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5 ways to get to the top of the IT profession, according to this CIO

PepsiCo's European CIO Nigel Richardson shares his tips for climbing the IT career ladder. And there are important lessons for everyone.
Written by Mark Samuels, Contributor
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Getting to the top of the IT profession requires a subtle blend of technology savvy and business capability -- and Nigel Richardson, SVP and CIO Europe at food and drinks giant PepsiCo, knows the right mix better than most.

"I think where you really add value is when you can understand from a business point of view where the organization is positioned strategically, what are some of the challenges and opportunities, and how you can use technology to create an advantage for the business," he says to ZDNET.

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For people who are keen to become successful digital leaders, Richardson reflects on lessons learned during his career and provides five best-practice tips for reaching the top.

1. Get a fresh perspective

Richardson's route to the top involved an unusual diversion for an IT professional.

While he started his career as a software engineer at automotive manufacturer Land Rover, he then moved into manufacturing management at the firm, where he ran a factory for five years during the late 1990s.

Richardson -- who subsequently moved back into IT with Mars, and then onto PepsiCo's technology team -- says his time outside IT served him well.

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"I always say to people to find those critical experiences where you just get a completely different perspective," he says, which is something he ensures happens with his staff today.

"We've had a lot of my team move -- they'll go and do a secondment in sales or in supply chain, or we've had people from supply chain come into IT," he says. "So, especially early in your career, try to find a way to get diverse experiences."

2. Wear two hats

As you broaden your workplace experiences, Richardson says it's crucial to continue building hooks into other parts of the organization.

"You need to really understand the business, its priorities, and the importance of building partnerships," he says. Successful IT professionals climb the ladder by working successfully across two worlds: Technology and everything else.

"You've got your functional role, which is about managing the IT team, but you've also got your role as the business leader, which is about listening to people in other departments and then working to find potential technology solutions to their problems," he says. "So, you need to wear both hats -- one for IT and one for the rest of the business."

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While most IT professionals will spend the early part of their career honing their tech skills, those who reach the top spend an ever-increasing amount of their time acting as a trusted business professional who just happens to know an awful lot about technology.

"Actually, your main hat -- and it's mine as a member of the European executive team -- has to be as a business leader who is also responsible for technology across the business." Richardson said to ZDNET.

3. Take some risks

Richardson says there are no simple shortcuts to becoming an IT leader. In fact, rather than sitting back and waiting to be promoted, he encourages tech professionals to take a risk.

"Be bold," he says. "Back in the early days of my career, taking a risk was about moving from software development and going into running manufacturing, and then going back into IT."

Richardson has also made some bold moves during his time with PepsiCo. In 2012, he was given the opportunity to move to Eastern Europe to become CIO for the region.

The move involved uprooting his family from the U.K. and joining a part of the business that was undergoing digital transformation following a huge number of acquisitions.

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After three years in Eastern Europe, Richardson moved back to the U.K., eventually working his way up to his current role of European CIO.

He encourages other up-and-coming IT professionals to embrace any exciting opportunities, even if that means stepping out of your comfort zone.

"You want to live with no regrets," he says. "If something comes up, say 'Yes' to it. I mean, I'm sure there are a few exceptions. But basically, I always think, 'What's the worst that can happen?'"

4. Don't be greedy

Taking on new opportunities is only part of the battle. IT professionals who want to win the respect of their peers will ensure the people on their team are up for the fight, too.

"That's all about empowering and engaging the team," he says. "It sounds like a cliché, but as one person, you can only do so much."

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Richardson says professionals who climb the ladder into management positions always concentrate on developing the people who help them achieve their aspirations.

A good manager is only as good as their trusted lieutenants -- and Richardson says you need to make sure your people are ready and happy to take on new responsibilities.

"If you're someone who wants to get to the top, focusing on how you lead your team is crucially important," he says. "Being a successful leader in business is all about how you engage the team to get behind a unified purpose. Make sure the people on your team become great at what they do and can build their capability for the future."

5. Keep learning

Once you've climbed to the top of the career ladder, Richardson says reaching a senior management position is no excuse for thinking you've nothing left to learn.

"Stay humble and keep your feet on the ground," he says. "It's sometimes easy to think, 'Hey, I know everything.' But it's important to remember that you don't. As individuals, we know so little. The world's changing so fast that you can never know everything."

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Richardson says there are many great people with fresh ideas that inspire his way of approaching business problems, both within PepsiCo and out across the market.

"I think CIOs need to be in that sweet spot of understanding the business use of technology, both from the reality of what's happening today, but also what's coming down the line in the future," he says. "I'm looked at as someone who's a strategic advisor. Of course, there's all the basic stuff on privacy, security, stability, and vendor management. But then you also need to think about how the business can really exploit new technology, such as AI and generative AI."

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