'I scaled the heights of the music industry with an MBA'
Maggie Miller likes to climb mountains in her spare time. But to scale the heights of the music industry without a first degree she took an MBA at the Open University. She tells Martin Thompson about her journey
Thursday 09 October 2008
Maggie Miller has just returned from her idea of a relaxing break, a 150-mile hike in California, taking her to the summit of 14,500ft Mount Whitney. "It was very liberating, especially as I was forced to leave my Blackberry at ground level," she says.
Miller is an energetic, globe-trotting senior executive who, for the past three years, has been working in the heart of New York. Her current role as CIO (chief information officer) of Warner Music Group is the latest stage in a successful IT-related career that has spanned sectors as diverse as banking, insurance, supermarkets, computers and the travel industry.
In the early 1990s Miller, who is English born and bred, made the decision to sign up to study for an Open University MBA. "I was aiming for a more senior management role within the large insurance brokers where I was working and it had become obvious that I was badly under-qualified. Studying full time was not an option – I simply couldn't afford it. Choosing the Open University route, combining self-study with face-to-face sessions, was the obvious answer."
She had skipped a first degree, having gone straight into a job as a computer programmer with British Airways, but had qualified for the MBA by studying for an OU certificate in management followed by a diploma.
"The MBA experience generated benefits I could never have foreseen," she says. "Above all, it was the sheer calibre of my fellow students that made it so worthwhile. Every unit has a residential component and these were pretty intense sessions. I recall one in Holland that included students from 13 different countries and many sectors, ranging from the diamond industry to the armed forces.
"Quite apart from the sheer intellectual horsepower on display, it was the high level of motivation and commitment that impressed me. I came away thinking that, if I ended up on a desert island with this lot, I would be fine."
Until that point, Miller had seen the business world exclusively from the IT perspective. The MBA experience challenged that comparatively narrow view. She deliberately took elective courses about subjects she knew nothing about, such as sales and marketing,
"I came away having learned a common global language of business and with a greater understanding of what colleagues in other areas are facing in the way of challenges," she says.
Why the successive career moves from sector to sector? "I like to be involved in an industry or company that is facing real challenges and where there is a need for radical change. This may be a result of exponential growth or a huge transformation in a business model, like at Warner. That's the kind of challenge I really enjoy.
"I have typically joined organisations when they are going through one of these periods of major change. When things settle down, I start to twiddle my thumbs and look for something new. For someone from my background, joining Warner Music Group was simply too attractive an offer to turn down. And the chance to live and work in the middle of Manhattan clinched it."
The global music business is at a critical stage, with falling album sales and the download revolution growing apace. Has she truly leapt into the fire this time? Maggie is upbeat as ever. Technology, she says, is at the heart of the transformation going on within the business.
"When I started out, the IT function was real back-office stuff. Nowadays, it's all about the development of new products, new routes to market and a much richer experience for our fans. My role as CIO is to allow our organisation to be really agile and stay ahead of the curve. That makes it very exciting and worthwhile."
Would she describe herself as a techie? "Not any more," she says. "These days a chief information officer's role has less to do with technology and more to do with business change, helping colleagues work their way through the minefield of jargon and knowing when to recommend a particular technical solution.
"Technology today has its tentacles in just about everything. As CIOs, we have to learn to be collaborative and not get precious about boundaries and budgets."
Maggie is passionately committed to helping IT become further recognised as a profession in its own right. She was a member of the British Computer Society's steering group on professionalism in the industry. In New York she now mentors students on the MSc in communications systems management at Columbia University.
"I play a small role in the continuing development of the industry," she says modestly. "But we are not there yet. The role that CIOs can play is still not fully recognised and you have a talent pool that isn't being adequately tapped. It's true that some CIOs are coming out of the server cupboard, as it were, to become chief executive officers, but not frequently enough."
Miller herself has ambitions in that direction. "It's a natural progression. A leadership role within IT gives you a unique end-to-end view of how an organisation works, its processes and systems. Someone with a CIO background is uniquely well placed to help bring about transformational change."
She clearly thrives on change and sees the MBA experience as helping to equip her to handle it. The confidence and broader business knowledge she gained from the Open University course helped her to make the transition to living and working in the US and adjust to their business model. The country's "can-do" attitude clearly suits her.
This year, it was taking on Mount Whitney. Next summer she plans to complete a triathlon. "Just a basic one, mind you. But I do like a challenge. I am probably a typical Type A person who is always searching for a new goals."
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