Alternative Careers for CIOs

Profiles of three IT executives who have paved new career paths outside of IT.

It wasn’t so long ago when the only opportunity facing CIOs seized by the desire to tackle new challenges was to move to a larger firm. Today, IT executives have more opportunities than ever to expand their careers.  As the CIO role has grown more business oriented, strategic and recognizable, the skills required to perform the job successfully, such as the ability to sell ideas, build consensus, attract and retain talented staff, and manage a budget, are not unlike the skills necessary to carry out any other executive role.  Consequently, more and more CIOs are moving into operations, becoming CEOs, and joining technology vendors in business development roles, to name just a few of their potential paths.

“There are some things you develop as a CIO, certain transferable skills like getting alignment between IT and senior management, developing leaders and strategic planning that there’s a need for [regardless of what you do],” says Carl Dill, the former CIO of Time Warner and McDonald’s who’s now chairman of Technology Solutions Co.

Sometimes, pursuing a new career isn’t something you intended. Whether you were laid off or forced to resign from your position, you’re suddenly out of a job and need to find something new.  Keep in mind that you don’t have to be a CIO.  Take stock of your career, assess your skills and think creatively about other professions where you can use those skills.  This is a valuable exercise even if you’re currently employed since having a back-up plan in the event you do lose your job is always worthwhile, says Sheleen Quish, the former CIO of a manufacturing company who’s now a consultant.

Sandra Hofmann, the former CIO and chief people officer of Mapics who’s now COO of the Turknett Leadership Group, agrees: “Anybody who finds themselves at that time for a career change—or who has one thrust on them—needs to reflect on their exceptional skills that they could transfer to other industries or positions and that are skills which they want to continue to use.”

What follows are profiles of three former CIOs who’ve moved into new roles and the skills that enabled them to get there.

Carl Dill: Taking Control

Current Role: Chairman, Technology Solutions Co.

How He Got There: The AOL and Time Warner merger announced in 2001 eliminated most of the corporate IT function, and with it Carl Dill’s position as CIO of Time Warner. Although he was offered a job running a start-up infrastructure services business within the combined company, Dill, then 56, decided it was time to do something different. 

“Every day CIOs have to worry about infrastructure, cost structure and personnel issues. I wasn’t motivated at that stage of my life to do the same thing again,” he says. “I had worked for other people and big companies for so long that I felt I had enough insight into all of that.”

To chart his next course, Dill contemplated what he liked most about being CIO, and that was grooming leaders. He also knew he wanted more control over his life, so in 2001 he started his own consulting business, TriCour Partners, to help small technology companies and professional services firms with their strategic planning and leadership development.  His 25 years in the corporate world gave him the financial flexibility to strike out on his own.

The same year, he joined Technology Solutions’ (TSC) board of directors. He also became a director of ThoughtWorks and an advisor to Arxan Technologies. All three organizations sought out Dill for his experience as a discriminating and long-time buyer of technology products and consulting services. (Prior to joining Time Warner in 1998, he worked for McDonald’s for 16 years as its CIO.)

Technology Solutions’ board named Dill lead director in May 2005 because, he says, it agreed his IT industry expertise and background as CIO could help the then-struggling company more directly than some of the other board members.  Indeed, as a former CIO, he has instant credibility with TSC’s clients, many of whom are IT executives. Because he’s walked more than a mile in their shoes, he has an easier time connecting with and advising them, he says. Consequently, he was named chairman and acting CEO of the company in December 2005.

Although Dill is relinquishing the CEO title (he hired a CEO who started in December 2006), he isn’t ready for retirement at 61. “I’m likely not going to move out of a direct role. I want to continue to add momentum and add value,” he says. 

Transferable Skills: Dill says CIOs’ intimate knowledge of technology and the IT industry easily carries over to consulting. “Running a technology consulting business is very similar to what you have to do as a CIO,” he says. “Job one for a CIO is to align IT with senior management and business priorities, to make sure IT investments fit the needs of the business.   You have to manage investments and priorities and make sure they’re aligned with senior management or the board. Serving on the boards of technology companies, you have to make sure that the shareholders’ or investors’ interests are lined up with the company’s product and service offerings,” he says.

Sandra Hofmann: Sharing her experience with others

Current Role: COO of Turknett Leadership Group; Executive-in-Residence at Georgia Tech’s Advanced Technology Development Center (ATDC); Board member of TechBridge, AAA Auto Club South and Akrometrix; Chair of the American Electronics Association’s Southeast Council and chair elect of the Society for Human Resource Management

How She Got There: Sandra Hofmann has possessed a clear picture of what she wants to do in life for years. Unfortunately, it was a tragedy—her husband’s suicide—that forced her more than 10 years ago to focus on her role in this world. “At that point, I thought my life was over. But through the experience, I came to value the time that I have and the impact I need to make on others,” she says.

So when her former employer, the Alpharetta, Ga.-based manufacturing software vendor Mapics, was purchased and she left her post as CIO and chief people officer, she knew precisely what she wanted to get out of her next job: new challenges, new learning experiences, and the opportunity to share with others the lessons she’s learned about leadership, change management and innovation over the course of her 25-year career in IT.  It was just a matter of finding the specific assignment that would meet her needs. Fortunately for Hofmann, money wasn’t a factor; she had received a generous compensation package from Mapics that afforded her the luxury of taking a six-month sabbatical from work.

Hofmann considered looking for another job as CIO after Mapics but ultimately decided against it. “The more I reflected, the more I thought, I’m at a point in my life where I need to try something different,” she says. “I found there were places that needed the skill set I had, much of which I had acquired as a CIO, that were outside of that arena.”

One such opportunity was with the Turknett Leadership Group, a boutique consulting firm based in Atlanta that focuses on executive development, business strategy ethics and culture. Turknett’s founders, who had heard her speak at events in Atlanta, approached her about coming to work for them. She knew the company had a good reputation and was attracted to its mission, so she accepted a 50 percent pay cut and signed on full-time as Turknett’s EVP and COO in January 2006.

Between Turknett, the boards she sits on, and the work she does with Georgia Tech’s Advanced Technology Development Center, Hofmann is as busy today as she was when she worked for Mapics.  “I’m driven to make sure I use my time here well, and if there are minutes left over every day, I spend them thinking about what I can do to make a difference,” she says.

Transferable Skills: All of the work she’s doing with Turknett, the ATDC and TechBridge calls on her knowledge of technology and the IT industry as well as the experience she had as a CIO leading organizations through cultural, organizational or technological change, growing leaders and making every penny count.

As Turknett’s COO, Hofmann is helping the organization use technology to grow its business and to deliver components of its educational programs. Although her new role sounds very similar to a typical CIO role, she says it’s much more focused on revenue generation.

Because of the similarities between the CIO and COO posts, she thinks more IT execs can move into operations. “I talk to so many CIOs who have really been prepared to be COOs because they’re the only ones besides the CFO who have visibility across an enterprise and as a result see a way to help the whole enterprise operate better on a daily basis,” she says.

(For more stories about Sandra Hofmann, see Chief Change Officer and How to Hire So You Don’t Have to Fire)

Mike Altendorf: Learning new skills and keeping his options open

Current Role: Renaissance Executive Forums Franchise Owner

How He Got There: Mike Altendorf found himself in the midst of a career catch-22 after leaving Ace Hardware in June 2005. He wanted to return to his roots in marketing, but having most recently served as Ace’s vice president of IT, convincing headhunters he could make the cross-over wasn’t easy. “Recruiters told me, ’You’ll never make the transition.’ They’re not looking for someone who’s been a VP of IT to fill a VP of marketing position,” he says. They told him the only way he could get back into marketing was if he first got an IT job with a company and then made the switch internally. But he wasn’t ready to jump back into IT for fear of being stuck there; he wanted to keep his options open.

In July 2005, Altendorf received a call from a former Ace employee who was working for a company that connects individuals with opportunities to run franchises. The colleague helped Altendorf, who had been toying with the idea of starting his own business, find Renaissance Executive Forums, a membership organization that offers peer advisory services to senior executives at small and midsize companies.

Altendorf purchased a Renaissance Executive Forums franchise in March 2006.  By purchasing a franchise, he essentially runs his own business without the risks associated with starting his own firm: He doesn’t have to build systems or processes from scratch; he can use Renaissance Executive Forums’. The company also provides its franchisees with training, operations manuals and a support staff for cold calls.

Currently, Altendorf spends his days exercising his sales and relationship-building skills by meeting with business owners to explain Renaissance Executive Forums’ programs and to encourage them to buy memberships. The work is a lot different from what he did as VP of IT, but just as challenging, and sound experience regardless of what he pursues in the future. “I hadn’t been a direct sales person ever in my career,” he says. “Learning to be a better sales person was a skill I was enthusiastic about honing. It’s a skill that will serve me well no matter what I do in the future.”

Altendorf’s goal is to run four peer groups of eight to 12 executives. Once his groups are up and running, he’ll be facilitating monthly half-day meetings with each group during which time members will have the chance to pick each others’ brains on how to run their organizations more effectively. He also provides one-on-one coaching with members each quarter and conducts a two-day planning retreat with members each year.

Altendorf says he’s going after business aggressively because he has kids to put through college. He notes that he has the potential to earn as much if not more than he would earn as a vice president inside a corporation. “You can have a very successful, lucrative business, or if you don’t want to be that aggressive, you can run two groups. Or if you’re retiring and only want to work part-time, you can do one [group] and still have income coming in,” he says. “Ten or 15 years down the road, if I’m still doing this, I could ease my way out. You can’t do that in every franchise.” 

Altendorf hasn’t ruled out a return to IT. To keep in touch with the industry, he’s teaching an MBA course on managing information technology at Northern Illinois University and doing some consulting. “I may go back to the corporate world some day, and if I do, I want to stay on top of IT because that may be a good entry point for me,” he says.  But at that point, he’ll probably be ready for a VP of sales role.  

Transferable Skills: Altendorf says a lot of the skills he acquired on his way up the corporate ladder are appropriate for what he’s doing now, such as mentoring, problem solving and creating agendas for meetings and facilitating them. As Ace’s VP of IT, one component of Altendorf’s role was to provide individual Ace store owners with the applications and systems that would help them succeed. He’s still helping business owners be more effective, just in a different way: by bringing together the right people to serve as each other’s consultants and sounding boards. He’s also imparting the strategic thinking he honed as an Ace executive to his group members.  “Sometimes small and medium-sized companies are short on strategy.”

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