Lessons from CIOs Turned Consultants

Maybe it was at the end of a tough week of office politics, or maybe it was in the middle of a grueling board meeting, or perhaps it was just after a business head changed the specs on a major new build, but at some point in your career as CIO, you must have thought to yourself, “Maybe it’s time I go into consulting.”

It is true that as clients, we often see consultants as a necessary evil. But from time to time, we have all imagined that life on the other side must be sweet. No politics, no tedium, no staff evaluations, and loads and loads of billable hours.

While none of the four CIOs-turned-consultants whom I spoke to for this column would describe their careers in such idealistic terms, they do acknowledge that they have reaped benefits from their career move. With their experiences as a guide, here are three different models for pursuing the consulting track, complete with solid advice and lessons learned.

1. Buy a Firm

Months before Geoffrey Hayden formally vacated his post as CIO of Jacuzzi Brands, he knew he wanted his next role to be in consulting. So, in August 2005, he purchased Bracken Consulting, a local firm that provided IT services to hospitality companies, and had room to grow. By the time he left Jacuzzi in March 2006, he had changed the name of the firm to Acxential Business Solutions, assumed the position of president and built a business plan to double revenues within 12 months.

Geoffrey Hayden’s Advice

Buy, don’t build. Hayden had recently moved his family to Texas and had neither a great local Rolodex nor the flexibility to relocate. “If you don’t have enough strong contacts to create a customer base,” he says, “buy an established firm rather than starting your own.”

Network while you’re still CIO. As CIO, you are privy to all sorts of networking venues that will close their doors to you once you’ve crossed over to the dark side, so capitalize on them now. “Start building up your networks before you need them,” says Hayden. “Join regional CIO associations and business networking groups, and learn who does what in your community before you set up shop.”

2. Join a Firm

In April 2004, after four years as CIO of Equity Office Properties, a Fortune 500 real estate company, Scott Morey decided that he needed a change. His turnaround effort was complete and maintenance mode was not providing a challenge, so he considered his options. He asked himself, “What am I? A technology person or a real estate person?” Real estate won out, so he took a managing director position at RealFoundations, a management consulting firm of 120 people that focuses on real estate and property company operations. “I looked at the traditional firms like Cap Gemini and Ernst & Young (where I had worked before), but I felt that at the large firms, I would be more narrowly focused than I wanted,” Morey says. “The smaller boutique firm gives me the flexibility to start new service lines, the opportunity to re-brand myself as an operations person, and a tremendous diversity of experiences and learning.”

Scott Morey’s Advice

Do a gut check. Morey suggests you ask yourself a few questions before taking on a consulting role: Are you prepared to travel? Morey estimates his travel at 50 percent to 60 percent. Are you prepared to continually re-create yourself? Are you willing to live with the uncertainty of not knowing what you’re going to do in six months? Do you have the right skills? (Morey lists project management, interpersonal skills and the ability to sell yourself as the top three.) Can you handle rejection?

Learn to listen. CIOs are paid to develop a plan and direct their staff to execute; that’s a different role from the consultant’s. “CIOs who fail in the conversion into consulting haven’t modified their approach,” says Morey. “They fail to recognize that they’re not a leader, but an adviser and a coach. Listening is as important to selling your consulting services as it is to being successful once you’re engaged in the work.”

Draw from multi-company experience. “Clients are looking for consultants with experience in multiple companies,” says Morey. “If you rely solely on your last experience as CIO—even if that company was a market leader—you risk alienating your client. If you come in and say, ‘I come from the best and we can fix it for you,’ you will both turn off your client and appear too narrow in your expertise.”

3. Become an Independent Consultant

When Pat Wallington left her job as CIO for Xerox Corp., she founded CIO Associates, a technology strategy consulting firm. Similarly, when Tracy Austin left her position as CIO of Mandalay Resort Group, a $2.7 billion gaming and hotel company, she decided to go into consulting. While both Wallington and Austin employ external resources as they need them, they each operate as independent consultants, responsible for their own business development and project execution.

Pat Wallington’s Advice

Be focused, but not too focused. “One of my clients had some troubled projects, so project management was what I offered them,” says Wallington. “But eventually, they asked me to do some leadership coaching. That service has become a core of my business.” If you plan to do only what you were hired to do, you may miss out on new ways to evolve your business.

Don’t be a one-client act. Once you’ve started to do good work for a client in need, that client may present you with an endless array of projects—enough to last you for a year. “That’s a trap,” warns Wallington. “Don’t be so consumed by one company that your future becomes dependent on it while in the meantime, your other contacts have gone cold.” Regardless of the revenue opportunities that one client may provide, keep your pipeline filled with new opportunities.

Tracy Austin’s Advice

Prepare for a more isolated environment. “When I started consulting, I was surprised by how much I missed developing and mentoring people,” says Austin. “Before you go out on your own, make sure you’re comfortable giving up in-house staff, administrative support, colleagues and mentors.” To mitigate the change, Austin suggests hiring a coach and inviting mentors to join an advisory board for your nascent firm.

Develop a business plan. Regardless of how quickly the business is coming in, “you need to have a business plan with clear goals,” says Austin. “I had my coach work with me to establish those goals and to help keep me on point. Without that, I would just go to work and keep on working.”

As the debate rages on about how much consulting is the right amount to have on your resume, chances are you will make the leap at one point in your career. For those of you who have walked on the dark side, what words of wisdom can you offer?

Martha Heller is the managing director of the IT Leadership Practice at the Z Resource Group, an executive recruiting firm based in Boston. She can be reached at 508-366-5800 x222 or mheller@zrgroup.com.

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