by Nick Booth

CIOs are still in demand

Jun 07, 200913 mins
CareersManufacturing IndustryTelecommunications Industry

With the economy heading south and no proven sighting of those much vaunted green shoots, it might not be the most obvious time for headhunters to go a-scalping but, perhaps surprisingly, demand for top-notch CIOs continues apace. Indeed, some believe that with offshoring, cost-cutting and consolidation changing the face of IT operations – and with technology the only game in town for those companies seeking to transform themselves – the best IT chiefs will be more in demand than ever. With this in mind, we spoke to leading headhunters about what they’re looking for.

Click here to read part one, What are headhunters looking for?

Tim Cook Executive director and CIO specialist at Russell Reynolds Do you use LinkedIn? We don’t do LinkedIn! I’ve never found anyone using it. There’s nothing wrong with it, but it’s not how we work. We are retained by a client, and we don’t work on commission, so we aren’t driven by that. We have a long-term objective. We source into the market and end up knowing lots of people and how companies work. We know who we can go to for unbiasedad advice and can ask, for example, who has got a good reputation for, say, SAP projects. On the other hand, we can ask the client the best questions on the structure of the organisation, and the way the role of CIO is organised, because we have a knowledge of the company. Then we can find a group of likely people, and present them to the client. Before we do that, however, we’ll have spent a lot of time with the client, got under the skin of the brief, found out what the team is like, what the boss is like and what’s the real scope of the job. Then we interview the candidates.

Do you have the same suspicion of CVs? A CV is a sales document. The job of a search firm is to get under the skin of that, whereas a recruitment firm will be more motivated to push the sales documents version of events. Obviously, not everyone tells the full truth on their CV so we look for evidence of specific competency. For example, we’ll ask how did you deliver [on the claim made on your CV], how did you lead people, how influential were you? You can only get a true feel for that information if you spend time with people. The focus is on how you achieved things, as we have to make a case to the client as to why we chose you.

So strengths and weaknesses are laid bare? Yes, we’ll say to the client, say, Bill is good on delivering, whereas Mary is strong on team building, whereas Mike could use support in these areas and is less tactical, but brilliant on influencing the board and getting the job done. When you’re explaining your strengths and weaknesses, you need to think [about] what are the best anecdotes to exemplify your argument. If you end up using an example off the top of your head, it might not be your best one, and you need to get your strongest material clear in your mind. You need to be on top of your CV and clear about how you achieved these goals.

It’s not all about self promotion, surely? No, the most impressive thing about someone is their achievement, and being told about this achievement by someone else – which is why we do a lot of asking around, rather than relying on people’s CVs. The best tactic, in that case, is to deliver on your projects. If your project objective was to drive down costs, then deliver on that. If you deliver well, people will talk about you. If you have delivered on a project, make sure you are credited for it. Make it clear what your contribution was. Have a clear idea what would have happened on that project if you hadn’t been involved. The best way to deliver is to deliver. If you can get Nick Booth to write about that successful implementation in CIO, even better. Press coverage will help raise your profile further.

I’m suspicious that the interview is a bluffer’s charter. What claims can CIOs make up, safe in the knowledge that they won’t be caught out? Be very careful about lying, because it will be exposed. We had a client that took five years out of his CV. It was very difficult to trace, but when we contacted his university for proof of his degree, they didn’t have a record of him attending. They did have a record five years earlier though. It turned out he re-wrote his CV to make him look five years younger. Another company was about to give someone a job and the recruitment agency hadn’t screened him. Human resources ran a check and found out that he’d served six months in prison. Another man claimed to be CIO of General Electric. It turned out he’d been stretching the truth, as he was a divisional CIO, which was impressive enough anyway. That sort of job grade inflation doesn’t work, and it raises more questions about you and your level of trust.

Paul Elworthy Associate director, banking and finance IT, Hudson Recruitment Is there still a price on the heads of the CIO? There’s definitely been a drop off in hiring. The demand for CIOs among head-hunters and recruiters has decreased. There’s still a need for people who know their market, but it’s a different market now. The people who are wanted now are the ones who can budget, or get by on a minimum. People who want to get headhunted as CIOs need to know that they’re there to support the business. So the people who can deliver the support to, say meet objectives like meeting new markets and new opportunities, are the ones who will be in demand at the moment. Only now you are going to want someone who can do this and get by on a little money, while somehow managing to retain good staff. In some companies, a strong CIO leads and goes to the business with ideas. If you enjoy that role, you might not like it when the tap of cash is turned off. People who thrive on change would like the old market, but often the skills needed are in consolidation. What you are measured on is change management and on your skill in keeping spending to a bare minimum. We have seen demand rise for CIOs who have overseen big outsourcing or offshoring projects.

Which areas are seeing movement? My specialist area is investment banking, and that has seen massive movement. But if you’ve adapted well to the economic environment, you’re unlikely to be replaced by your employers. The name of the game is re-using and redeploying resources.

How can CIOs make themselves more visible without seeming desperate? A headhunter’s job is to know all the top people, but to bring yourself to our attention you might want to do your own PR or get someone to do that for you. There are certain web sites which put out news bulletins free, if you put up a posting. and are both good ways of getting your name out there. The CIO of the Year competition is another good vehicle. Anyone can be nominated and immediately your name is known. You should definitely update your LinkedIn profile regularly. Recruiters use LinkedIn profiles extensively. To get to the right person there is rarely a direct path. Awards dinners are a great way of getting noticed, as is commentary in magazines. You may want to hire a freelance journalist to ghost-write this for you. If you regularly update your LinkedIn profile, or Xing, you will do your chances of being headhunted a world of good. The job of finding the right CIO is very labour-intensive, and if you do anything to make it easier to find you, then you are probably increasing your own chances.

But being headhunted must be an ego boost? It is easy to find some CIOs off putting. Some have a tendency to be too arrogant. A CIO is hired by people who run the business and who want someone who knows their place is to support and deliver on strategy. On the other hand, you do not want someone who will let IT become the whipping boys, so you have to be able to support the business and manage expectations. Success and failure are often a by-product of poor communications, which leads to acrimony between the business and IT. Simon La Fosse Founder, La Fosse Associates How does the search industry treat candidates? I’ve been in the recruitment industry 25 years and I wanted to change the way it was run so I started again with a new company. My founding principle was that we should treat the candidates with greater respect than is the norm in our industry. Not that I’m claiming to be some sort of philanthropist; I just believe that it’s good business sense to treat your people well. So we give support and advice to candidates. We offer free seminars, and one-to-one coaching. We offer it for free and absorb the cost ourselves. I believe it’s worth it in terms of the goodwill it generates. Candidates need support, beyond just putting you into a job and saying, “well done”. Which is why we’ve started to offer coaching from an ex-CIO who is now a qualified coach. A lot of agencies tell you what to say to get the job. We don’t believe in that. We’ll give you feedback – if you’re being too verbose with your answers, for example – but we don’t want people to bullshit in interviews. I think the recession might see a thinning out of the search market. The people who play a numbers game, with CIOs as fodder, might find things pretty hard.

Do CIOs have a fault in interviews? It might be that the logical nature of their job means that they are anxious to explain things in detail in an interview. But often there’s far too much information presented. You don’t want to leave the interviewer feeling as if they’ve just tried to drink from a fire hose. A good discipline is to try and give a top-line explanation to each question, from a purely business perspective. If they want more information, or a fuller explanation, they will ask for it. I wouldn’t advise anybody to gild the lily in interviews. This is an industry where you are judged on achievements and you rely on the support of your team. The results you achieve are there for everyone to see and you can’t talk your way out of it as perhaps you might be able to as a journalist!

So how do CIOs come to the attention of a headhunter? LinkedIn is effective up to a point. But the main priority is simply to focus on being outstanding at what you do. Good people tend to get spoken about, they move up fast through an organisation and they get recognised by their peers. Public engagements can help too. Presenting at seminars and being in the press helps. But a word of warning there: don’t spend too much time on the circuit and away from the coalface. It’s a tough job and you need to be in front of your stakeholders every day, ensuring they’re getting the return on their IS investment that they expect.

What skills are in demand? All the obvious suspects, really. Ability to drive change, reduce costs and drives value, show good leadership up, down and sideways. Increasingly, I see top CIOs having outstanding relationships with their suppliers. So much of their results are achieved via third parties there is a genuine need to partner properly rather than keep them at arms’ length and manage them simply according to a contract. Lastly, I’m not sure it’s in demand necessarily, but I do see more and more of the better CIOs taking on another area of responsibility within the business. It seems to me that the most highly regarded CIOs are being pulled into other areas where they clearly have value to add.

Donald J. Zinn (pictured) Managing director, Starpoint Executive Search How is the CIO market? You know Dickens? “It was the worst of times, it is the worst of times…”. I’ve never quite seen times like these but we hope the worst is past us and with spring will come more than just longer days. But it’s perhaps not as bad as you would expect. Recruiting still goes on because change creates more change, and on top of that there are still companies that are growing and hiring. CIO, CTO and CA (chief architect – a new C-level title we are seeing a lot of play on) moves continue and that means there needs to be recruiting done to replace them.

Are creative CIOs being booted out in favour of budget CIOs? I don’t think CIOs or leaders in general are being given the boot to make room for people with different skills. I do think that companies are cutting back, however, and looking to do more with less. The typical pattern has been an over-reaction by hiring companies – they get rid of too many in the inevitable RIFs [reductions in force] and other moves, then need to fill the gaps with consultants, and ultimately need to recruit back some of the talent they let go. That being said, other than musical chairs, the growth that we saw the last few years – in particular as reflected by hiring in the venture capital and private-equity funded growth company sector – has slowed to a crawl. Financial services technology recruiting is also very slow, as you can imagine.

James Lloyd-Townshend Managing director, Hays IT Has demand for CIOs fallen? The market for CIOs is relatively unchanged. Recruitment at this level continues, regardless of what happens in the wider economy. Some employers have been using the downturn to improve their teams and CIOs are no exception to this.

What skills are companies currently seeking to recruit? Companies are increasingly looking for CIOs with strong communication skills, as the role has become much more business-facing. The CIOs who can demonstrate their cost-cutting efficiency will be the most successful in securing roles in the current climate. These days, IT departments must deliver change across the whole company. The success of IT transformation programmes can make or break IT departments and those CIOs who are behind their implementation.

Let’s talk for a moment about the importance of social networks. Is it -important to blow your own trumpet on LinkedIn? Those successful CIOs must raise their profile and the profile of their employer. If a CIO works in a defined industry sectors – like government, health, finance or the utilities – it will have close networking groups anyway, where failure or success is equally visible. But whatever sector you’re in, networking skills don’t just keep CIOs up to speed on innovations taking place elsewhere. They also keep you up to date on career opportunities, should you be on the lookout for a new role.