by Martha Heller

Career Counsel – Hitting to All Fields

Jun 01, 20066 mins
IT Leadership

Seventeen years ago, you innocently took a job as an IS manager in a health-care 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 “health-care CIO.” You’ve been typecast, but you’re tired of the challenges endemic to your industry. 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 executive VP of operations and technology at BOK Financial and has spent most of 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 one vertical, many CIOs have bitten the bullet and made the move. Here is some advice from those who have switched industries on getting the job and keeping it.

1. Think carefully about the 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 CIOs to think long and hard about the future of the industry they 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 he was ready to move on, he looked for an industry that currently spent less money on technology than insurance did but that was gearing up to spend more. He saw that the utility industry was on the verge of automating its consumer processes, and he successfully set his sights on Northwestern.

3. Follow the vendors. Wayne Sadin, CIO of Aegis Mortgage, agrees with Parker that your best bet is to pick a great industry and stick with it because changing industries can be hard. However, if you are set on making a move, he suggests talking to your vendors about their market expansion plans. “Let’s say you’re an expert in imaging systems,” he says. “Go to your imaging systems vendors and ask them what new industries they’re trying to break into. Take advantage of all of that good market research.” Chances are, if the imaging vendors are targeting a specific industry, companies in that industry will value your expertise.

4. Make subtle, not drastic, industry changes. Rafael Sanchez, VP and group CIO of Carnival, has worked in his share of industries, but they all have 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 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 r¿m¿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 experience, you’ll still need to manage your interview. When Mike Sebastian, who was directing PC operations 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 Sadin suggests that once you’ve chosen your industry and landed the job, you should look hard at the experience of your direct reports to see what they can teach you. “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, 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?