by Kim S. Nash

Consulting: How CIOs Know It’s the Right Career Move

Apr 28, 20093 mins

In a tight economy, consulting can provide a lucrative alternative career. But it's not the right fit for all CIOs.

Perhaps you’ve seen the writing on the wall that your layoff is imminent. Maybe you’re tired of corporate life and want to ditch The Man and become your own boss. But if you are considering becoming a consultant, listen up: Some CIOs aren’t cut out for the job.

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If you have power-hungry tendencies, for example, you may want to keep your day job. Consulting differs from being a career CIO in that a consultant doesn’t rule an IT department. He or she can offer advice, but not issue directives, says James Sutter, senior partner at IT management firm The Peer Consulting Group, and former CIO of Xerox and Rockwell. In the absence of hierarchical authority, influence and persuasion are now important parts of the job, says Sutter. You need to get things done, much like a CIO does, but you may have to emphasize different skills than you’ve used in the past.

And if you ask those who’ve done it, you’ll hear that the transition won’t necessarily be easy. Consulting involves marketing that may not come naturally to everyone, especially when the product you’re selling is yourself, says Jesus Arriaga, president and CIO of CIO Strategic Solutions, a consulting firm he started two years ago after CIO stints at Keystone Automotive and Spirent Communications. Arriaga doesn’t do much formal marketing by using brochures or advertising, he says. Rather, he does “a lot of networking, talking to a lot of people all the time.”

To those who aren’t ready for that, he advises signing on with an established IT consultancy with its own marketing function. “Then you can slowly transition into managing your own company and relationships.”

When Rick Carney left his CTO post at Barr Pharmaceuticals, he joined Melillo Consulting, an existing firm where he is vice president and general manager. Going this route is less risky than starting a business, Carney says, since you have the benefit of marketing, a sales force and existing customer relationships. However, your ability to build relationships remains critical.

Transforming yourself from a full-time, on-staff CIO into a consultant can unlock career options—especially at a time when budgets are down. According to Martha Heller, a managing director at executive search firm ZRG Partners and CIO columnist (See: Tough Times Yield New Role: Private Equity Partner), not many small or midsize companies are hiring CIOs these days but they are willing to hire good consultants for high-level IT strategy and project work.

Be smart when you frame your pitch. “If you consider yourself an innovator and you need financial investment to make things happen, that won’t sell now. But if you’re a great cost-cutter, that’s a skill set to sell,” she says. Fashion your résumé to emphasize diverse company and industry experiences, she says, plus past consulting engagements.

Finally, remember to adjust your attitude. As a consultant, you’re considered a vendor now, Heller adds. But you do have an advantage: As a former CIO, you can align emotionally with the client because you’ve hired consultants before and know exactly what bugs IT managers about these outsiders, she says. That may help you win engagements. You want to be clear you’re not there to rack up billable hours, she says, but to get a job done.

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