When being different is good
Q: I’m at a director level and want to take the next step. Placement on boards (either at small companies or nonprofits) seems to be a good differentiator. Is this accurate? What are some strategies I can pursue to gain such placements?
A: Becoming a board member can be a positive professional move for all involved. A nonprofit organization would benefit from your willingness to contribute your time and insight. And a small company typically dealing with issues of growth would also benefit from your experience. Don’t underestimate the insight you will gain dealing with the problems of smaller organizations, and the broader exposure to operating and corporate policy issues beyond information technology.
If you are interested in a particular nonprofit, identify the existing members of the board and contact the president to inform him of your interest, and indicate your willingness to help. Offer to take on a project or provide some insight. This will give you a look at the organization as well as provide the leadership of the organization a look at you. If you can offer a professional service that is required by the organization, consider providing it pro bono in return for a board seat.
Approaching for-profit companies requires different tactics. My recommendation here is for you to identify and approach the investors. Most smaller companies are funded by venture capital or private equity organizations. I suggest you identify which ones are active in your area and reach out to introduce yourself. Make sure you have a current r¿m¿and be prepared to review your credentials with a partner. Do some homework prior to your meeting; most investment firms publish a list of the portfolio companies on their websites, and it would be helpful for you to know the companies the firm has funded before any meeting.
Finally, you might consider targeting an industry. For instance, if you possess deep telecommunications expertise and are aware of the “issues of the day,” target the VCs and private equity firms that concentrate on this industry, as your experience will resonate a little better.
A word of warning: If you sign up for a board position, you need to recognize it as a commitment to keep. You need to be present at the board meetings and attend the required functions. This may seem obvious, but I have seen directors sign up for multiple boards only to be “overcome by events” and miss half the meetings.
Partner of Heidrick & Struggles
A Budget Buster?
Q: I have been in IT for the past 10 years with various roles under my belt (engagement manager, account manager and project manager) from a Big Five consultancy and leading e-business product companies. I have an MBA. To transition into a senior IT management role in a company, it looks like one needs to have managed budgets. This is one skill I do not have, even though I have indirectly managed a budget and resources by leading large projects for clients. How should I position this when I am applying for a director or senior director role? Do I need any other experiences to make this leap?
A: To overcome the concern that you lack budgetary management, you need to be able to talk about project costs that you or your boss managed, even if your contribution was not direct. Emphasize your project planning and process skills, the dollars spent on the project and indicate where you came in on time and within budget. If you do not have enough hard information about the budget, you should talk with your clients or boss and gather some facts. You never want to misstate your responsibility, but you need to indicate that there was a budget and that you were involved at some level in its management and control.
In addition, try to talk to some directors and vice presidents of IT to find out what they do in planning and managing their budgets. This will help you ask intelligent questions about a company’s budgetary processes and show that you are interested.
President of Halbrecht Lieberman Associates
The School Differentiator?
Q: I am currently working as CIO for an investment advisory firm. I have a bachelor’s in accounting and a master’s in information science. Should I pursue industry-specific credentials, such as Series 7 or Certified Financial Planner, or go back to school for an MBA?
A: The pursuit of additional education should be considered in the context of where you want to head in your career. Getting a Series 7 and the Certified Financial Planner credentials is great if you want to stay in the investment field and possibly expand your role outside of IT.
However, if you want to prepare for continuing your career growth in general management in or out of financial services, then an MBA is an important credential. Outside of the investment field, the MBA is the more broadly recognized degree that is considered suitable for senior executives.
Q: Are there any part-time positions or job-sharing positions for senior management in IT?
A: I have not heard of job-sharing arrangements for senior-level IT people. If they exist, employers created them to accommodate specific people who have worked for them and have a need to be part time. I think part-time arrangements are more abundant for individual contributor roles such as programmers.
Bridging the Great Divide
Q: My IT team is split between highly technical resources and nontechnical businesspeople. There is a lack of respect from the techies. How do I help them overcome this and convince them one can be a good manager without being highly technical?
A: This sounds like a test and challenge of your leadership skills, and it is a prevalent one in most organizations. The skill sets required in the IT organization have changed over time, resulting in a mix of skills and experiences dramatically different from that of the past.
Your leadership is more important now than ever before. Make sure you have a crisp vision for where your organization is going, that everyone understands the organization’s mission and that each person knows how she can contribute. You must have all of this in writing, disseminate it and make sure you communicate, communicate, communicate!
A basketball team does not have five guards or five centers. There is a center, two forwards and two guards on the floor at any one time, each with a particular assignment. When each of them does his job, they win. The new IT team requires nontechnical yet specialized skills to accomplish its goals.
Pick Me, Pick Me
Q: Since many IT people are looking for work these days, companies have an ample supply of candidates. How does one stand out above all others to get noticed during the submission process?
A: Without question, we are in a somewhat unusual time as there have been sizable layoffs and many highly qualified people looking for work. To begin with, the stigma of being unemployed is not what it used to be. If your unemployment is the result of a massive reduction in force, most prospective employers will not hold it against you.
To “get noticed” during the submission process requires you to distinguish yourself above and beyond others. First, be realistic. For those positions that you are qualified for and have a high level of interest, you need to take initiative. Be aggressive but temper this with good judgment. Find out everything you can about the opportunity, and recognize that there are several objectives. The primary objective is to be selected for the interview phase of the recruitment process. The process for selecting candidates is different from company to company. You need to find out who is managing the process and get your credentials in front of him. Try to have a live phone conversation with this individual, and discover as much as you can about the position and the type of individual the company is seeking. If you are still keen on the position, ask for an interview highlighting why you believe you are match for the opening.
Follow up your phone conversation with a thank you note and a fresh copy of your r¿m¿Customize the cover letter to indicate why you remain convinced you have the skills for the position. Meanwhile, conduct as much research as possible on the company, industry and its competitors. Do you know anyone at the company who might provide any insight on what life is like as an employee? In general, be as upbeat, creative and eager as possible without being disingenuous. Be yourself and make a positive impression. You may or may not get the interview, but at the very least you have made a contact that may result in something positive down the road.
The International Scene
Q: I am a director-level IT executive who has worked globally and managed a multinational organization for a conglomerate. I recently returned to the United States where I am an IT director driving business transformation for the CEO and CIO. However, I really want to get back overseas—working and leading in a multinational environment again. Who could I work with to get back on the international track?
A: To find a position overseas, you need to start networking with people you know who are in a position of influence. You should also target a number of companies that interest you and do some homework to find out their needs overseas. Join a few professional IT associations, such as the Society for Information Management, where CIOs and their direct reports get together on a regular basis for professional development and networking. Also, you should contact some good executive recruiters who have multinational clients and be sure they know you. Have a very clear and well-developed r¿m¿hat speaks to your skills and accomplishments that you can send to people.
Q: I have been with my company for 15 years but have not been able to break into the top layer of IT management. While I am regarded as a senior manager, I’m still waiting on a promotion to that grade level. I have led major projects and managed departments successfully, reported to and gotten good reviews from several members of the top management team, and have assisted the senior team, including the CIO, with strategic planning and executive-level presentations. I enjoy my work but don’t feel appropriately recognized or rewarded, and I am continually frustrated by my failure to make it to that top level. I’m 55 and have a lot invested here, so I’m hesitant to leave. However, should I realistically be considering a move?
A: Given the facts as you have presented them, there seems to be something in your way, some obstacle that is preventing you from reaching that position you covet in the ranks of “the top layer” of IT management. Your first consideration is whether there have been others who have been internally promoted from your level to the top echelon, or any outsiders brought in at the upper ranks. If neither of those has occurred, you may be in a situation that for whatever reason simply does not offer the growth potential you seek. Possible reasons might include very low management turnover, shrinking IT funding and poor performance of the enterprise. In any of these cases, I recommend you consider external options that would either get you to the next level directly or a lateral move that would position you for upward movement in a high-growth environment.
Alternatively, if you have truly been bypassed for promotion, your next move is a serious sit-down with your boss—preferably away from the office, over lunch or dinner perhaps—for a heart-to-heart discussion of the reasons behind the lack of recognition. You must be prepared to hear what you may not want to hear and to listen carefully rather than react on the spot. Afterward, be brutally honest with yourself and judge if this is fair and accurate feedback. If so, seek out developmental assistance to overcoming these weaker areas in your skill set or experience. If, on the other hand, you sincerely disagree with the assessment you received, get a second opinion. If you are still skeptical, put together and present a thoughtful and constructive response to the CIO. If all this fails, then it’s time to craft and execute your job search strategy.
-Mark Polansky, Managing Director and Member
of the Advanced Technology Practice at Korn/Ferry International
Pick My Mission
Q: I am the first CIO at a small industrial equipment company. My previous six years of experience was as a CRM and sales-force automation consultant. I have looked over where we are technologically, and based on our business plan have started plotting a direction by dividing projects. I plan to present this to senior management in a cafeteria-type model in which senior management could pick and choose what they see as important. Any critical infrastructure changes will be included, but not optional. Do you feel this is a good approach?
A: Your query is more about the successful execution of your mission and your performance as a CIO than it is a career strategy question. That said, you should definitely not give senior management a smorgasbord of IT projects to pick and choose from. Instead, work with an executive sponsor from the business side of the company for each project and build a business case, which must include ROI or measurement of anticipated financial impact, for each proposed undertaking. Then rank-order the list of projects that the business leaders—not you—endorse and are willing to present to senior management as their own. Without that business alignment and buy-in, you won’t succeed. With their support and their credibility on the line, your business peers will fight with you for funding and collaborate with you on each project’s success and ultimately yours too. Additionally, present worthwhile infrastructure projects as your own, each with a fully developed business case as well. Then it’s up to senior managers to determine how far down the list they wish to approve and fund based on their appetite for cumulative IT investment, and the balance of priorities between IT projects and other requests for capital expenditures.
Option A or B?
Q: I have been the MIS director (the top IT position) for a law firm for six years. I have two job offers on the table. Job No. 1 is a second-in-command to the CTO (top IT position) of a midsize, not-for-profit credit union, with three direct reports and 11 indirect reports. This new job has no strategic management responsibilities. Job No. 2 is at a midsize manufacturing subsidiary of a large international organization. It is the lead IT position for one plant, with direct reports. Less money, but I don’t have to move. Which job is better for my long-term career goal of attaining a CIO position in either the financial or manufacturing industry?
A: The answer is C, “none of the above.” As you have already held a top IT position, the second-in-command opportunity at a credit union is a step backward by taking you away from the business strategy proposition. Job No. 2 takes you away from the strategic, value-add contribution potential of a CIO role and puts you in an “outpost” situation, which will eventually necessitate a relocation for advancement. It too has little to recommend it.
If you are excited about the legal field, make up a list of the top firms in your area and contact each one proactively. Otherwise, I recommend that you continue to evaluate opportunities (the easy ones came quickly) and be selectively looking for top IT roles in small and midsize organizations that offer an opportunity to broaden your scope and scale of responsibility, or a first- or middle-tier position at a larger enterprise in which you can expand the range and depth of your IT experience and business knowledge.