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Career Counsel: Lessons Learned from Expert Advice

Career Counsel: Lessons Learned from Expert Advice

Looking for executive IT career advice? The following excerpts are from our ongoing online column, Executive Career Counselor, in which resident expert Mark Polansky answers your questions about senior-level career advancement, change, education, strategy and more. Polansky is a managing director and member of the advanced technology practice in the New York City office of Korn/Ferry International, one of the world's leading executive search firms. Visit our Web site at www.cio.com/forums/ executive/counselor.html to read more questions and answers or for advice on your own career plans.

-The Editors

Dear Mark: I have a varied background that includes sales, programming, data-centre management, technical writing, application consulting and project management (including SAP). I have also done some quality assurance on SAP projects and business alignment workshops. I would have thought that's a good background for a senior position in consulting or for a CIO position, but I haven't been successful. Based on this albeit limited information, could you tell me what I might be missing?

Dear Experience Seeker: The areas that you haven't mentioned are your abilities and experience in creating IT vision and strategic planning; leadership and human resource management skills to include recruitment, mentoring and professional development, organisational development, retention and the like; interpersonal communications and relationship skills; building partnerships with your internal customers; and most importantly, focusing IT on your employer's business plan and its customers, hopefully more than just workshop participation. These are the things that separate today's CIOs from technically qualified IT directors.

Dear Mark: If I have a weakness-such as being a lightweight in the programming arena or in the Software Engineering Institute's Capability Maturity Model-how do I cope with the inevitable questions that pertain to the software development arena? I have a ton of experience in the hardware, firmware, business reengineering and telecommunications arenas. Should I give up on the idea of being a CIO until I gain experience in software development? I don't want to take on a very small job after the broad scope of positions that I have had over the past five years.

Dear CIO: Your question indicates frustration in achieving the career goal of becoming a CIO, the highest position of responsibility for the application of information technology within a business enterprise or other organisation. At the same time, your heavy experience in tools, hardware and firmware tells me that your professional life has been in the development of IT products, not in the world of the corporate CIO.

Perhaps then you are thinking about the role of chief technology officer-the apex position in creating technology-in which case your expertise in software development, or lack thereof, may very well be an issue dependent on the type of products being developed. As always, compensate for experiential weakness by promoting what really matters: your vision and leadership skills, and your track record of effectively managing people, projects and resources. As for the Capability Maturity Model, you might do some self-educating to become more comfortable with CMM in interview situations. The Software Engineering Institute's Web site (www.sei.cmu.edu/cmm/cmms/cmms.html) contains lists of publications, courses and conferences that you might consider.

Dear Mark: I am a midcareer IT executive in the health-care provider and services industry. I recently left my full-time job to strike out on my own as an independent consultant but am finding that marketing activities are consuming more than half of my productive time, so billable time is suffering.

How can I return to the employer world or become associated with consulting practices (I have no major company or Big Five experience) that handle the marketing activities so that I can become a revenue producer. Also, can you suggest how to present my foray into the independent world as a positive step rather than the typical view taken by employers that this was only a kinder way of saying I was let go, which I was not?

Dear Revenue Seeker: What you are experiencing is very common among the ranks of new independent consultants of all stripes, not just IT practitioners. That is to say, when you are selling, you're not billing, and when you're billing, you can't be out there finding your next gig. In fact, most successful solo IT consultants work for a single client, most often their prior employer, without much need to market themselves.

Don't be concerned with how to present your recent experience-call it an experiment rather than view it as a failure. Your letter indicates that you would like to stay in the consulting world, and your background contains the key to your future as an important contributor at a major consultancy, including a "Big Five" if you so choose. You will find your expertise in the health-care provider and services field to be in demand as that industry sector tries to control costs, increase customer service and create profitable operations. Contact the managing directors of the health-care practices at the companies that do work in this space, explain your situation and ask for a meeting. Remember that they too have client and billing responsibilities, and so they are usually hard to reach. Offer an evening call or a breakfast get-together. A brief e-mail cover letter and a resume attachment is acceptable if you can't reach your target directly. Good Luck!

Dear Mark: I have been with my company for 22 years. I have managed development groups in the past but most recently have been a senior technical resource with no people responsibilities. I want to move on as a CIO for a small company. How much of a problem is my current position going to be without people responsibilities?

Dear Manager: Unfortunately, your resume is going to lose some interviews for you for two reasons. First, some employers will assume that you were not succeeding as a people manager, and thus your employer moved you into a staff position. And second, having one employer for 22 years was once regarded as loyalty, while today it is often viewed as a limitation due to its inherent lack of variety of experiences.

The first thing you must do, painful or not, is to verify your management skill set. Why are you no longer managing staff? Is your leadership skill set up to par? You should seek honest and constructive feedback from your past and present superiors, peers and even subordinates, as well as human resources. To avoid this process would be to put your head in the proverbial sand. If you discover that those around you have concerns about your management abilities, put together a plan to strengthen your areas of weakness.

However, if you suspect that you have simply been pushed aside for any number of other less relevant reasons (like politics) then perhaps it is time to move on. Turn your 22 years from a liability into an asset by marketing yourself to the same or a similar industry, especially connecting with your current employer's competitors and business partners. And put some positive spin on your current "special assignment."

Dear Mark: I am an experienced IT vice president with specialization in the medical professional-liability insurance sector. With more than nine years' experience as department head with a $100 million company, I am searching for new opportunities and challenges. I mailed over 250 resumes to retained executive recruiters in the Northeast (I prefer to stay in the Greater Boston area). I received some calls, and many postcards but no leads. Since that time, I have networked with as many professionals as possible, responded to many advertisements in The Boston Globe and on the Internet. I have had only one interview and no offers. I am frustrated and unclear about what to do next. In addition, I met with two career service firms only to find that they want many dollars in exchange for help. What am I doing wrong, and what should I do next?

Dear Job Seeker: It's very difficult from your question to know what it is that you could be doing differently or better going forward. It seems that your written communications are not getting the job done since you are not opening the door to interviews. There are many possible pitfalls in writing cover letters and in crafting an effective resume. Perhaps your resume contains some red flags in content (technical versus business focus), format (hard-to-read or understand, too long or long-winded, or typos), or perhaps your job history shows too many changes or inconsistent career management. Your cover letter should be brief and direct, without stating demands nor compensation requirements.

As I have mentioned previously in this column, there are many good books and resources available to help you with your resume and letters-several good ones are worth the relatively small price. If you remain frustrated, consider an investment in professional resume and letter assistance. After all, not all vice presidents can be good resume writers. And do not pay unnecessarily for a resume mailing service, which will only continue to overexpose you in the market.

Dear Mark: Could you elaborate on the format of an effective CIO resume? I'd greatly appreciate any books or other resources you can suggest.

Dear Resume Builder: There are literally dozens of books on the subject of resumes, and there are even a few good templates in Microsoft Word that make a clean and well-organised impression and keep it to two pages. However, the focus of a great CIO resume must be on content rather than format. As the books say, stress your accomplishments and quantify them wherever possible. These should be in the form of the top, middle and bottom line impact that you and your department have had, for example * Saving time and money through process automation and optimisation.

* Creating competitive advantage by improving speed to market or by achieving excellence in customer service.

* Facilitating more effective management decision making through knowledge management initiatives.

* Increasing revenue through sales-force automation.

* Generating revenue by enabling new products, services and channels of distribution.

* Enhancing internal effectiveness through IT efficiencies, organisational development, outsourcing and so on.

Dear Mark: I have casually pursued a CIO or CTO position for about a year. I have used the CIO Wanted listing (jobs.cio.com) as a means to get my resume into the hands of interested companies or executive search firms. I now want to escalate the pursuit by connecting with a reputable firm. Since the business is client-driven, not candidate-driven, what is the best way to proceed?

Dear CIO-to-Be: As you have already noted, the high end of the job market is client-driven and not candidate-driven, which is more often the case at lower, technical levels. To obtain radar screen visibility at executive search firms, craft and mail an accomplishment-packed one- or two-page resume, and a brief, direct cover letter stating your objective in making a move and your geographic and financial requirements. Your background will be captured in a research database and probably circulated to the appropriate engagement managers in the company's IT practice.

While the job hunting texts and outplacement gurus exhort you to drive toward a personal interview, this is good advice when considering hiring companies with known openings but it is not true with search firms. Without a specific client assignment in mind, you will generally not reap any benefit by interviewing with a search consultant on a speculative or courtesy basis.

You will make a much better impression by networking through peers to reach out by phone to the search consultants who recruited them or placed them in a previous search since "good people usually hang with other good people." And always be friendly and helpful to search consultants who present opportunities that are not quite your cup of tea so that they will call again or refer you onward. Good luck!

Dear Mark: Although I have all the background and knowledge necessary to become a CIO, it seems extremely difficult to even get an interview for a CIO position. What do you recommend as a strategy to first get an interview and then land the job?

Dear Seeking More: First, be objective and make sure that you really do have all the background and knowledge to become a CIO. Do your research and reading, talk to successful CIOs and corporate executives, and listen to what they all expect in the way of CIO qualifications and responsibilities. If you find yourself coming up a bit short, determine how you can correct the weaknesses in your background and in your skill set-both technical and personal-that would prevent you from entering the CIO ranks. And make sure that you really want to be a CIO, not just the head of systems; there is a big difference, of course. Then when you are ready, follow all the classic, tried-and-true job-seeking channels: networking, target marketing by mail and phone (don't use e-mail for a first attempt at connecting), answering ads and contacting recruiters. Good luck!

Dear Mark: What is the best way to market yourself into IT management if you have had limited network experience but really enjoy the heck out of PC LANs and WANs and making a corporation productive?

Dear Ladder Climber: I can only assume from your tersely worded question that you are thinking of entering the ranks of IT management from outside of IT. This type of career change is most often achieved inside your present organisation. In such a move, your employer highly values your knowledge of and experience with the company, its products or services, its processes, its culture and politics, its competition and the industry in which it operates. Use this personal value coupled with an awareness of the IT workforce shortage and your own initiative to acquire IT knowledge and skills to approach and sell the transfer to your boss or to the appropriate IT executive. If that doesn't work, reach out to your company's competitors.

The Web-based Executive Career Counselor column is edited by Web Research Editor Kathleen Kotwica. She can be reached at kkotwica@cio.com.

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