IT Careers: Should You Be an SVP?

As IT continues to move out of its service silo and into the red-hot center of business, IT professionals are seeing new career paths open up. One glance at the business cards of folks at the top of the ladder tells the tale: More and more often, that CIO title isn't standing alone. It's CIO and vice president -- or senior vice president, executive vice president or even corporate vice president.

As IT continues to move out of its service silo and into the red-hot center of business, IT professionals are seeing new career paths open up. One glance at the business cards of folks at the top of the ladder tells the tale: More and more often, that CIO title isn't standing alone. It's CIO and vice president -- or senior vice president, executive vice president or even corporate vice president.

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"IT is so important to the organization now, it's only natural that these multi-faceted titles are taking hold," says Matt Ripaldi, SVP at Modis, the IT staffing and recruiting service. "Job titles are also getting more specific. Nowadays you'll see 'SVP of infrastructure' or 'CIO of global support.' This trend just shows the centrality of IT."

At most organizations, these dual titles aren't just window-dressing. Generally, they denote extra responsibilities, extra compensation and, most importantly, extra sway inside -- and outside -- the executive suite.

"The 'and' means a lot," says Jean Holley, Group SVP and CIO at Brambles, an international container logistics company. "When you have two titles and you're at the table, you're allowed to speak to things other than just IT. If you're 'just' the CIO, you're expected to speak to IT and that's about it."

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Besides the personal benefits of adding VP to a job title -- things like a salary bump and added areas of oversight -- the ampersand on a business card helps establish rank inside and outside the organization.

Michael Reidenbach, EVP and worldwide CIO of EVO Payments International, a payment processing firm, was a pilot in the Air Force before heading into the private sector via an MBA in finance and a master's degree in computer science. He says he reads titles on a business card the way he used to read stripes on a uniform.

EVO Payments International

"In the military, you walk into a room and instantly compare shoulders. The pecking order is immediately established. In a civilian organization, titles can do the same thing -- establish who the decision-makers are," he says.

Like it or not, Reidenbach says, internal meetings have a different dynamic when decision-makers are in the room. "Ditto for third-party conversations. Vendors want to know who has the authority to write checks and sign contracts. Everybody wants to deal with the most senior person they can."

Climbing the SVP ladder

Growing into that senior person happens in a variety of ways. Some work towards and into a role that has a fixed and long-standing position in a company. For others, shifts in HR or C-suite thinking open up new titles.

Sam Chesterman, worldwide CIO and SVP at IPG Mediabrands, the global media holding company, has worked in IT in a variety of organizations, including Morgan Stanley.

At IPG, Chesterman rose from SVP and director of technology to CIO when his predecessor left and the company decided it was time to thin out and streamline what he calls "a crazy proliferation of titles" -- primarily "director" and other managerial titles -- caused by a series of mergers and acquisitions.

Today, instead of hiring someone into the role of senior director, he or she is hired as a VP, Chesterman says, which helps clarify the role out in the marketplace. "If you talk to an HR person they'll tell you that there are levels and titles," he says. "Levels have to do with determining pay grade. Titles have to do with the business card you hand to customers. They're the business-facing piece."

The multinational nature of a company can complicate that business-facing relationship. Outside of the United States, a title of "director" or "managing director" carries the clout that "SVP" carries in the U.S.

"When I sit in front of clients like KIA or Chrysler or Johnson & Johnson, they focus on the SVP or the CIO title," Chesterman says. "If it's Unilever in the UK, they want to see you have director in your title. Still, I don't typically put SVP on my business card -- worldwide CIO is a multinational title and carries that weight."

Michael Pitt started in the 1980s as a system programmer on mainframes, moved to application programming and then to project management. With each step, he felt respect for his skills grow. He moved to a new company, where he became a senior principal; at his next job, he was VP of IT solutions and services. Today, he's director of consulting and VP at CGI Federal, the U.S.-based arm of CGI Group, the Canadian IT consulting and outsourcing giant.

"My own path was pretty straight, but I've known people go from a large company to a smaller company to take a better title, then move from a smaller company to a medium or larger company in order to take on more responsibilities," Pitt says. "These are tradeoffs that make sense."

CGI tried to recruit Pitt for nine years, he says. He finally decided to take the company's offer to become VP this July. He took the job for the usual reasons -- broader benefits, better compensation and a better retirement plan -- but the biggest lure was the career growth potential inherent in taking on responsibility for a larger P&L. "I'm a VP reporting to an SVP who reports to the CEO," Pitt says. "If my next move is CIO somewhere, this will put me in a good light."

Dual track career planning

When it comes to career planning, Brambles' Jean Holley has always taken the long view. As a pioneer among women in IT and engineering, she set out 30 years ago to build a career that would advance along a dual track.

"When I went into engineering, I made it a goal of mine to hang out with non-engineers and to learn from everyone I could on the business side," Holley says. "People looked at me cross-eyed. I recognized that I wanted to run an overarching information systems organization, and that that was really a business leader's job. It was pretty 'out there' at the time. Plus I was a woman."

Holley progressed from a job in the steel industry to one in high tech consulting, then went on to a nine-year stint at Waste Management Inc. From there, she became the CIO for USG Corp., the giant construction materials company, becoming its first corporate CIO and first woman to be an officer of the company. In her last four positions, she's held dual titles that included EVP, SVP and Group SVP.

Besides building a broad base of learning and a diversity of experience, Holley advises that those interested in a dual role find a mentor. "You want someone who is on a different ladder, not someone who is one or two rungs above you on the same ladder," she says. For her, that was the head of sales at Waste Management, a man she met in the middle of her career. "We were opposites but we both stretched the other out of our comfort zones."

Getting the title you want

In a hot market, titles can be negotiated more freely than in the past, says Suzanne Fairlie, president of ProSearch, an executive search firm based in Philadelphia. She recalls a recent placement she facilitated for a mid-sized multistate company. The candidate under consideration, who would be reporting to the CFO, was offered a job as VP of IT. The candidate wanted the position, but wasn't satisfied with the offer, holding out for CIO to be added to his title. "The job was the same," Fairlie says. "But having the dual title made all the difference to this person."

Modis' Ripaldi sees companies becoming more amenable to such title negotiations. "We're in the midst of a talent war," Ripaldi says. "With the booming market and people landing multiple job offers, you'll see companies getting more flexible with titles."

But companies that don't institute clear rules for titles can end up with trouble on their hands, Ripaldi adds. "Without a disciplined approach, employees can get distracted, and that leads to low productivity and low morale," he said. Like karate belts, job titles should follow a clear (if not necessarily color-coded) progression that's "well thought out and clearly communicated," he says.

Ripaldi notes that older, more staid professions like finance and manufacturing tend toward more rigid job title structures. Newer industries, including tech-based organizations, often have more fluid titles -- at times forgoing titles altogether. However, as industries progress, titles tend to "grow up" he says -- people like and need to know where they stand in relation to one another.

To some people, however, fussing over titles is just a distraction.

"Titles are overrated," says Sean Chatterton, VP of digital development at Direct Brands Inc. His path to VP-dom came about through a larger management transition. In 2008, a shuffling of leadership created a VP title where none had existed before. His business card changed -- formerly, he'd been associate director -- but his role and responsibilities did not.

Or at least, not immediately. "When I got the VP title, frankly, it was a little inflated," Chatterton says. "But now the job has grown. It's now a more accurate reflection of the title than it was back then."

In the end, however, Chatterton believes that the information gleaned from a few letters tacked on after a name is vanishingly thin compared to what you can find out by taking "one minute to look at a resume and see what someone has actually done."

"If someone is in charge in IT, they're a significant player in strategy and tactics. I don't think tacking on an SVP title changes anything," Chatterton says. "But if you have institutional issues, where IT is just a service and not integral to the business and part of every strategy meeting, that won't be fixed with a title change. It will be fixed with leadership. It's not a title problem; it's an institutional problem."

Mike Capone would agree: Having a double-barreled title is all to the good -- but only if you're deploying both of them to the same end. Capone, currently corporate vice president and CIO at ADP Inc., started his career as a programmer. But he knew that his ultimate goal was, as he puts it, "to become a business-focused IT professional."

"I didn't wake up every morning and say, 'How do I get a job as a VP?' It was always, 'How do I make life interesting?'" Capone says. After earning an MBA at night, he went to work at a branch of ADP implementing Oracle Financial Accounting systems. He spent 15 years in IT, then left to become a general manager for global outsourcing with the title senior vice president. It all came together in 2008 at ADP when he was offered the role of CVP/CIO.

"The bottom line is that your capability in a company isn't judged by how many servers you manage. Your credibility comes from your ability to leverage IT for the business," Capone says.

This story, "IT Careers: Should You Be an SVP?" was originally published by Computerworld.


Copyright © 2013 IDG Communications, Inc.

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