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A Fork in the Career Road

A Fork in the Career Road

Q: I have been a CIO for a year at a midsize property-casualty insurance company. It is my first job in IT--I spent my previous 20 years on the business side of insurance. As I evaluate future career moves, I need to know how to assess whether I should plan to take my increased technical knowledge back to the business side or increase my technical background to strengthen my position in the IT world.

A: My first reaction to your question is to ask, Which career path would you enjoy more--the business side or the IT side? If you have a strong desire to stay in IT, do so with great caution and with the realisation that your lack of a technical career foundation and your inexperience working your way up the ladder within IT will always be a limiting factor--sometimes a small one and sometimes a very large one.

On the other hand, if your heart (and expertise, of course) lies on the business side of your particular industry, you will be a far more effective business leader when you return there, given your newly acquired and strong understanding and appreciation of IT, and how technology can be utilised for operational efficiency, organisational effectiveness and competitive advantage in your business unit.

WHEN YOU NEED A CIO

Q: At what size should a company consider hiring a CIO? I know the answer is always, "It depends," but at what point should a company move from having the IT director as the top IT position to CIO?

A: You're right...it depends only on whether the company wishes to make its operations more cost-effective, its customer service more excellent, its direct sales and sales channels more competitive, and its P&L rosier. In other words, every company, of any size, in any industry and in any place, should have a CIO. It really depends on how big the CIO needs to be. The notion that smaller companies, and in many cases privately or closely held and family businesses, don't need a comprehensive IT strategy and operating plan is totally backward. It's the little guy who can realise a disproportionately higher percentage gain in operating efficiency and competitive advantage through IT in lieu of the large-scale economy he is missing. Technology is clearly a great equaliser among companies of varying sizes, especially in the new economy.

SEARCHING FOR A NEW JOB

Q: I am an IS professional with more than 10 years of experience. I am interested in applying my knowledge, skills and experience as an executive recruiter. How does one go about becoming a headhunter at a search company?

A: Start by creating a rsum that emphasises the baseline knowledge and skills you have acquired that are appropriate to the search profession, namely a consummate knowledge of the technology industry, a broad exposure to a wide variety of industries, a strong understanding of business models and strategies, and their financial and organisational requirements, salesmanship and persuasiveness, goal-oriented and driven behaviour, an obsessive work ethic, successful recruiting and staffing experience including excellent interviewing and candidate-evaluative skills, and business development capabilities. Then put together a target list of search companies, large or small, by using The Directory of Executive Recruiters (Kennedy Information, 1999), focusing on those that have information technology specialty practices in your geography of choice. Then be resourceful and persistent in mailing, e-mailing and phone calling. Good luck!

CIOS FOR HIRE

Q: I am currently the IS director for a small manufacturing company ($60 million). This is the second intermediate position I have held in middle management in a Fortune 500 organisation. Through these experiences I have found that small and medium-size organisations are where I belong, with the wider variety of experience and exposure, and the greater visibility to the top of the organisation. The downside I find, however, is that after an initial burst of projects intended to modernise, standardise and generally improve systems operations, it becomes more difficult in the smaller company to implement some of the newer, more forward-thinking initiatives that would continue to make the job challenging.

I am thinking that there is a need for consulting services that address this small to midsize market in the provision of director or CIO-level services for those businesses that do not want, or cannot afford, permanent senior staff. The focus would be on those front-end activities necessary to update systems and technology in those companies in which this has not been an ongoing activity. How would I approach my current employer about a withdrawal into such a part-time consulting role as I develop this opportunity? Do you see small to midsize companies in search of or in need of such services?

A: Yes, there is a need for top information technology management talent at companies of all sizes, including the small- to middle-market space, just as there is a severe general shortage of qualified IT workers at all levels. The realisation of the need for top-notch CIOs is growing rapidly in traditional businesses as well as at dotcoms, putting a market premium on really good CIOs and a lot of pressure on my colleagues and me. Your "Rent-a-CIO" idea is a good one, and one that already exists within the scope of the Big Five accounting companies and other consulting organisations, and several specialty companies.

If you have vertical market, or local or regional visibility, and a strong reputation as a highly accomplished CIO, then you might qualify for this rewarding career alternative. This is especially true if your recognition is focused in a unique industry such as financial services or retailing, or in certain business models, such as high-volume distribution companies. It helps if you are known in the business world, by speaking at conferences, giving interviews and getting quoted in trade publications, such as CIO. Marketing yourself can be tough, especially while on assignment, so consider aligning yourself with a consulting company that specialises in pro tempore employment. A couple of the better known companies in this space are the Feld Group in Dallas and Transition Partners in Reston, Va.

[Editor's Note: Read the related article "CIOs for Hire" at www.cio.com/archive/050100_platform.html.] CHANGE AGENT Q: After starting as a programmer and quickly realising the need for an interface to the business, I acted quickly to develop my business acumen by focusing on analysis and design, resource and project management, and even taking a stint in sales and marketing. My aim was to move into an executive role.

However, I find permanency has limitations and restrictions plus an abundance of administration, and I really like being a change agent. What steps and preparation would you suggest to move to IS management consulting?

A: It sounds as though you have already done much of what I would recommend, namely, combining a solid technical foundation with leadership and resource management skills, and acquiring a strong knowledge of general business and, perhaps, of a particular industry. You might consider getting your MBA, either on a part-time or distance-learning basis, or attending one of the better executive MBA programs.

It's not clear from your question whether you are considering becoming a salaried employee of a consulting organisation or hanging out your own shingle as a single practitioner. In the first case, you're already good to go. Just brush up your rsum and start interviewing. In the latter case, what's missing is your knowledge of the consulting business: how to market and price your services, how to generate competitive and profitable proposals, invoicing, control and reporting.

I suggest joining one of the best search companies and spending a couple of years learning the ropes and establishing your network of contacts. Before signing up, however, be wary of signing a covenant not to compete, better known as a noncompete agreement, which would lock you out of the business in a certain geography or marketspace for some amount of time after leaving the company.

DAY-TO-DAY OPERATIONS

Q: I am an IT director at a small, $30 million advertising agency. Our network manager is very territorial about her department and has basically told me that she doesn't want my involvement with the network operations of our company. I am primarily responsible for overall IT strategy, application development and the development of an interactive marketing services practice within the company.

My CEO agrees with the network manager that I should not concern myself with day-to-day network operations, tech support, upgrade plans and other areas that are part of the network manager's domain. Will this be a hindrance to me if I pursue other IT management positions elsewhere?

A: As your company's IT director, the network manager should report to you from an organisational perspective. But since she doesn't, on one level she is right that you are not responsible for her or her operation. That said, the potential opportunities for conflict between design and reality, specification and execution, intention and operation are all too obvious in this scenario. Add to that the apparent chemistry and attitude problems and lack of teamwork, plus a CEO who may not be consensus-oriented, and you've got a daily headache waiting to happen. Live with it or move on. No, this won't hurt your career progress, certainly not in this seller's market. In fact, it's one of the perfectly understandable factors in your decision to consider alternative employment opportunities.

MOVING TO THE BIG LEAGUES

Q: I am currently an IS manager about to step up to the CIO/IT director role. Can you recommend some books or a course I should attend before I am promoted?

A: First, please accept our congratulations and best wishes for success! There is no lack of sources of information and references for the CIO role, and a search of the Web's bookselling sites will yield dozens of appropriate titles. You have already connected with one of the very best places to be, namely CIO.com (CXO Media). This organisation, with its archives of published material, plus its yearlong conference schedule, is a great place to start. And check out the primary IT advisory services, including Forrester Research Inc., Gartner Group Inc., Meta Group Inc., as well as the many IT-related websites such as www.earthweb.com.

Additionally, log on to www.simnet.org, the website of the Society for Information Management (SIM), which is the preeminent business-oriented IT membership organisation. Check out its publications and conferences, consider its Regional Learning Forum program, which is like an executive MBA for information technology management, and get involved in a local chapter if there is one in your area. If not, reach out to your peer CIOs in town, starting within your own industry if possible, and get involved in any local CIO roundtable groups--or start one (or a SIM chapter) if there aren't any.

Mark Polansky is a managing director and member of the advanced technology practice of Korn/Ferry International in New York City. He is also the chairman of the Greater New York Chapter of the Society for Information Management.

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

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