Career turning points: Take calculated risks

The old adage “no risk, no reward” speaks closely to Larry Pickett’s career path to becoming CIO at Purdue Pharma. Moving out of Glaxo (GSK) , and leaving behind years at a top company in his field, was the chance he had to take to become the leader he wanted to be.

“Sometimes you do have to take a side step, or move horizontally for a period, to go up,” he says. “It’s not a ladder, so much as it is scaling a mountain.”

Pickett knew as soon as he moved into IT middle management at Glaxo back in the late 1980s that he wanted to become a CIO in the pharmaceutical industry. With an MBA on top of his technical background, he never viewed himself as a techie, but as a general manager of technology. He even set himself a deadline for reaching that goal within 10 years–by age 40.

Over several years, he specifically sought duties and positions that would get him the business and strategic experience he thought he would need, from sales to R&D. He didn’t stay on back-end systems within IT, either. He helped design the Executive Support System graphical dashboard for Glaxo executives, which required technical expertise to create, but also significant knowledge of information that the business needed and how executives think–a perfect vehicle to stretch into the strategic arena.

Then Glaxo merged with Wellcome in 1995 and created new opportunities for the larger company, and Pickett felt he was ready for a role leading commercial systems. When he went to the CIO to lobby for the spot, however, he was told they decided to go with someone else.

Even though he had a young family and a new house in his native state of North Carolina, Pickett walked from that meeting into his office to start sending out his resume to any company that might help him move forward. Two months later, he was taking his family up the Eastern seaboard to New Jersey to work for Merck in a director level position on the commercial side of the business–the one area where he didn’t have much experience. There his primary task was to help mine the data in the company’s massive customer databases to help drive business growth, which was something he knew how to do. It was an attractive career challenge and learning opportunity that wasn’t completely out of his comfort zone.

Within a year, he had an offer to be CIO at Purdue Pharma.

Setting that concrete goal of becoming a pharmaceutical industry CIO early in his career helped shape his road map, but the biggest lesson he learned–which he passes on to his direct reports in career discussions–is to be flexible, to be willing to take risks and make dramatic changes, and not to be blinded by the need to stay on a rigid path to a goal.

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