Over But Not Out

Not everyone, however, holds ambitions of a seat at the board table or a late-life career. Some want to shift completely out of the corporate arena, bound for a more conventional form of retirement

For CIOs in their mid to late 50s "career is over" starts to take on a new meaning as the time comes to plan the descent from the career peaks. But true to form, these high-power men and women view their next step as simply a new beginning

"I'm calling from Venice," was the opening gambit from Linton Scott, former CIO of investment bank ABN Amro. That is the sort of thing some CIOs get up to when they leave the job.

The Venice sojourn, however, was just a punctuation mark in a still busy schedule. Scott has entered another phase of his life, and while no longer a CIO he is most certainly not out to pasture. Scott is busy consulting to corporate clients, developing software, volunteering his IT expertise to a heritage society, getting to grips with superannuation legislation, leveraging off his experiences investing in commercial property and, on a higher and more personal note, securing his private pilot's licence.

A career CIO, Scott spent 18 years in the financial sector and before that was CIO at Australia's largest law firm. Now in his 60s, he is branching out.

Some CIOs crack out of the CIO mould early: after a Macquarie Bank career including 12 years as CIO, Gail Burke became managing director of BNP Paribas Securities Services. Ralph Norris, a former CIO of New Zealand's ASB Bank, is now CEO of the Commonwealth Bank. Mary Ann Maxwell, a former Westpac CIO, has forged an analyst career with Gartner, as has Mike Kennedy, formerly CIO of the NSW Office of State Revenue.

For these individuals, however, the CIO role was not a career peak; it was a career rung.

For others the CIO role has been part of a career continuum. Chris Gillies, for example, is now a board director, mentor, consultant and part owner in the Rupert's Ridge vineyard. She was CIO of the Bank of Melbourne until it was taken over by Westpac in 1998. Although she was offered other CIO roles, she took on a project to integrate St.George Bank and Bank of South Australia's operations. Since then she has had a series of management and consulting roles, her most recent brush with CIO-dom being in 2003 when she was interim CIO of Dunn & Bradstreet.

"My working life has been a series of opportunities and I've moved with them rather than having a specific plan to be a CIO," she says. In fact Gillies never had a career plan; it was not until she was 59 that Gillies, now 62, started planning her career and identifying how she could "convert the knowledge and capabilities of 40-plus years working", as she puts it. "One comes of an age where you are the product of your life. When you get to 60 you can be yourself and don't have to bullshit with anyone."

She certainly does not see age as an inhibitor and expects to remain on boards for at least the next five years. "I cannot see why I could not go through to 70, and also do community work." (Gillies works pro bono for the Multiple Sclerosis Society and Australian Homecare Services.)

She is not alone in having little in the way of a formal career plan for most of her life. While younger, so-called generation Y workers are renowned for taking charge of their career trajectories, demanding choice and flexibility; it was corporations that directed older executives' careers, only occasionally interrupted by calls from head hunters. It was while working in executive search that Julie Perigo watched a gap emerge in the market - no one was serving the needs of executives in their 50s or older.

These senior executives - often at the peak of their careers - were left alone to fathom their next career step. They were not well equipped for the challenge, says Perigo who has established Re-inventors, which works with employers and executives to identify how best to harness the skills of older executives. "When I was in search it always used to amaze and sadden me how many very senior executives could not even describe what sort of role they would really like, even if they had the proverbial blank sheet of paper."

Not John Loebenstein. He has that piece of paper covered.

In May, Loebenstein, group executive IT of St.George Bank, bought a 100-hectare property near Murwillumbah on the north coast of NSW, on which he intends to run 80 to 90 cattle. Having grown up on a farm in Zimbabwe, Loebenstein always believed he would get back to the land.

It will be his "next career" he says. Not that he is going yet. At 58 Loebenstein, who has been St.George CIO for almost 12 years, is still enjoying and is committed to his executive role, but he is laying the foundations for the future, and besides farming hopes to take on one or two board positions for the intellectual stimulation as much as the financial reward. "I would like to see the knowledge I have gathered leveraged," Loebenstein says.

So what would be the triggers for him to make the decision to step down? "The moment that I feel I'm getting bored or not making the contribution that I would like to be making," he says. "If I want to go and do something physical and exhilarating then I need to do it before I'm arthritic. I don't feel like I'm old, but I am.

"I'm sure my cattle will have RFID tags and the farm will have video-controlled gates. I am a gadget man. I'm also immensely practical. I won't be retiring - just doing something different. If it doesn't work we'll sell the farm, come back here and become a nuisance."

Loebenstein has the luxury of planning when to go. Linton Scott did not.

Scott's CIO career ended at the end of 2005 when his employer outsourced its IT to EDS. "I had the chance to move to EDS or stay with the bank as a go-between." Neither option had much appeal, so Scott left at the age of 62, three years earlier than he had planned to retire. Since then he has capitalized on his IT experience, consulting to a range of organizations and developing applications. He has also taken on voluntary work with the Sydney Heritage Fleet, which needed help overhauling its membership system and obtained a private pilot's licence. He has become something of an expert regarding superannuation rules, and is helping other people navigate the intricacies of investing in commercial property.

Although he is enjoying the consulting work and juggling the financial and intellectual risks associated with committing to develop IT solutions for clients, Scott acknowledges that he misses the "cut and thrust of the [CIO] role".

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Attitude Adjustment

Adjustment to a new life is something that ought not to be underestimated, according to Carmel Gray, the former group executive, IT, of Suncorp, who retired in order to move to Melbourne and seek directorships. It took her a year to come to terms with the changes.

Although Gray has successfully re-engineered her life, she acknowledges it wasn't easy. After giving up a role that she loved she moved back to Melbourne and took a four-week holiday. "Then reality sets in and I found the first 12 months a huge adjustment. My life was no longer largely governed by a great job, intellectual challenge, great people and routine. I lost my place in the world, really.

"However rosy and right your decision, there will be much bigger adjustments than you might expect," she warns. "Do I miss anything? Yes, the people I worked with, the senior team. I miss being in the cut and thrust, but not to the point where I regret it. I've got a much, much better work-life balance."

Gray and her partner, who also works from home, have had to adjust to seeing so much of one another. She has also taken on more of the parenting responsibilities for their daughter, and she walks the dogs more often.

It was a family decision to move back to Melbourne from Brisbane that led Gray to leave the position of CIO of Suncorp and embark on the next phase of her career. "This was very much a family decision. However I didn't feel I'd done my dash. But I didn't want to be 60 looking for a new career. I was 55 when I retired, I'm 57 now."

Gray had no urge to take on another CIO role. It would have been hard to top her experience at Suncorp, she says, especially the last three years she spent on the executive board. "I'm very sure that was the best job to end my career, to move to anything else would have been an anticlimax."

After moving back to Melbourne, Gray spent several months regrouping and renovating a home. "I took a breather after working for 35 years. I thought a lot and took on small bits of consulting." Out and out retirement was not an option, however, as she is "not a person with enough outside interests to fill the gap left by the CIO position". Nor was part-time consulting a long-term option. "It's like eggs and bacon: Are you involved or committed?" Gray decided she wanted to commit and decided that taking on board positions was a way to invest her management experience (she was formerly a managing director of Logica in Australia) and her IT nous. Now a director of the Bank of Queensland (BoQ), Gray eventually hopes to take on another one or two directorships, but not before she has her "feet under the table" and a better understanding of BoQ.

Although she has found a seat at the board table, Gray believes such opportunities are few and far between for CIOs. "Oh I had endless opportunities to go on IT boards but I've resisted that so far. It's very difficult because most boards think that IT is something that costs a lot, but that they can get by with the odd expert and consultant. They don't understand how important and strategic it is. It is important to have someone among their number to ask the hard questions about IT: Are we investing appropriately? Will this last?

"I see boards say they want an IT innovator on the board, but I think they are missing the point. You need someone who understands the need for long-term governance and value," Gray says.

Gillies thinks there are changes afoot that will see more former CIOs prized as company directors. "The old boys' networks are gradually breaking down and there are opportunities on boards now. Boards aren't seen as a retirement job, but a skills set and capability linked to experience. Multi-disciplinary skills sets are emerging on boards," she says.

Michael Hadaway, a director of board and executive search consultants ProNed, admits that it is a "slow push" at present to get companies to understand the benefits of having a technically experienced director on board, but says that there are signs that listed companies are recognizing the need for multi-disciplinary boards.

The firm recently published a survey of board attitudes, which for the first time explored IT governance. "One of the interesting statistics is that 43 percent of boards consider that IT materially impacts on their survival, and 58 percent see this impact affecting their viability as a going concern, yet just 6 percent of boards as a whole consider that they have prime responsibility for IT," Hadaway says.

"We are heading a bit of a push to companies to get more IT-qualified people on boards. The number of IT failures points the finger - if the boards had been more aware of IT then it wouldn't have happened," he adds.

Perigo cautions that CIOs need to examine their capabilities and experience with a critical eye in order to be able to sell themselves as a valuable commodity in their later years. "A CIO, or CFO for that matter, needs to have deep self-awareness and deep market awareness to be able to deconstruct what their own skills, experiences and preferences are, and then to be able to reconstruct it into a format which is understandable and appealing to the audience they need to convince.

"Too often in search I used to see good candidates simply assume that the hirer would understand their credentials on a CV originally intended for an IT-focused role or lapse back into IT speak when feeling nervous or defensive in interview situations," Perigo says.

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Time to Smell the Roses

Not everyone, however, holds ambitions of a seat at the board table or a late-life career. Some want to shift completely out of the corporate arena, bound for a more conventional form of retirement.

For the past 42 years Malcolm McCowan has steered a steady course. The company he worked for endured several ownership changes but he remained a fixture. Since 1977 he has been the manager of information technology for what is now Dana Automotive Systems Group, which makes rear axles for Holden Commodores and Ford Falcons.

However, a decision by Holden to shift suppliers, coupled with the US parent's financial problems, led the company to announce plans to retrench 160 of its 500 employees at their Yennora, NSW, plant in July. For McCowan, the timing was good - if he could convince the company to pay him out. "I turned 64 on the first of May," McCowan says. "Financially I had to put my hand up as the tax benefits [of retrenchment] disappear at 65."

He did not expect to have his application accepted - but it was. And on July 1 McCowan left the company with a golden handshake comprising three weeks pay for every year of service, plus a further four weeks, topped up with his 10 months of long service and accrued leave. "As the tax accountant said: 'You've won the lottery'," McCowan says. "Ideally I'd have liked to go a few more years - perhaps part time - but that's not a part of the philosophy of this group."

Without the prospect of part-time work McCowan has been planning how he will spend his time, spurred by his wife's remark that "she'd married me for better or worse, not for lunch". He will continue his daily swim, luxuriating in a 6.30am rather than 6.00am start. He already has a series of projects around the house that he wants to commence or complete, and spend more time with family. Then there is his letter writing.

For the past seven years McCowan has been penning letters to prisoners in Texan jails, many of whom would otherwise get no correspondence. He is planning to step up the letter writing, and possibly also travel to Texas to meet his pen pal inmates for the first time. "I can imagine my friends here asking what I will do there, and the looks on their faces when I say: 'Well, I am going to prison'." He is also planning to spend more time doing voluntary work, and writing articles for publications and letters to other contacts around the world.

Will he miss the IT? No is the short answer. He is going to redirect his Web addresses and news feeds to his home PC, but he will not be craving any of the IT responsibilities. "No, I won't miss anything. I tend to look forward - I don't think I've got any regrets."

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SIDEBAR: Travelling Man

A keen cyclist and world traveller, Frank Liebeskind has also done tours as CIO, COO and finds himself in the CEO seat

Frank Liebeskind's first role as a CIO was in 1980 when he was hired into Kerry Packer's Consolidated Press.

"It fascinated me to work for someone who was more extroverted than me," quips Liebeskind. It was not ego, however, that kept Liebeskind in the role, or led him to permanent or interim CIO roles with Australian Cement Ltd, MMI Insurance and marketing loyalty rewards company Pinpoint (where he was first CIO and then COO). Capability and competence underscored his success and allowed him to pepper his career with stints in general management and third-party services before leaving his last full-time job in early 2005. He was not planning to stop work - just move into another job.

He admits that he never stopped to think about what he wanted to do "because every job fell into place". This time it did not.

As far as preparing to retire from a financial standpoint was concerned - well, Liebeskind simply could not. He had not been planning for retirement and most of his assets were tied up in his home. Even without the financial restrictions Liebeskind simply did not want to step back from the workplace. "I will work for as long a time as I feel I can contribute," he says.

After leaving his last job and without a full-time role in the wind he returned to his roots in consulting, only to find it a bit frustrating, "because I could see the answer, I could tell them the answer - but I couldn't implement it myself".

Looking for alternatives, Liebeskind understands it is not going to be easy to find a full-time role. He stops short of accusing recruiters of ageism, although says he has taken his age off his CV along with the fact he was awarded a Commonwealth Scholarship. Even so, "they see the experience and add it up and work out I'm in my 50s".

With a track record in technology and e-commerce companies, he has rediscovered a passion for working with start-up companies. Recently he has been developing a business and financial strategy in association with Sydney Capital Partners for CSIRO spin-off Funnelback, and in June was appointed interim CEO. "I started to rethink what I wanted to do and what I enjoyed doing. I will continue in that direction - not that I'd ignore a tap on the shoulder, it's just that I'm not waiting for the tap on the shoulder," he says.

"Yes, in some ways I'd like to go back to the CIO role but I am really enjoying doing business strategies, positioning and mentoring. The financial benefits are quite different, of course. These are start-ups so they can't pay much but there is the opportunity in the future to be involved in share equity options. I am willing to back my capabilities and experience, as I always have.

"With a permanent job and the recent changes in superannuation, I could put a lot of money into super. With start-ups, when they get to the IPO or trade sale then the superannuation's taken care of too.

"I don't care what I do as long as it's fun and a challenge."

When it is time to wind down Liebeskind has other ambitions; work alone will not define him. "I watched my father work until he was 70 and then he stopped and he didn't know what to do," he says. Meanwhile he expects even partial retirement to be at least five to 10 years away and then he would like to work three days a week and spend the other two "on other things, travelling, photography, writing books". He is also fit - being a keen cyclist, gym member and squad swimmer, although he admits these days that he is a little too intimate with his knee surgeon.

SIDEBAR: Questions to Ask

What are my options?

How might I maintain a link with business and continue to make a difference?

How do others handle the transition from the corporate ladder to something else?

How can I plan and prepare for the next phase of my life beyond the purely financial aspects?

Source: Re-inventors

SIDEBAR: To-do List

1. Actively plan for the next phase of your career - financially, intellectually and emotionally.

2. Ensure that you have a sustaining intellectual outlet.

3. Nurture your life and contacts outside of work.

4. Be prepared for a period of psychological adjustment between CIO-dom and the next phase of your life.

5. Don't be limited by boundaries. Recognize your working life as a continuum of changing opportunities.

6. Recognize the peak of your career is the mountain top - but have a planned descent rather than a plummet.

7. Don't be ageist. You can contribute for as long as you want.

8. Come to grips with the new rules affecting superannuation that were announced in the May Federal Budget.