by Christopher Hoenig

Challenges for IT Leaders Who Think They’ve Done It All

Sep 15, 20026 mins

Most of the CIOs I meet are overachievers. They don’t stay satisfied with any situation long. Once they’ve worked through the alignment challenge, the architecture and systems development portfolio, and the other fundamentals facing today’s CIOs, they often yearn for something more. The best leaders are usually gazing over the horizon at that next adventure.

Over the years, I’ve had hundreds of conversations with CIOs looking for a way to take their work to the next level. I’ve heard a lot of good ideas?and recommended some?for CIOs who feel they’ve taken their job as far as possible.

There are three ways to think about what you could do next: in your current position, outside your job but still at your current company, and somewhere else. Which route is right for you depends on your circumstances and your appetite for risk.

At Your Job

Within your current job you have the advantage of an existing platform from which to explore, but you’ll have to be especially aggressive to find that feeling of adventure. So if you haven’t done one of the following already, give it a try.

Prove yourself. You may think you’ve got the job nailed, but can you prove it to the world? Do you have ISO (International Organization for Standardization) certifications? Have you won a Baldrige or Deming award? Have you won a CIO magazine Enterprise Value Award? Pick the one that’s right for your organization and put yourself to the test.

Invent your future. Make it your goal to develop a patented technology that underpins your business strategy. Choose R&D areas that put you on the bleeding edge. Scour the world for new technology your organization can use.

Tell everyone how you did it. If you’ve really made it, then write an article or even a book about it. Develop a training course internally or at a college or university. Get on the speaking tour and tell your story.

Stack yourself up against the best. Arrange benchmarking visits with five top CIOs. Then judge whether you really have done it all. Chances are you’ll find some areas in which you can do better.

At Your Company

If you step beyond the CIO job but stay in your current company, you have a stable foundation but also some pretty big risks and high degree-of-difficulty challenges. These will immediately take you outside your comfort zone. Are you up for the following tests?

Lead a major companywide effort. Take charge of a major strategy project, an award competition, a pervasive problem or a little-noticed opportunity, and use it to gain notice throughout the company. One CIO I know started an entirely new business line based on new software technology his team had developed.

Conquer more territory. If your portfolio doesn’t contain information, technology, knowledge and systems, work to get control over them and put yourself at the top of the heap. I know a CIO at one of Wall Street’s biggest financial services companies who convinced an incoming CEO to give him control of all those functions. Then he slowly and strategically gave them away as he built his business leadership profile at the organization.

Run a line of business. Cut a deal with the CEO that allows you to run a line business unit for a year, with a discussion taking place at the end about whether you’ll stay. If after six months you find the experience to your liking, identify your replacement and make the switch a fait accompli.

Move up the ladder another rung. If you’re a business-unit CIO, set your sights on the corporate job. You might even find that the person in that position is anxious to develop a replacement.

Get on the CEO track. Meet with the board members and the current CEO and tell them you want to get on the track for the top spot, and find out what the requirements will be. At the same time, work with headhunters and with other CIOs who have made the transition to get their take. You may not make it, but you’ll learn a lot along the way.

Going Elsewhere

There are some fabulous adventures to be had by just picking up stakes and getting on the road. Every one of the following I’ve seen done with failure and success?but never without excitement, learning and seasoning.

Trade up. Use your peer network and executive search companies to put you in the running for the CIO job at a bigger, better company, with challenges that are massive compared with yours. Just be sure it’s not more of the same.

Turn the tables. Develop a limited partner relationship with a venture capital fund and help it review technologies. Invest yourself, if you can, and then help grow the companies as well. Few things are more challenging or more rewarding.

Do it yourself. Some of you will not be able to resist the idea of your own startup. It’s high risk but high return, and nothing else will test your limits as well. As one investor said to me, “For a new business to fail, any one of 10,000 things could go wrong. For it to succeed, they all have to go right.”

Serve your country. Some of the most demanding CIO positions in the world are now being recruited. Nearly all of those organizations are looking for corporate talent with a track record. You might be able to take only a year or two, given the cut in salary, but you could contribute to solving some of our country’s greatest problems.

Save the world. Nonprofits (also known as nongovernmental organizations or NGOs) come in all flavors, sizes and shapes, from the masterfully run nature conservancies to the Mom-and-Pop utopians. Somewhere in this large sector there may be an organization that needs you and fits some ideals you’ve been dying to satisfy?just so you can tell your kids you did something special.

The bottom line is that if you’re bored or feel you’ve reached your limit, there are lots of options. Get out and challenge yourself by talking through these ideas with colleagues and new acquaintances outside your network.

Take your time and think carefully about how a move will contribute to the growth of your leadership capabilities. It’s worthwhile to put together a kitchen cabinet of five to seven interested people willing to be held accountable for watching you and helping you through a big challenge.

Most importantly, get your heart, mind, soul and spouse aligned on whatever you try to do. If any of those get significantly out of balance, your big adventure can turn into a big disaster much earlier than you think.