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Cold Shoulder in a Hot Market

Cold Shoulder in a Hot Market

One morning D.W. awoke to find himself unemployed. It had been his choice to leave his job, but that didn't make it any easier.

The regional telephone company where he had been vice president of intranet services for two years had decided to move into the cable television business.

For D.W., this was not good news. He had been in charge of an initiative to offer a full suite of intranet services to business customers; he had taken the project through a successful beta test and was ready to go. But he knew there wasn't enough money for two large projects. Not only would his starve, his entire department would in all likelihood take a hit.

"I could have stayed on to be the leader of internal intranet services," he says, "but I didn't think that would be much fun." Besides, D.W. was aching to flex his muscles. He wanted to be a CIO, or at least a director of IT. "I had credentials," he says. "I'd been there and done that in all the intranet stuff. I could build a network from scratch." Plus, having come from the business side (he has an MBA in business policy), D.W. felt he was ahead of the curve. "Lots of companies are still talking to consultants about integrating nets into business strategies," he says. "Well, I know all about that. Business folk want technology and first-class service and they want it cost-effectively. That's the art form, understanding what the business drivers are." D.W. didn't think it was ethical to stay on at the telephone company while he looked for another job. His plan was to consult while he looked for a position with a midsize company where IT was central, not peripheral, to the business.

For a variety of reasons, he wanted to stay in New England (US).

He knew all about the IT staffing crisis. He knew about the jobs begging to be filled. He knew the mantra about aligning IT with the enterprise, and he thought he had a lot to offer. He figured it wouldn't be too hard to find something.

That was almost a year ago.

He's still looking.

D.W.'s View

"This has been one of the most painful periods of my life," D.W. says.

D.W.'s hair is pepper-and-salt, his posture military. In his early 50s, he favours tweeds and oxford-cloth shirts. He's behind his desk by 8 every morning, wearing a rep tie.

"Looking for work is a job," he says. He reads the papers and periodicals. He checks the Internet: sites that list jobs, vendor sites, professional association sites, listings of IT events. He works the phones, calling people he knows, calling people he's just met -- at conferences, forums and luncheons.

"The key," he says, "is meeting people who are well networked themselves." D.W. speaks in a low, soft voice. There are, he thinks, lots of reasons why he hasn't landed a position. Even in the superheated IT field where 300,000 jobs are waiting to be filled in the US, there is still only one CIO per company.

And, D.W. believes, the leap from the rung below CIO to CIO is the hardest to make. "I've been a bridesmaid several times," he says. "They tell me I'm great, but they've found someone who's already been a CIO, and they say they have to go with that experience. I understand that. I even believe it's valid." Despite the widespread belief that companies are looking for CIOs with business as well as technological expertise, D.W. thinks the fact that he's not a "bits and bytes" guy is held against him. "I didn't come up through the IT ranks," he says. "I'm not a programmer who became a supervisor of programmers. I'm a business guy who learned the bits and bytes along the way." Finally, D.W. admits that his biggest problem may be the fact that he's just not good at selling himself. "Certain people like to promote themselves," he says. "I don't. I'd rather have my track record talk. I'm not an extrovert." The Expert View "Dumb," says Jeff Leon, leader of the IS practice at Russell Reynolds Associates, a New York City-based global executive search firm. "You never leave your job before you find another. It's not easy because it's like having two jobs, but there's nothing unethical about it." Leon says that from the middle of last year to now there's been a minor softening in the market for senior-level IT executives, a lot of it due to the fact that the Y2K bug has been absorbing everyone's attention, not to mention their budgets. But once Y2K is out of the way, Leon predicts an explosion in recruiting and job switching.

Still, Leon doesn't think D.W. has managed his career particularly cleverly.

Leaving the telephone company after only two years does not, Leon says, speak well of D.W.'s "sticktoitiveness".

"Shocking," says Bob Deissig, president of recruiting services for The Ayers Group, a human resources consulting company in New York City. Deissig doesn't see any slowdown in the senior-level job market although, he says, it may yet come with consolidations in industries like banking and brokerage.

But, he says, "I've never heard of someone with good credentials not being able to find a position after six months. Maybe your guy isn't CIO material. I'd advise him to look for a good level to enter below CIO. And I'd advise him to get some training on how to conduct an interview and maybe get some professional help in rebuilding his confidence: role playing, videotaping, see how you look. It's a skill to sell yourself." Asked if D.W.'s age might be working against him, Deissig says no. "Companies are anxious to find people with scars on their backs," he says.

"The CIO position has changed dramatically," says Anthony Marolta, vice president of Massachusetts-based TAC Worldwide, a staffing-solutions company.

"The CIO used to be someone managing information internally to drive down costs, especially in manufacturing. Now the CIO is really a revenue generator.

He's creating products to attract clients. Your guy has got to prove that he can do that." "People are looking for a track record of results," says Leon. He says that a good resume should be specific about business accomplishments. He uses the acronym PAR for problem, action, results -- with the emphasis on results. "You need to say, for example, that you rebuilt a system with the result that collections improved 100 per cent." "It doesn't sound like your guy's heart is in it," says Ben Slick, president and CEO of San Jose-based PeopleScape, another executive search company. "It doesn't sound like he'd inspire confidence. A CIO has to work with a CEO or a CFO. He's got to have the poise to interact.

"Reticence is forgivable at the line-manager level," Slick continues, "but at the senior level you're always selling your ideas, your budget, a hiring plan, the selection of an outsource vendor. That's what CIOs do. And if your guy can't sell himself effectively, nobody's going to be comfortable with him.

Unless he finds a low-key CEO who appreciates that style.

"For an introvert, you've got to ask yourself how badly do you want a job that makes you uncomfortable. If you don't want to sell yourself, go to the Rand Institute and think." Where To Now? D.W. has no argument with the experts. He's come to understand that his reluctance to sell himself, his natural reticence, has indeed worked against him. He did, in fact, get coaching from an outplacement firm, and he did, in fact, get assistance in framing his resume. He does not, however, regret leaving his job at the telephone company before finding another.

"I still think that would have been cheating the company," he says. "I know people think differently, but me, I couldn't do it and still feel good about myself." For the past year, D.W. has been surviving on consulting jobs, investments and savings. Right now, he has suspended his job search in order to raise seed money for a plan to start a business in the area of Internet, intranet and extranet applications. "I'm trying to put together a merry band to do this," he says, life entering his voice.

Although his year-long odyssey did not conclude satisfactorily, D.W. does not feel it was a total loss. Painful, yes. But not without its lessons. "One thing I've learned," says D.W., "is the importance of networking while you're in the job." It's easy to focus solely on the task at hand, he says, keeping your eyes glued to the desk, forgetting that your life is bigger than your job. He wishes that he had attended more professional conferences and pursued more training opportunities. Balancing his career, his family and social obligations had left him with no time for himself, no time to grow.

"It's one of the most difficult things I'll ever do," he says about his job search. "It's just you. It's lonely. But it's expanded my horizons, taught me about myself. And I've met some wonderful people I wouldn't have otherwise met.

"I like meeting people now," he says. "The people I'm talking to about the business I'm starting, they're all people I've met networking, looking for a job. And you never know. Last week I started talking to this guy I met at a conference and he started telling me about software development in Venezuela.

It's fascinating. Who knows if I'll ever make use of it, but it's good to know."D.W. is a real person. Certain details of his career have been altered to protect his anonymity

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