It was there in every job interview, every performance evaluation, every move he made in his career, even before it began – the Goal.
Sliding his Blackberry into a suit pocket, Kevin Summers ’91 smiles and says, “My goal was really pretty simple: to be the chief information officer for a top international company.”
But Summers didn’t have the luxury of a road map to reach this high executive level. Just the Goal as his compass. Always the Goal. And the drive to go after it.
Like many technology-savvy individuals, Summers is heavy on the left brain. He’s analytical, objective, logical. So it should be no surprise that early on, he created for himself a straightforward system to evaluate his progress on his goal or any objective he pursues. Current state, future state, gaps. It is, essentially, an evaluation of where he is, where he’s going and what’s holding him back. That uncluttered and honest approach has allowed him to climb the steep corporate ladder efficiently and impossibly fast.
And in the process, his meteoric rise in the Fortune 500 world serves as a guide of sorts, revealing some not-so-obvious secrets for success. For if Summers’ career had a user manual, this would be it:
Grow up in rural South Carolina, specifically in Branchville (pop. 1,083). Be the youngest of seven siblings and the son of a farmer and schoolteacher.
Wake up at 5 a.m. every morning to do your chores around the farm. Learn to daydream and drive a tractor at the same time while making furrow after furrow for corn and soy beans, depending on the season. Become an expert of time, by counting the sweat drops rolling off the tip of your nose and by monitoring the position of the unforgiving sun as it climbs higher in the morning sky. Grasp the importance of completing a project, of accomplishing something tangible – like plowing a 300-acre field.
Play sports. Develop leadership skills by playing point guard on your high school basketball team and find satisfaction in your ability to involve the whole team.
Listen to your mother and find your passion outside of sports. Spend hours blasting falling missiles on your Atari 2600 video game system. Convince your parents to upgrade and buy a Franklin computer from the local Sears department store. Understand that computers aren’t just gaming systems. Spend every free moment you have on your machine and your high school’s lone computer, getting the hang of its every detail and operation.
Be one of the only 10 percent from your high school to attend college. Find inspiration in your mother’s unwavering love of education and your father’s indefatigable work ethic. Expect to put their influence into practice.
Receive a basketball scholarship to attend the College. Be headstrong. Challenge your academic adviser who questions your ambition to major in computer science and play sports.
Play for a year and decide that your adviser was right. Hang up your sneakers and lose your scholarship. Brace yourself for the fact that your parents have no money to cover your college education.
Get a job. Any job. Start at the local McDonalds and quit after a week. Keep an eye out for opportunities around campus.
Be an introvert. Now, get a job that transforms you into an extrovert. See a flyer that promises $10 an hour and apply for it since that seems like the fastest way to make money. Go door to door throughout Charleston, selling bargain car maintenance agreements. Learn to handle rejection – a lot of it. Figure out how to get people not to slam the door on you in 30 seconds.
Use your College network and secure a job with a local computer company for two years. Begin putting your computer science knowledge into play by doing some real-world software and computer programming.
Graduate. Now, go find a full-time job. Heed your professor’s suggestion to attend a job fair in Atlanta.
Don’t get intimidated by the skyscrapers and big-city feel of Atlanta – although it’s a much different world than Branchville and even Charleston. Forget the impossibly long lines that snake throughout the convention center and forget about all the people looking so confident in their expensive suits, fingering their slick portfolios.
Yes, their résumés may have all As where yours has Bs, but know that you’re well rounded. Your liberal arts and sciences education, your leadership roles in your fraternity and your life outside of the classroom make a big difference. Remember, you’re just as good as anyone else there. Trust your academic foundation. You know what they know – Pascal, C++, CPUs, interactive systems. You may even know more.
When you get to that recruiter at the front of the line, make yourself memorable. Fast. Get their attention quickly and keep it. Use Hurricane Hugo as your ice breaker. Let people see your personality, your humor. And remember to smile.
Now, don’t just get any job – land a job with one of the best companies there. Maybe, General Electric. And don’t just take any position with them. Make it count. Enter their leadership development program, which will fast-track you through the company and expose you to almost every facet of the business.
Work at General Electric for 10 years. Learn it inside and out in your rotational assignments that take you up and down the East Coast. Know that GE will throw you in the deep end of the pool. Be sure to swim. And when you do, get ready to be pulled out again and dropped into a deeper pool. Just keep swimming.
Master fixing servers and programming. Figure out what makes the data centers tick. Work in their manufacturing plant. Be a project leader. Remember, GE’s leadership program is designed to create future CIOs by immersing them in all areas of IT. Keep your eye on the prize.
And whether you’re with program management, applications development or infrastructure supervision, learn this basic lesson at GE: Business isn’t personal. It’s just a matter of performance, so perform.
And while you’re doing all this, fly to Durham, N.C., on weekends to complete your graduate degree in Duke University’s executive M.B.A. program. The degree will augment your background in technology and open new doors of possibility. It’s like an upgrade of RAM and ROM.
Re-evaluate where you are. Determine what’s missing to make you a CIO. Fill those gaps. Don’t just jump to the next compensation level. Make sure it has what you need to keep moving up.
Work at BellSouth so that you now have “scale” in your career. Manage a $700-million budget and oversee 1,500 employees.
Keep moving and moving up.
Understand the concepts of globalization. Join Coca-Cola’s global supply chain team and travel the world.
Scrap the notion about business not being personal. That doesn’t actually apply in the global marketplace. Comprehend that international business is all about relationship building. E-mail and voicemail are no replacement for face-to-face contact. Remember your door-to-door sales experience.
Become a student – a disciple, really – of leadership. Understand that when you make a decision, say, go right, that one-third will go right. Another third will stay put and the other third will go left. Prepare yourself to motivate, coach and educate the two-thirds to go right. Improve your communication skills, set clear goals, always work toward better collaboration.
And, finally, grasp all aspects of the business world. Speak the language of CEOs – financials, marketing, supply chain, technology. That’s the only way to get a seat at the table in the boardroom.
Now, You’re Ready
Follow all of these steps precisely and you will find yourself where Kevin Summers is today: the CIO of Whirlpool, the $20-billion global home appliance company, based in Benton Harbor, Mich.
And now you will garner international recognition from your peers for being a change agent in the industry, and you will be named one of the 100 most important blacks in technology.
You will continue to trek around the world – Mexico City today, Bangalore tomorrow, Manila next week. You will be in a continual fight to stay current with ever-changing technology.
You will work 24/7, doing conference calls at all hours because the world doesn’t operate on Eastern Standard Time. You will have every minute of every day booked with meetings. You will stretch yourself in ways that you didn’t think possible. And you will love every minute of it.
Because, ultimately, you will have followed your mother’s sage advice and your father’s powerful example in step one: Find your passion, work hard and the rest will come.