Looking to get ahead in your career? The best strategy just might be to stay put.
When it comes to changing jobs, June Drewry is a seasoned veteran. The 49-year-old Drewry has been the chief knowledge and technology officer at Lincoln National Corporation in Ft. Wayne, Ind., a CIO with Aetna Inc. in Hartford, Conn., and a senior vice president in the IS department at MBL Life Assurance Corp. in Newark, N.J. She recently moved on again, to the position of executive vice president and CIO for Aon Group, a family of insurance companies headquartered in Chicago. The new position is her fourth CIO job in the past 20 years.
Drewry typifies the modern CIO-someone who grew up in the '60s, earns a six-figure salary and changes situations roughly once every five years. Last year, in an annual survey of more than 500 IT executives conducted by Computer Sciences Corp., nearly 40 percent of the respondents reported that their CIOs had been replaced since 1996.
While the numbers indicate that CIOs are moving around at a hectic pace, many lament that their only direction is horizontal. If they wish to move up the career ladder, it seems that CIOs first must find executive-level positions outside IT.
"Because other executives are usually picked from a different pool, few CIOs are able to move into an executive position outside IT," says Mark Polansky, managing director of the IT practice at Korn/ Ferry International, a New York City-based executive search firm. "If you're a CIO and you want the chance to be something more, you might think a certain amount of moving around is necessary to provide a feeling of advancement." Polansky explains that CIOs are hired to fulfill a specific mandate (set up an intranet, implement an ERP system) and meet the concomitant technological challenges. Once a CIO has addressed those issues, she can stick around and wait for the next major technological challenge or she can move on.
This pattern of switching jobs every five years has become the most common way to manage an IT career, but it's not the only way. Just ask John Cross. Cross spent 33 years in the IT department at BP Amoco PLC, 10 of them as CIO. This spring, he bid farewell to the only professional home he had ever known, crossed the Atlantic and started over as an executive vice president with AppNet Inc., an Internet consulting and services startup in Bethesda, Md.
Cross says he was able to land the job because his tenure at BP gave him the breadth of experience and connections that AppNet was seeking. Today, by not subscribing to the job-hopping tendencies of his peers, Cross is exactly where many of them would like to be: an executive outside IT with an equity position in the company.
The Rabbit Paradigm
June Drewry spent 12 years with her first company, 5 years with her second and 3 years with her third. She says each new job was too good to pass up and that each offered more money, visibility, responsibility and learning opportunities than the previous one. With the exception of her most recent move, Drewry candidly characterizes her career decisions as impulsive.
"All I ever asked myself was, 'Are you having fun? Are you learning something new? Are you making a difference?' If the answer to any of those questions was no, then I knew it was time for a change." What motivated Drewry to leave Lincoln National earlier this year, however, was different from what had prompted her to leave her CIO positions at the other companies. The company had hired a new CEO. Last winter, after nearly three years working on company strategy, Drewry found herself limited to an oversight role. That was reason enough for her to find new digs.
"When leadership changes, the role of technology changes too," she says. "As a CIO, you've got to be able to adapt and make the moves that are best for you.
Because everything in this industry changes overnight, you've got to ask yourself if it's worth putting so much into a job." Professionals in every industry, including some of today's highest-ranking executives, frequently ask themselves similar questions about their jobs.
According to Lance Eliot, a former CIO who is a columnist on IT career issues, all this soul-searching often results in job changes based on whims or gut instinct. In some cases, Eliot says, people second-guess their decisions so much that they jump at certain opportunities without considering the professional ramifications. Considering how much is at stake in today's IT environment, he adds, the best CIOs are those who can string together a number of job changes into meaningful careers.
"It strikes me that the CIO volatility question seems to have an unstated and underhanded premise: generally, that there must be something wrong with the [current] crop of CIOs because they keep moving along," says Eliot, president of Eliot & Associates, a consulting firm in Huntington Beach, Calif. "If you consider overall executive turnover, the external environment facing companies today, the difficulty in creating competitive IT systems, the pace of change in new technology and the normal push and pull of companies deciding what they want, it's a wonder the volatility isn't more pronounced.
A Tortoise's Tale
John Cross says that a number of factors contributed to his decision to remain at BP: consistent technological challenges, reasonable pay and an excellent working environment. He did get job offers from other companies, and he admits that he'd sometimes daydream about working somewhere else for millions more than what he was earning at BP, but Cross stuck it out for 33 years. And when he finally left this spring, he was exactly what AppNet was looking for in a senior-level executive.
"They wanted someone with hands-on business experience and were shocked to see all that I had done at BP during that time," says Cross, 56. "That was why I stayed at BP for so long. Even when times were tough, I knew the opportunities I had there far outweighed the opportunities I'd have elsewhere. I wasn't about to leave for just anything." Before becoming BP's CIO, Cross served in nearly a dozen jobs, some IT-related, some not. He started with the company in 1966, first as an economist in the market economics and planning department, then as an operator in the data processing department, and next as a programmer in advanced software development. After returning to IT from a stint on the business side, in 1988 Cross was tapped as CIO of the Exploration and Production Division, one of BP's three business units. Finally, in 1993, he was promoted to CIO of the entire company, overseeing more than 3,000 employees.
BP has long had a reputation in the oil industry for investing heavily in technology. That commitment to innovation was evident in the late '80s when Cross took over IT. From 1988 to 1993, the company embarked on a massive switch from a mainframe to client/server technology. Other CIOs, once they had masterminded such a transformation, might have slipped on their traveling shoes-but not Cross. Three years after he set up the company on a WAN, he embarked on a huge project to base its networking on the IP protocol and begin a number of intranet projects. He says that this constant flow of opportunities to work with new technologies was the job's biggest benefit.
"We were always on the forefront of software development for our industry," he says. "On top of that I had the comfort and security of a major oil company backing me every step of the way. Throughout my career, every time I considered moving on, they were able to find something new to throw my way. That was a big part of my decision to stay as long as I did." According to Cross, technology was only one component of his happiness at BP.
Cross compares being a member of the company's senior executive team to being "a member of a nice club." The entire culture, he says, was one of which he was proud to be a part. Cross recalls that in one of his first weeks as CIO the CEO took him aside and assured him that he would be an integral part of the company's business team. It made Cross feel valued and trusted. For more on Cross's leadership views, see his comments in "The Call to Enterprise Leadership" and "Stranger in a Strange Land." If that weren't enough of an incentive to stay put, the company offered Cross the opportunity to enroll in MBA courses and in various executive development programs. "They took a view that one of the challenges for an organization like ours was to foster a feeling of everyone being a manager of the business," Cross says of the company's brain trust. "Their desire to have me become more of a businessman kept me interested in spending my career there. There were times when IT was at a standstill, but at those times there was always something happening on the executive level that made the job worthwhile." Although Cross knew he was earning much less at BP than he could have earned as a CIO in the United States, he says the pay was sufficient to keep him satisfied. Top dollar was not as important to him as the opportunities for professional and personal development. "To a point, I thought that it would have been silly to move on to another CIO job for a few thousand dollars more each year," he says. "While money is important, if you're earning a comfortable wage it doesn't make that much difference. Did I think that more money would have been nice? Of course. Was it cause enough to throw away everything else? Not for a second. I knew that when I left BP, I'd be leaving the CIO role for good." Winning the Race In the end, Cross did just that. AppNet approached him with a job offer in September 1998 and, after years of turning down positions, he finally accepted one. Today Cross is responsible for developing a strategic Internet consulting business, helping build strategic business relationships and integrate company acquisitions, and supporting key major account initiatives. It is a position with a salary that enables him to leave, as he puts it, the "income earners" and join the "wealth creators." At a time when most CIOs move around as often as free-agent athletes, Cross says it's telling that what AppNet officials found most appealing were his senior-level management experience and the network of relationships he'd developed in the IT industry and CIO communities, thanks to his longevity at BP. This, he adds, demonstrates that while an increasing number of CIOs make a practice of job-hopping, there's also a payoff to staying put.
As for Drewry, she says that the ideal career is one that enables her to solve problems and to meet ever-expanding technological challenges. If that means moving from one place to another, she says, so be it.
"It used to be that if you had lots of jobs on your resume, that meant you couldn't hold a job," she says. "Now, I think it's almost a detriment to have only one job on there. Moving around gives you the opportunity to gain knowledge from different places about a bunch of things. I wouldn't say my goal is to keep moving or to stay put. My goal is to learn new technologies and help the company I'm working for. To me, longevity isn't nearly as important as that.
"Nowadays," she continues, "it's up to each person to manage his or her career.
People have a right and an obligation to look for themselves. When I'm thrilled with my situation at a company, then I'm not going to be out there looking.
When I'm not thrilled with my situation, you can bet I'm looking every day," she says.
"There are dozens of ways one can go about managing his or her career," Cross says. "Who knows if I would have been given the same opportunity [at AppNet] if I had done something differently? Given the same circumstances, every CIO would make a different choice. I'm happy with where I am today. Regardless of how I've managed my career, that's all that really matters."
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