By all accounts, Jim Onalfo has successfully moved from the ice cream and cheese business to the top IT spot in the NYPD. How he adapted to the iconic police culture, with no previous law enforcement experience, is simple, he says. “My philosophy is that you need to understand how to be a CIO first—then you can adapt to any role. I didn’t know anything about law enforcement, but I did know how to run an IT shop,” Onalfo says.
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According to CIO recruiters, Onalfo’s cross-industry migration is representative of a trend in which CIOs are no longer bound to one vertical segment for their careers. “I would call [Onalfo’s move] progressive, not radical,” says Marc Lewis, CEO of the Leadership Capital Group, which places CIOs. “If you look at industries that hire people from within their industry, the result usually is an inbred technology function, with less creativity and less economic value added.”
With only a few industry exceptions, such as financial services and retail, which tend to hire their own, companies are now looking to hire CIOs with fresh ideas regardless of the industry they came from. Lewis says CIOs who operate in parallel industries can move the easiest. Parallel doesn’t mean competitors, he says; it means companies in different industries with analogous challenges that might not be apparent on the surface.
For example, a company like Merrill Lynch might look to an IT person who worked at global travel distributor Sabre because both companies deal with huge amounts of real-time, mission-critical information, where physical or financial life is at stake.
As another example, industries such as health care look to financial services for fresh talent because those IT leaders thrive in a high-reliability environment with emphasis on privacy, security, and large consumer databases and transactions. “When the application sets are similar, there’s movement,” says Mark Polansky, leader of Korn/Ferry’s Information Technology Center of Expertise across North America.
However, not all industry switches are created equal, says Martha Heller, managing director of the IT Leadership Practice at executive recruiter Z Resource Group. Going from the media to manufacturing industries, or moving from government to the private sector, might be switches where the skill sets are too distinct from each other, Heller notes. She also says that when she talks with CIOs about their career interests, industry-specific desires are always low on the list. “Things they mention are challenges, compensation and location,” she says. “When I ask them, ‘Do you care what industry the position is in?’ typically they say no.”
If the NYPD had asked Polansky to find it a CIO, he says he probably would not have looked to the manufacturing industry as a primary source for candidates. For him, the common denominators between the NYPD and another industry would be building and maintaining a large number of “customer” databases, experience with mission-critical information systems and typical back-office functions (time and attendance of cops). Financial services or retail would be his first options, “where maintaining and retrieving customer information and database mining is a big deal,” Polansky says.