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.

Wed, February 26, 2014

CIO — 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.

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