How Unemployed CIOs Can Survive the Dark Days

A long job hunt takes a personal and professional toll. CIOs have family and financial concerns while they reassess their careers and face a changing job market. But here's how CIOs can emerge stronger than ever.

You got fired. You were laid off. You resigned. However it happened, you're out of work. What happens next can decide how the next several years go for you, and for your family.

For some IT executives, the job hunt can be long and arduous. In 2009, as world economies sank into recession, Mark Stone spent six months looking for a new post after jewelry chain Zale eliminated the CIO position.

Read profiles of how four CIOs survived unemployment:

For Jerry Hodge, three years passed between when he was laid off as senior director of information services at Hamilton Beach, an appliance distributor, and when he landed as director of IT at golf equipment company Dynamic Brands last year. He did some contract work during that time, but the pressure of the search got to him. "It was a struggle sometimes to maintain your emotions," he says. "Flashpoints were so low." And now he's again in search of a job.

Not only can self-esteem erode and depression set in for job hunters, but whole families can find themselves worried about the future. Marriages can disintegrate. Hodge got divorced during his job search.

Mark Tonnesen had some difficult conversations about finances with his family after he left the CIO position at Electronic Arts last July. They weren't in financial danger, he says, but having little or no money coming in was nonetheless stressful. "You have to be open and honest," he says. "I won't say it was easy. It was a continual process with my wife and family."

Mentally and emotionally preparing for a protracted search is critical, says Iain McKeand, director of the U.K. CIO practice at recruiter Harvey Nash. Not only does the supply of CIO candidates worldwide far exceed the demand, he says, but the business climate has also changed since the last time many CIOs conducted a search.

Where a CIO may once have received job offers based on reputation and well-known IT achievements, those factors are only part of the equation today. The Great Recession, followed now by an intense period of digital disruption, has left some companies--some CEOs, really--unsure of what they want from a CIO. To improve the company's use of IT? Yes. To help set corporate strategy? Maybe. To develop new products and services? Well, that might be nice if I find the right person. To transform the company for digital business? Isn't that someone else's job?

Today, says Erik Viens, CIO of the chemistry products and services distributor Univar, an IT executive must understand business and macroeconomics, in addition to knowing his target company's challenges and how he can appeal directly to the CEO and board of directors. Viens interviewed for several CIO jobs while he consulted from 2009 to 2011. Entrepreneurial flair, technology know-how, visionary skills and talent management are just a few of the assets a top CIO must possess, he says.

Or, as McKeand puts it, "A CIO has to be an all-singing, all-dancing individual."

But it's hard to dance when rejections pile up and leads dwindle. The average length of unemployment for an American worker is just over 37 weeks, according to the latest data from the Department of Labor. More than 37 percent, or 4.1 million, of the 10.9 million Americans without jobs are considered long-term unemployed--jobless for at least 27 weeks. That's down from 45 percent in 2010 and 2011, but it's still bad news: The long-term unemployed have just a 12 percent chance of finding a full-time job in any given month.

For CIOs, a job search can take six months, sometimes longer. Those who have endured the unemployment journey recommend establishing meticulous job-hunting routines, swapping stories (and tips and fears) with other out-of-work execs, and updating your approach to job-hunting. The way you target companies probably needs a revamp. Your view of the CIO role may not match the jobs available. Some IT executives are finding that positions that fulfill their desires and fill out their resumes aren't necessarily called "CIO."

More Give Than Take

On the day in February 2009 when Mark Stone was thrown into the job market as Zale did away with his CIO position, he hadn't written a resume in 14 years. He hadn't thought to build his peer network in almost as long. Stone floundered for the first two months, scraping through an outdated Rolodex for leads. When he nabbed even an informal meeting, he says, he couldn't explain what he did best. "I was ill-prepared for interviewing. The job market had changed," he says. "I was clueless."

Then Stone, who has degrees in accounting and divinity, devised for himself a new approach to networking based on an economy of goodwill. He decided to help as many people as he could through mentoring, job tips and technology advice, among other methods. He met for breakfasts and lunches and attended local professional groups and conferences. His pay-it-forward idea is that once you've helped someone, they may want to return the favor and actively look for ways to do it.

The conversations, meanwhile, helped him hone his professional pitch and revealed companies' hidden opportunities and needs he wouldn't have known about otherwise, he says. Six months later, he was hired as CIO of Safety-Kleen, an environmental clean-up company.

Ever since, he has sent a newsletter about this professional life to his contacts, as well as maintained a vigorous mentoring schedule. Stone was at Safety-Kleen for more than three years when it was acquired and the new owner installed its own senior executives. In January 2013, he told his network he was again out of a job and soon received lots of leads. "They've now got the opportunity to help me back," he says. "It was like lighting a match to a pile of dry kindling."

In April, he started as CIO for The Texas A&M University System. Stone's best job-seeker advice: "Never, ever disappear."

Your Best You

Seasoned CIOs will say that in targeting potential employers, you want to match your skills to the job opening and to the overall corporate culture. But you have to do it without losing yourself. A big mistake Stone made at first, for example, was trying to become what he thought the person across the table wanted, rather than presenting what makes him unique.

What's crucial, says Viens, a longtime CIO, is to create a statement about yourself that makes you stand out. It can be hard to position yourself correctly in the short time you get with company executives. As he has sought senior IT leadership positions over the years, he has struggled with how to get the right people to pay attention and hear what he wanted them to hear, he says. "They make decisions based on a very partial view of you."

It takes stamina to maintain a grueling cycle of preparing, interviewing and re-interviewing, then being evaluated, discussed and dissected. Throw in some psychometric testing, where companies use a series of questions often administered by a psychologist to discern attitudes and personality traits, and a job-seeker can feel drained, says McKeand, from Harvey Nash. "I've seen some [candidates] pull out of the process because of these methods," he says.

Game-Changers Need Not Apply

We hear a lot about how good CIOs should help set company strategy and spin new revenue out of customer data. While you may want to do such work, it's not part of the typical CIO job description, says recruiter Martha Heller, president of Heller Search Associates. Rather, it comes with power and status earned in the role over time.

Usually, a CIO position is open because something is wrong in the company's IT department and the CEO wants a new leader to fix it, Heller says. For example, projects may be failing, or IT may not get along well with the rest of the company, she says. Having the CIO put technology into core products and meet with external customers is far down on the priorities list.

Michael Iacona found as much during his search in 2012. He had left the CIO job at advertising firm TMP Worldwide and wanted a spot where he could significantly influence a company's performance, he says. "CEOs aren't asking that of CIOs, a lot of times," he says. Some CEOs and boards of directors, which influence CIO hiring, are skeptical of the IT leader doing anything other than making technology run, he says. After making it to the final two candidates a few times but not getting the job, Iacona decided to branch out from the CIO role.

Mike Clifford, former CIO of Whole Foods Markets, has been on a "personal sabbatical" since September 2012 and now expects that his next gig will not be as a CIO. Clifford left the $13 billion grocery chain after 12 years due to what he calls a mutual decision that "it was time for a different voice" to lead IT there. He had some exploratory talks about other CIO and CTO jobs but realized he wasn't committed to the role. He was tired of answering technology questions, he says. "My heart wasn't in it."

This year-plus of reflection has him contemplating operations jobs that contribute to growing a young company. He's no longer driven to chase titles for personal accomplishment, he says. And given that there is a limited number of large companies in the Austin area where he lives, he doesn't foresee an enticing CIO job opening soon. "I will find something I want rather than doing something someone just needs."

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