot camp program is aimed at CIOs who have been on the job for less than a year. In October 2004, it brought in experts, including former federal CIOs, for an intense day of learning about a variety of CIO-related topics. A second camp session will be held for two days this month.

Members of CIO-Senior Advisers to Government Executives took part in the boot camp, providing guidance and advice for newcomers.

Dave Wennergren (pictured at left), co-chairman of the CIO Council's Best Practices Committee and the Navy's CIO, said the boot camp is a boon to new CIOs.

"You have really smart people with a lot of experience and long federal careers," he said, "and they have a great sense of insight [into] how they were successful."

-- Sara Michael

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