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Career Counsel

ATTENDANCE NOT REQUIRED

Q: I am the director of IT in a $1.5 billion family-owned company. I was brought in 18 months ago when the company was growing from roughly 500 employees to more than 2,700--all within the span of two to three months. At the time of all this change, I was included in all planning meetings.

Now it seems the only time I am called into a meeting is after a decision has been made, and I am not included in strategic meetings. I enjoy the company and the people, but it seems the reporting structure (to the CFO) and lack of involvement are a hindrance to growth. I've made it clear to the CFO that my ambitions are vice president and beyond. Is there anything I can do to alter this old-model thinking? The infrastructure and processes that are in place are functioning well, and I can't think of any faux pas that I might have committed.

A: It sounds like you were being included during that initial period of high growth to ensure that the infrastructure scale-up would be taken care of. The tip-off was there 18 months ago when you learned that your position reports to the CFO. Since you seem to like the company and the people, it's probably worth a couple of very good serious tries to open some minds before you throw in the towel and move on.

Seek out a business partner if possible, and go looking for some exciting and low-risk, small-cost places to make a very real difference in the top and bottom line performance of the company. Carefully document what you've achieved and take it to the top, dragging along the CFO if you must. And show the boss what his competitors are doing with technology to provide better-quality products and better customer service, and to better connect with business partners and customers through the internet.

SHOULD I STAY OR SHOULD I GO?

Q: I work as vice president of IT in a relatively new yet innovative private sector bank in India. The bank has launched a number of retail technology products and is known to be fairly aggressive. I report to the IT head, who in turn reports to the CEO. All other personnel in IT report to me. My current job is somewhat safe yet I do not see many growth opportunities. The largest French bank (that is going to start up a retail banking operation in India) has approached me. There is great challenge as well as uncertainty, as it has never done retail banking thus far. I want growth and challenge, but I value security as well. Could you please advise me whether to continue or take the plunge?

A: There is no simple answer to your dilemma. The balance of risk and reward is truly an individual equation, and what may be the correct choice for you may be a terrible choice for someone else. And security for you may mean something very different from what it means to me. Listen to your own wants and your own needs, and not to what anyone else thinks--and good luck in whatever you choose.

TRADITIONAL CIO VERSUS STARTUP CIO

Q: I'm an IS director of 10 years with strategic and tactical responsibilities, and I've just been laid off because of a merger. I've known this was coming and started looking for another position within the last two months. I've got a tremendous severance package, so there's no hurry to land another job. However, in the last two months, the majority of "offers" have been for startups of various sorts. I'm beginning to wonder if the traditional IS director/CIO position is becoming extinct. At least it seems very difficult to find. Also, is there any advice you can give as to how to qualify a startup as a good prospect to work for?

A: In response to your concern regarding the lack of IS/CIO activity in your job search during the past two months, these were the holiday months of November and December. This year-end period is a very busy time to finish up searches and employment deals that are already in the pipeline, but fewer new senior corporate searches are launched during this time. The start of the new year should prove to be busier for you.

Having said that, the frenetic pace of technology startups doesn't seem to respect the calendar. It's 24/7 activity for available venture capital to find the good ideas and for startup companies to find good leadership. Speaking of finding good ideas, dig into the backgrounds and track records of the backers and the management team of a technology startup company to gauge its probability of success. Trust your gut and the feedback of those you trust as to whether the idea is good or not.

CAREER FEEDBACK

Q: I have been a project manager in applications development for 15 years. I feel I am ready to move to the next level. In a previous response to a question about readiness in pursuing a director or CIO-level position, you stated that an independent evaluation of that readiness might be appropriate. Where does one obtain an independent evaluation?

A: The very best source of career feedback, including readiness evaluation, is a mentor who is committed to and capable of being candid, objective and comfortable giving constructive criticism as well as positive reinforcement and encouragement. If you don't have a mentor, seek one out--preferably someone outside your own company or at least someone who is not above you in your direct reporting chain. Look for a mentor in industry groups and associations, or call into a neighbor company and do some networking of your own. Your mentor should be someone you admire, both for his or her career accomplishments but also for leadership, values and style. Regardless of whom you choose, assure yourself that this individual is truly honest with you and not just saying what you want to hear. Second opinion? Your boss, of course. Third opinion? A good IT specialist search consultant.

YOUTH MOVEMENT

Q: I am a young person in a senior position in a top 10 IT and management consulting/accounting organization. I manage many people, projects and budgets. I believe I'm on the fast track to the director level, which means I will be a director by the time I am 30.

My only complaint is that I don't have a manager, so I feel I am always reinventing the wheel with my people. I outsource myself as CIO-CTO to companies that are without one. Several of these companies have approached me about becoming their CIO-CTO on a full-time basis.

My concern is that they do not know how old I am. Will it scare them off if they find out that a 25 year old, out of college for a little over two years now, is at the helm? Would I be better off remaining in the consulting company and becoming a director?

A: Wow, what a wonderful problem to contemplate! To begin with, let's focus on the fact that you can and are routinely doing the bulk of the CIO-CTO job today, at least on an interim basis. Yes, there are differences--some significant--for a permanent executive, but that just says there's still much for you to learn by making the switch, sooner or later. Second, if you are good at what you do, what does it matter how old you are? At worst, your youth may lack some wisdom based on depth of experience and lack of "seasoning." At best, your two-plus years of intense "Big 10" experience has given you more than two years' worth of learning and growing, not to mention a variety of experiences. Third, your clients have seen you perform and deliver, and they want you despite your age, and guess what: They probably know and they probably don't care. If you love consulting, then stay. If the idea of being a corporate CIO or CTO is tugging at you, then jump right in.

ANOTHER EDUCATION MOVE

Q: I'd like to follow up on the April 1, 2000, question about the director of IT who was wondering how he or she could make the move from an IT professional/management position to an IT educational/teaching position at either the college or high school level. And the answer: "...The world of education can be an extremely rewarding one despite its lower pay scale and lack of equity possibilities. But it is culturally and environmentally very different from what you have been accustomed to." I'm an IS director in the same boat, and I'd appreciate your expanding on the cultural and environmental differences you referred to.

A: There are several generalized differences in culture and environment between industry and academia. The most commonly cited is the notoriously slower pace in the academe that is caused by committee-oriented decision making and bureaucratic management, especially in public institutions and complex funding models. And with no profit and loss or shareholder value concerns, the educator is free of the pressures of corporate life, and the world of education therefore tends to attract a more passive academic profile, in both faculty and administrative personnel.

On the other hand, great school and university leadership can be as intensely focused on both qualitative and quantitative (for instance, enrollment, contributions, academic rankings and so on) metrics as their industry counterparts.

E-COMMERCE TRANSITION

Q: I manage a $50 million print department and have developed many skills in a marketing operations business environment. I have been with this company for about 24 years and have an excellent relationship within the corporation and management, but the company is for sale.

I have been approached internally to manage a team for our recently developing e-commerce department. My concern is that if a company buys us with an e-commerce business already in place, my new e-commerce department may disappear and I'm out of a job. However, do I take the risk, jump in and get the business skills and knowledge so that if it goes badly, at least I will have these new skills in demand added to my rsum for future opportunities?

A: You have absolutely nothing to lose and everything to gain by taking on responsibility for the e-commerce department. Yes, if the new owner doesn't need your services, you will leave the company with new experience and skills to put on your rsum--experience and skills that are very much in demand today and for the foreseeable future--plus the likelihood of a severance package along with strong prospects for immediate employment.

On the other hand, given the scarcity of good e-business people, it would be far more likely that the new owner will want to keep you on. In that case you can even negotiate a bit for a good deal to stay. And if your current employer is a public company, it's also likely that your stock options, which may be considerable in light of your 24 years of service, will vest upon change of control. The last thing you want to do is continue managing a legacy operation, the print department, at a company that is for sale--talk about being expendable!

Mark Polansky is a managing director and member of the advanced technology practice in the New York City office of Korn/Ferry International. He has also been recently named the chairman of the Greater New York Chapter of the Society of Information Management. The web-based Executive Career Counselor column (found on CIO.com) is edited by Web Research Editor Kathleen Kotwica. She can be reached at kkotwica@cio.com.

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