For CIOs who experience some kind of enterprise IT failure in the course of their careers—whether a high-profile security breach, massive network outage, or multi-million dollar ERP boondoggle—the incident can feel like a career killer. But unless a CIO repeatedly makes the same mistake, or the failure stemmed from some illegal or "just plain stupid" action, it won't end a CIO's career, says Mark Polansky, senior client partner and managing director of Korn/Ferry International's Information Officers practice.
"There is as much—if not more—to learn from something that didn't work as something that did," says Polansky. "Every one of those experiences is a life lesson and goes into making you a better CIO."
CIOs who wish to recover from failure just need to know how to address suboptimal work experiences in their job searches and during job interviews. Consider the following five tips for addressing the fiascoes that occurred on your watch with prospective employers and executive recruiters.
1. Fess up. Don't ever try to hide failure; you won't get away with it. If an employer doesn't already know about, say, the ERP catastrophe at your previous employer, they will find out about it eventually. Better you be the source of that information than someone else.
"A good offense is the best defense," says Polansky, who advises CIOs to proactively address their failures in job interviews. "Always bring it up. Doing so gives the candidate credibility and shows that he or she has the confidence and sincerity to broach the subject of the failed project head on."
2. Anticipate prospective employers' concerns. When framing how you discuss your failure, put yourself in your prospective employer's shoes and think about the concerns they'd have with your candidacy, advises Peter Handal, president and CEO of Dale Carnegie Training.
For example, employers will want to be assured that such a failure will not occur inside their company. They'll also want the details around what happened, why it happened, what you learned from the experience, and how you will prevent similar events from occurring in the future, says Polansky.
3. Accentuate the positive. One failed project among 10 successful ones is no big deal, says Handal. He advises CIOs to put any failures they've experienced in the context of their larger successes.
"Explain that a particular project didn't go well," says Handal. "State the reason, and if you made a mistake, explain what you learned. Then point out all the other successful things you did."
4. Offer references who can back up your story. Make sure your references will corroborate your explanation of events when employers and recruiters call them.
"If the failure was outside the CIO's purview, such as a change in business circumstances or corporate strategy, I would have references who could confirm that information," says Polansky. He adds that executive recruiters and employers will contact the references the candidate provides as well as individuals they know in the candidate's industry to vet the candidate's story.
5. How you discuss your failure is sometimes more important than the actual failure. John Hamm, author of Unusually Excellent: The Necessary Nine Skills Required for the Practice of Great Leadership (Jossey-Bass 2011), notes that the questions about failed projects that come up during a job interview are sometimes a smokescreen. When a CEO asks a prospective CIO questions about a failed project, the CEO may be more interested in how the CIO confronts the failure, rather than the project itself, he says.
"The CEO could be testing for how the CIO sees the situation and if the CIO is willing to be accountable," adds Hamm, who is also a former CEO. "They know the [CIO] role is hard and that stuff fails. They want to know how you [the candidate] will handle it."
It is possible for CIOs to continue enriching careers in IT leadership despite high-profile flops staining their track records. After all, most organizations have some tolerance for failure.
"If you don't take risks, you can't try anything new," says Handal. "And if you take risks, you'll have some failures. Encouraging people to take risks is an important part of any organization, so you have to be tolerant of failure."
Adds Polansky, "It's always possible to recover. Sometimes, it just has to be at the right place and right time."
Meridith Levinson covers Careers, Project Management and Outsourcing for CIO.com. Follow Meridith on Twitter @meridith. Follow everything from CIO.com on Twitter @CIOonline and on Facebook. Email Meridith at firstname.lastname@example.org.