From the beginning, Fred V.* saw signs of the end. He’d just accepted a high-profile CIO job at a big-name food services company, and he was excited about the opportunity to develop a global infrastructure and manage electronic relationships with suppliers, stores and customers. But he also knew this big company had a history of acting small. IT was treated like a second-class citizen, and business managers ruled their own technology fiefdoms. There were no IT standards or shared strategy. The company had burned through two CIOs in three years.
But the potential outweighed the risk, and in his first six months Fred saw nothing but success. He introduced new processes and systems that improved the bottom line and earned high fives from the business heads. Then he began pressing for IT standards and outsourcing, topics nobody wanted to discuss. Suddenly the honeymoon ended. The business heads circled their wagons and shut Fred out of key meetings and budget discussions. By the end of his first and only year at the helm, he saw clearly that it was time to get out before he was thrown out. He walked into the CEO’s office and negotiated a severance package, and today he’s an independent consultant.
It’s a tricky thing, knowing when it’s time to leave. You have to be able to read the signs, whether they’re written on the boardroom wall or hidden in your heart.
For Charles Popper, former CIO of Whitehouse Station, N.J.-based pharmaceutical giant Merck & Co., the telltale signs came after seven years on the job, when he started to feel a little stale at work and was paying more than passing attention to outside opportunities. “People were coming to me casually to seek my advice on startups,” he says. “When some of these ideas sounded more fun than what I was doing [at Merck], that’s when I realized: It was time.” Today, Popper is vice chairman and chief technologist at Orama Partners, a New York City-based investment bank, where he helps startups land venture capital funding. “I’m still trying to get the best business value out of technology,” Popper says. “That’s part of the fun.”
Here’s how you’ll know that it’s time to go. You can’t get no satisfaction. When you don’t have the impact on the business that you’d hoped for (or had been promised), or IT just isn’t getting a strategic role in the company, then it’s time to move on. “I came in with a vision of what I thought I could do if IT were elevated to a strategic business role. It turned out that [vision] just wasn’t interesting to them,” Fred says.
The times, they are a changin’. Has there been a merger or acquisition, and suddenly you’re not invited to key meetings about the transition? According to Rich Brennen, global practice leader of the CIO practice at executive recruiter Spencer Stuart in Chicago, today’s most common cause for CIOs moving on is a sudden change of leadership at the top?a new boss. “New CEOs come in, and they have a perception of the CIO,” Brennen says. “Usually it’s ’We think we can do better.’”
Strike three, you’re out! CIOs are allowed their fair share of mistakes. So don’t sweat it if you blew your ERP budget, suffered a major network outage, or underestimated the scope and cost of integration after that last merger. Unless, of course, all three bombs blow up in succession. In business, as well as in baseball, three strikes and yer out!
Keep in mind that self-awareness is the key to getting out before you’re pushed. Know your strengths and weaknesses and talk with colleagues to get a sense of how you’re perceived in the company. “If you’re not adept enough socially to see what’s happening [in the company], then the time to leave could approach faster rather than slower,” warns Popper.