The New Glass Ceiling
- 05 June, 2006 09:00
How's business? What have you been up to lately? Simple questions, and for all 35 years of my professional life, they have been easy to answer. Indeed, the challenge was making sure I didn't dominate the conversation with the excitement, changes, promotions, projects and successes over the years! I love challenges. I love problems. I love turnarounds. Let me at 'em!
That was certainly my attitude when I joined a global manufacturing firm in 2000. Yes, it was the smallest shop I had managed, but it didn't matter because of all the interesting opportunities: re-engineering the infrastructure, implementing best-of-breed applications that had been purchased but mothballed, and repositioning IT from a cost centre to a competitive advantage. It was an exciting time.
Losing My Endorsement
Fast-forward to late 2005. The infrastructure engineering was complete, the European IT functions had been centralized and then decentralized, and the applications had been implemented. In addition, the company was going through a major management transition. But it was not unusual by any corporate standards and I had already survived three CEOs and two CFOs. I certainly expected to continue that track record. However, that was not to happen this time; the "chemistry" that bonds executives just wasn't there. Some people refer to this as "losing your endorsement", and that is a pretty good description. If I had been a major league athlete, I would have been traded to another team for some cash and some new talent. And that's OK too, because in my experience, there was always another great opportunity around the corner. The transition out of the company was graceful and dignified with the assistance of an excellent HR VP. I still have the personal farewell note from the CEO pinned to my home office bulletin board.
A New Glass Ceiling
Anticipating changes in the air, I had begun letting people know I was back "on the market" in mid-2005, confident that I would be recruited into another great opportunity in just a few months. And it started out just like the old days: interviews with executive search firms, and the follow-up interviews with key people at some very interesting companies. You know the drill. I had been down this path before and felt totally confident when I was told I was in the top two. Then I found out that the other candidate was selected. Hmmm, this was a new phenomenon for me.
Perhaps, I reasoned, the other candidate had specific supply chain functional responsibility in addition to IT, or perhaps my qualifications were more extensive than the company wanted. But now that a few more months have gone by and this pattern is repeating itself, I realize that something really has changed in the marketplace. I was one of the first CIOs who moved from the business side to the IT side in the early 90s. I always had communication at the core of my management style, and CIO surveys say for the fourth year in a row that communication continues to be the most critical need in IT. What's up? What's different? I am better qualified today for the CIO role than at any other point in my career. I have the experience, the energy and the drive to do an outstanding job.
My natural analytical tendencies kicked in, and I started to dissect each of my job encounters to see what I could uncover. When I didn't get the job, who did? What qualifications did the other candidates have that I didn't? I figured once I understood the playing field better I could fix the problem. Right? After all, I have built a career on fixing things.
This is what I discovered: It is not about the skills or qualifications. It is not about industry experience or being overqualified. It is about age.
Attention Baby Boomers
To me this is the ultimate kick in the head. As a career woman who has worked very hard since the 1970s to achieve credibility in the business world, who broke through the glass ceiling in business operations and then did it again in IT, I hate to think that age is the issue, because there is nothing I can do to change it. Age is the most irrefutable thing in our lives.
How ironic: At this point in my life, I am enjoying more things than ever. Now that my children are grown I have time to pursue new interests - bicycling, skiing, travelling, buying that cute convertible. I have never been more alive! Most people think I am in my 40s. So how do interviewers find out my real age? Perhaps it's those subtle little questions they ask so innocently when you are in the interview process such as: "Are your children in school?" Attention all baby boomers: Just say yes and then change the subject. I figured out that answering the question the way I did - "Yes, and now they are starting their own careers" - was a huge mistake. That's when the wheels fell off, so to speak.
The next thing I looked at was whether this was just my experience or was it happening to others as well. Very interesting findings surfaced here: First of all, there are a huge number of former IT management personnel who are "in transition". The one thing we all have in common is that we are over 50. From discussions at various meetings and over coffee in one-on-one chats, it is clear that we are all in the same boat. Yet our colleagues who are over 50 and still working do not seem to be aware that this phenomenon is happening. My message to you is: Stay at your current employer as long as possible because once you leave there is nowhere to go.
What a colossal waste. Companies are losing the advantage of great workers with great experience, great energy and in my case seven to 10 more years of meaningful contributions.
The third thing I have discovered is I have a choice: I can remain frustrated or get a new perspective. I choose a new perspective, and I do so every day. I started by creating a business card for myself with a new title: "CIO-at-Large". Most IT professionals searching for the next opportunity introduce themselves as "so and so, in transition". That just didn't sit well with me so I decided to describe myself with something that energizes me. This has opened up lively discussions about what I can do in the marketplace now, not what I used to do.
I am very busy these days, attending open forums, IT information exchanges, breakfasts and special interest group discussions. I have been facilitating meetings, joining advisory boards, leading panel discussions and providing a lot of free coaching to colleagues over the past few months. There are days when I don't know how I managed to have time for a 60-hour-plus workweek.
Recently new opportunities have presented themselves. I interviewed with two outstanding companies and I could enjoy the role offered in either of them. One would require relocation and I am open to that as well. We will see what develops.
What Is My Life Mission?
The more important question is: What do I really want to do when I grow up? I have reached a point in my life where I get to answer that question all over again. That is a bit unnerving. Fortunately, I am working with an executive life coach who is helping me identify what my personal mission is all about. It is a lot more comprehensive than a job and a title. The pursuit of identifying what would make me feel happy and satisfied is one that is long overdue. Interestingly enough, this search and the networking activities I engage in are moving me toward consulting opportunities. I enjoy a great sense of accomplishment when I can help other IT professionals achieve more success.
My coach says that "life is a never-ending series of temporary events". This statement resonates with me and I fully expect that this evolution of my life and career will continue. I can't wait to see what the next "temporary event" will bring.
Sheleen Quish is the former CIO of a global manufacturing company based in Chicago, and she is currently a CIO-at-Large. You can contact her at email@example.com