by Martha Heller

Career Counsel: How to Go from CIO to IT Consultant

Aug 01, 20064 mins

Perhaps it was at the end of a tough week of office politics. Or just after a business head changed the specs on a major new build. At some point as CIO, you must have thought to yourself, “Maybe it’s time to try consulting.”

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. Just loads and loads of billable hours.

None of the CIOs-turned-consultants I spoke with describe their careers in such idealistic terms but they do acknowledge that they have reaped benefits from making the move. With their experiences as a guide, here are three models for pursuing the consulting track.

1. Buy a Firm

Months before Geoffrey Hayden vacated his post as CIO of Jacuzzi Brands, he knew his next job would be consulting.

In August 2005, he purchased Bracken Consulting, which

provides IT services to hospitality companies. By the time he left Jacuzzi in March 2006, he had changed the firm’s name to Acxential Business Solutions, assumed the position of president and built a business plan to double revenue within 12 months. 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.”

Network while you’re CIO. “Start building up your networks before you need them,” says Hayden. “Join regional CIO associations and business networking groups before you set up shop.”

2. Join a Firm

After four years as CIO of Equity Office Properties, a Fortune 500 real estate company, Scott Morey needed a change. His turnaround effort at Equity was complete. 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 small management consultancy focused on real estate and property company operations. “At the large firms, I would be more narrowly focused,” Morey says. “The smaller boutique firm gives me the flexibility to start new service lines, to rebrand myself as an operations person, and a tremendous diversity of experiences and learning.” He learned three lessons from his experience.

Do a gut check. Ask yourself a few key questions before taking on a consulting role. Are you prepared to travel? To constantly recreate yourself? Can you handle rejection?

Learn to listen. “CIOs who fail in the conversion into consulting haven’t modified their approach,” says Morey. “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 multicompany experience. “If you rely solely on your last experience as CIO, you risk alienating your client,” says Morey. “If you come in and say, ’I come from the best and we can fix it for you,’ you will appear too narrow in your expertise.”

3. Go the Independent Route

While Patricia Wallington was CIO of Xerox, her husband became critically ill and she wanted more personal flexibility to accommodate his needs. Consulting was a path toward a greater choice of work assignments and more control over her schedule. Wallington is an independent consultant, responsible for her own business development and project execution. She offers several pieces of 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, founder of CIO Associates. “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, that client may offer an endless array of projects. “That’s a trap,” warns Wallington. “Don’t be so consumed by a company that your future becomes dependent on it.”

The debate rages on about how much consulting is the right amount to have on your r¿m¿For those of you who have made the switch, what words of wisdom can you offer?