by Mark Polansky and Gerry McNamara

The Road to Upper Management

May 15, 20046 mins

Q: I am an accountant, and I have been working on accounting implementations for the past seven years. I have a master’s degree in finance, I am a certified management accountant, and I am studying for my CISA. I have done a wide range of work?from implementation management and PL/SQL programming to mapping conversions of existing systems into new ones. My experience is primarily with Oracle-based accounting packages. My current work, however, has placed me into more of a troubleshooting and compliance role. I ensure that transactions are flowing through the system properly and adhere to rules like GAAP and FASB. I want to break out of the midlevel positions I have occupied for the past few years and move into upper management. Am I on the right track?

A: You have become a product of your own success. Specifically, you are being utilized in financial systems roles because you have considerable credentials and hands-on expertise in that discipline. This proficiency turns out to be both a boon and bane for your career. With the rising importance of Sarbanes-Oxley, the USA Patriot Act, shareholder activism and the like, folks like you who can develop and support accounting applications that ensure corporate governance and compliance are certain to serve as an important part in enterprise IT. But at the same time, this can easily become a limiting and confining competency that will pigeonhole you into the specialization you have acquired. What is clearly missing from your background is any involvement in your company’s business?the planning, development, production, marketing, sales, delivery and support of your company’s products and services. Until you get outside your accounting systems box and get closer to the revenue side of your enterprise, I’m afraid you are doomed to be a supporting actor rather than a franchise player. Compliance is simply not a strategic initiative.

-Mark Polansky, managing director and member of the advanced technology practice at Korn/Ferry International

Stuck on a Sidetrack

Q: Over the past 25-plus years, I have managed to move myself up through the ranks from field service technician to national director of engineering. I have a bachelor’s in computer science, an AAS in electrical engineering, and a BS in business management and information resource management?a very diverse background. I was downsized in October 2001 and have managed to find work as a consultant to the Transportation Security Administration on major, multimillion-dollar projects. I’m told I have a very impressive rŽsumŽ and credentials. However, I cannot obtain an interview. The comments I receive are, “You’re overqualified,” and “Until the economy turns around, we’re not hiring at your level.” For almost four years the economy has taken the information technology world and fast-tracked it to the bottom of the demand curve. Although everyone agrees that this condition can’t continue much longer, what do you see as the time frame for a turnaround? I fear that my goal of finding a position as a CTO or vice president of technology becomes less plausible as the time increases since I was at the director level.

A: My crystal ball is certainly no better, and hopefully no worse, than yours. I can’t and so I won’t predict the economy. I also can’t forecast the job market, an important distinction since it now appears that economic recovery and job creation may not be as codependent this time around as we have come to expect historically. That said, I can tell you three things that address your concerns. First, the market is improving. The trend has been positive, to a limited degree, for several months. I expect that will remain true, but there’s no telling how strong the rate of recuperation will be going forward. Second, the opportunities that do exist now are, for the most part, simply spectacular. There are many excellent companies that are doing quite well, and these organizations are hiring. And, venture investing and private equity activity appear to be emerging from hibernation. Third, from the comments you have received and quoted in your query, it sounds like you are prematurely pursuing your goal of a vice president or CTO position. If so, you are a “wannabe” in a down market, and that’s not good. You will have to temporize your lofty objective, restart your corporate track as a senior manager or director, and resume your career march onward and upward from there.


Change of Locale

Q: I am currently the corporate head of IT for a $600 million manufacturer, and I would like to relocate. I have been approached about a position as head of IT for a division of a Fortune 500 company, roughly the same size as the company I work for now but still growing. I would report to the division president and the corporate CIO. How would this move be perceived in the future, considering I would no longer be the number-one IT person in the entire organization?

A: Your desire to relocate means you need to consider a new opportunity with a new employer. Do some soul-searching, and ask yourself what your long-term professional goals are. The answers will help you determine what milestones you need to accomplish in the next three to five years.

Ask yourself these questions about the job you’re considering: Is this business in an industry you find interesting and know something about? What is the company’s reputation in the markets where it competes? What precisely is the job description? Are you a fit for the culture? How does the organization perceive IT? Can you work for and learn something from the divisional president and the corporate CIO?

Although an outsider may perceive this opportunity as a lateral move, the position may provide you with all the technical challenge, general management responsibility and professional growth you need to prepare for the next assignment. Find out what the business plans are over the next three to five years and their implications for IT. If you find the job is challenging enough, my advice to you is to not get hung up on the reporting structure. I would encourage you to explore this opportunity with an open mind; you never know, the company may be looking for “bench strength,” positioning someone like you to take the top corporate CIO spot in a few years. If that’s the case, taking this position would make you look pretty smart.

-Gerry McNamara, partner of Heidrick & Struggles