Switch Hitting: How to Change Industries

Have you been typecast? Here’s some expert advice on breaking out of the industry mold.

Seventeen years ago, you innocently took a job as an IS manager in a healthcare organization. Now, after following a vigorous career trajectory from company to company in positions of increasing responsibility, you look in the mirror and staring back at you, to your horror, is a “healthcare CIO.” You’ve been typecast, but you’re tired of the challenges endemic to your industry, and you want a new role.

What do you do? How do you convince a financial services CEO, who is keen on bringing in a business-focused IT leader, that you are the best fit for the job? How do you move into a new industry without taking a backward step?

You don’t, says Don Parker, who is EVP of Operations and Technology at BOK Financial Corporation and has spent his career in financial services. “Ten years ago, when the application of technology was more generic, IT knowledge could translate across industries,” he says. “But today, technology is how you compete and your value as a CIO is based on your ability to drive the business. Your best offers will come from the industry in which you have expertise.”

But despite the fact that securing a CIO spot in a brand new industry is a good deal more challenging than remaining in your vertical, many CIOs have bitten the bullet and made the move. Here is some advice—on getting the job and keeping it—from a few of them.

1. Think carefully about the industry. Before you decide to dive headlong into a new industry, you need to do a “gut check,” advises Bart Thielbar, VP of IT at Northwestern Energy, who moved from insurance to utilities in 1998. “Are you moving toward something or away from something?” he asks. “If you’ve had trouble succeeding in one industry, you may have trouble in the next, and this time you won’t have the same support networks.”  

Thielbar also advises that you think long and hard about the future of the industry you are considering. “Understand that trends like regulations and consolidation will put pressure on your company and your job,” he says. “Make sure you can stomach those trends.”

2. Go for the late adopters. When Thielbar decided that he was ready to move on, he looked specifically for an industry that currently spent less money on technology than insurance but that was gearing up to spend more. He saw that the utility industry was on the verge of automating its consumer processes, and successfully targeted Northwestern.

3. Follow the vendors. Wayne Sadin, CIO of Aegis Mortgage Corporation, agrees with Don Parker that your best bet is to pick a great industry and stick with it. However, if you are set on making a move, he suggests you take a look at the business development strategies of your vendors. “Let’s say you’re an expert in workflow or imaging,” he says. “Go to those vendors and ask them what industries they’re trying to break into. Take advantage of all of that good market research.”

4.  Make subtle, not drastic, industry changes. Rafael Sanchez, VP and Group CIO of the Carnival Corporation, has worked in his share of industries, but they contain a common element—the consumer. “I’ve worked in consumer products, food service and travel,” he says. “They definitely have their differences, but they are all focused on the customer, and from a technology standpoint, they have a lot in common.” If you’re the CIO of a hospital and your goal is financial services; do a stint at a health insurance company before making your ultimate move.

5. Go pro bono. In 1999, Jan LaHayne, CIO and Global Leader of Customer Service for Littelfuse, moved from a career in the food industry to a whole new world of electronics. She recommends that once you’ve selected the industry of your dreams, you do some pro bono work in that industry to get some experience on your resume (and some contacts in your Rolodex). “Go to your industry’s association and ask if there is something you can do for them,” she suggests. “If I wanted to work for Microsoft, I would find out what nonprofits they support and do pro bono work for them. Now you’re rubbing elbows with the right people. I’m doing that with the Brookfield Zoo,” she says. “If I ever decide to go into nonprofit, I’ll have the experience. “

6. Highlight the similarities. Once you’ve found the industry, company and, most importantly, the CEO who will entertain your candidacy despite your lack of direct industry experience, you’ll still need to manage your interview. When Mike Sebastian, who was directing IT for the San Diego Sheriff’s Department, was on an interview at TD Industries, a construction company, he asked a series of questions about the outgoing CIO’s interaction with the actual business of construction. “I learned during the interview that while its business may be construction, the company lives and dies by project management and remote connectivity,” he says. “I was able to show them during the interview how important those skills are to the business and how relevant they were to my own background. In the end, I got the job.”

7. Hire a number two from the industry. Aegis’s Wayne Sadin suggests that once you’ve chosen your industry, managed the interview and landed the job, you look hard at the industry experience of your direct reports. “If I were moving to a new industry, I would make sure that my number two comes out of that industry, or I would bring someone with industry experience in,” he says. “When two levels of IT don’t know the industry, the discussions get pretty surreal.”

To be clear, many companies want CIOs with industry experience and will not talk to you unless you have it. But there are plenty of cross-industry opportunities for CIOs who look carefully enough. For those of you who have made the switch, what experience or advice can you offer to your peers?

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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