Career Management For Tough Times

Four tactics to help ensure your professional survival despite the downturn

When I started this column in 2005, I truly believed the tenets of executive career management were unchanging. But in this new economic climate of fear, uncertainty and doubt, when the supply of qualified IT leaders has suddenly outstripped the demand, I realize that I was mistaken. For all of you who are on the market (or would like to stay off it) I offer an updated career management primer.

Hold onto your job. I got a call from a CIO whose company merged IT and ops and the ops guy got the gig. The CIO now found himself on the market and wondered why he was not chosen to lead the new organization. The answer is simple: He didn't demonstrate the same level of leadership as the other guy. CEOs are scrutinizing their executive ranks to choose the team that will get them through the next year. Simply doing your job and "knowing the business" is no longer enough. You must align yourself to the pressures of your business as the CEO understands them, be proactive in offering solutions, and step up your leadership game. "Challenging times are when executives can really demonstrate their ability to lead," says Exelon CIO Dan Hill. "Long ago, I discovered that most of the professional success I experienced came after a period of pain."

Manage your expectations. I just placed a VP of global applications in a great company. With a baby on the way, the candidate needed the job but was a little disappointed: He really wanted to be a CIO. In talking with him, I was reminded of a resume trend that I call "the 2000 blip," where an executive with a fantastic career joins a dotcom and then after the company goes bust, spends a year getting back on the corporate ladder. A decade from now, what will '09 look like on most corporate resumes? Will CIOs make lateral moves or downgrade into VP positions? Adjusting your definition of a successful career in this economy may help you make smarter choices.

Stay close to your industry. In better times, I encouraged CIOs who wanted to switch industries to select their target companies and network their way into those roles. "Technology transcends industries," I used to say. Now, with CEOs sweating every hire, CIOs on the hunt need to walk, talk and smell like an industry insider. "Stay within your core industry, but define it broadly," suggests Jeff Campbell, who recently retired as CIO of BNSF Railway. "This would not be a good time for someone like me, who has been in transportation and logistics my whole life, to transition to Mary Kay Cosmetics. But I could make an effective argument that my railroad experience translates well to telecom, airlines and oil and gas."

Become a consultant. A growing group of companies are deciding not to replace their outgoing CIOs. Instead, they are giving IT ops to a capable director and then bringing in consultants for strategy and crisis management. If you've ever considered a career in consulting, now is a great time to give it a shot.

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