by Kim S. Nash

How Unemployed CIOs Can Survive the Dark Days

Feb 26, 201415 mins
CareersIT JobsIT Leadership

A long job hunt takes a personal and professional toll. CIOs have family and financial concerns while they reassess their careers and face a changing job market. But here's how CIOs can emerge stronger than ever.

You got fired. You were laid off. You resigned. However it happened, you’re out of work. What happens next can decide how the next several years go for you, and for your family.

For some IT executives, the job hunt can be long and arduous. In 2009, as world economies sank into recession, Mark Stone spent six months looking for a new post after jewelry chain Zale eliminated the CIO position.

Read profiles of how four CIOs survived unemployment:

  • Jerry Hodge
  • Mark Tonnesen
  • Erik Viens
  • Michael Iacona

For Jerry Hodge, three years passed between when he was laid off as senior director of information services at Hamilton Beach, an appliance distributor, and when he landed as director of IT at golf equipment company Dynamic Brands last year. He did some contract work during that time, but the pressure of the search got to him. “It was a struggle sometimes to maintain your emotions,” he says. “Flashpoints were so low.” And now he’s again in search of a job.

Not only can self-esteem erode and depression set in for job hunters, but whole families can find themselves worried about the future. Marriages can disintegrate. Hodge got divorced during his job search.

Mark Tonnesen had some difficult conversations about finances with his family after he left the CIO position at Electronic Arts last July. They weren’t in financial danger, he says, but having little or no money coming in was nonetheless stressful. “You have to be open and honest,” he says. “I won’t say it was easy. It was a continual process with my wife and family.”

Mentally and emotionally preparing for a protracted search is critical, says Iain McKeand, director of the U.K. CIO practice at recruiter Harvey Nash. Not only does the supply of CIO candidates worldwide far exceed the demand, he says, but the business climate has also changed since the last time many CIOs conducted a search.

Where a CIO may once have received job offers based on reputation and well-known IT achievements, those factors are only part of the equation today. The Great Recession, followed now by an intense period of digital disruption, has left some companies–some CEOs, really–unsure of what they want from a CIO. To improve the company’s use of IT? Yes. To help set corporate strategy? Maybe. To develop new products and services? Well, that might be nice if I find the right person. To transform the company for digital business? Isn’t that someone else’s job?

Today, says Erik Viens, CIO of the chemistry products and services distributor Univar, an IT executive must understand business and macroeconomics, in addition to knowing his target company’s challenges and how he can appeal directly to the CEO and board of directors. Viens interviewed for several CIO jobs while he consulted from 2009 to 2011. Entrepreneurial flair, technology know-how, visionary skills and talent management are just a few of the assets a top CIO must possess, he says.

Or, as McKeand puts it, “A CIO has to be an all-singing, all-dancing individual.”

But it’s hard to dance when rejections pile up and leads dwindle. The average length of unemployment for an American worker is just over 37 weeks, according to the latest data from the Department of Labor. More than 37 percent, or 4.1 million, of the 10.9 million Americans without jobs are considered long-term unemployed–jobless for at least 27 weeks. That’s down from 45 percent in 2010 and 2011, but it’s still bad news: The long-term unemployed have just a 12 percent chance of finding a full-time job in any given month.

For CIOs, a job search can take six months, sometimes longer. Those who have endured the unemployment journey recommend establishing meticulous job-hunting routines, swapping stories (and tips and fears) with other out-of-work execs, and updating your approach to job-hunting. The way you target companies probably needs a revamp. Your view of the CIO role may not match the jobs available. Some IT executives are finding that positions that fulfill their desires and fill out their resumes aren’t necessarily called “CIO.”

More Give Than Take

On the day in February 2009 when Mark Stone was thrown into the job market as Zale did away with his CIO position, he hadn’t written a resume in 14 years. He hadn’t thought to build his peer network in almost as long. Stone floundered for the first two months, scraping through an outdated Rolodex for leads. When he nabbed even an informal meeting, he says, he couldn’t explain what he did best. “I was ill-prepared for interviewing. The job market had changed,” he says. “I was clueless.”

Then Stone, who has degrees in accounting and divinity, devised for himself a new approach to networking based on an economy of goodwill. He decided to help as many people as he could through mentoring, job tips and technology advice, among other methods. He met for breakfasts and lunches and attended local professional groups and conferences. His pay-it-forward idea is that once you’ve helped someone, they may want to return the favor and actively look for ways to do it.

The conversations, meanwhile, helped him hone his professional pitch and revealed companies’ hidden opportunities and needs he wouldn’t have known about otherwise, he says. Six months later, he was hired as CIO of Safety-Kleen, an environmental clean-up company.

Ever since, he has sent a newsletter about this professional life to his contacts, as well as maintained a vigorous mentoring schedule. Stone was at Safety-Kleen for more than three years when it was acquired and the new owner installed its own senior executives. In January 2013, he told his network he was again out of a job and soon received lots of leads. “They’ve now got the opportunity to help me back,” he says. “It was like lighting a match to a pile of dry kindling.”

In April, he started as CIO for The Texas A&M University System. Stone’s best job-seeker advice: “Never, ever disappear.”

Your Best You

Seasoned CIOs will say that in targeting potential employers, you want to match your skills to the job opening and to the overall corporate culture. But you have to do it without losing yourself. A big mistake Stone made at first, for example, was trying to become what he thought the person across the table wanted, rather than presenting what makes him unique.

What’s crucial, says Viens, a longtime CIO, is to create a statement about yourself that makes you stand out. It can be hard to position yourself correctly in the short time you get with company executives. As he has sought senior IT leadership positions over the years, he has struggled with how to get the right people to pay attention and hear what he wanted them to hear, he says. “They make decisions based on a very partial view of you.”

It takes stamina to maintain a grueling cycle of preparing, interviewing and re-interviewing, then being evaluated, discussed and dissected. Throw in some psychometric testing, where companies use a series of questions often administered by a psychologist to discern attitudes and personality traits, and a job-seeker can feel drained, says McKeand, from Harvey Nash. “I’ve seen some [candidates] pull out of the process because of these methods,” he says.

Game-Changers Need Not Apply

We hear a lot about how good CIOs should help set company strategy and spin new revenue out of customer data. While you may want to do such work, it’s not part of the typical CIO job description, says recruiter Martha Heller, president of Heller Search Associates. Rather, it comes with power and status earned in the role over time.

Usually, a CIO position is open because something is wrong in the company’s IT department and the CEO wants a new leader to fix it, Heller says. For example, projects may be failing, or IT may not get along well with the rest of the company, she says. Having the CIO put technology into core products and meet with external customers is far down on the priorities list.

Michael Iacona found as much during his search in 2012. He had left the CIO job at advertising firm TMP Worldwide and wanted a spot where he could significantly influence a company’s performance, he says. “CEOs aren’t asking that of CIOs, a lot of times,” he says. Some CEOs and boards of directors, which influence CIO hiring, are skeptical of the IT leader doing anything other than making technology run, he says. After making it to the final two candidates a few times but not getting the job, Iacona decided to branch out from the CIO role.

Mike Clifford, former CIO of Whole Foods Markets, has been on a “personal sabbatical” since September 2012 and now expects that his next gig will not be as a CIO. Clifford left the $13 billion grocery chain after 12 years due to what he calls a mutual decision that “it was time for a different voice” to lead IT there. He had some exploratory talks about other CIO and CTO jobs but realized he wasn’t committed to the role. He was tired of answering technology questions, he says. “My heart wasn’t in it.”

This year-plus of reflection has him contemplating operations jobs that contribute to growing a young company. He’s no longer driven to chase titles for personal accomplishment, he says. And given that there is a limited number of large companies in the Austin area where he lives, he doesn’t foresee an enticing CIO job opening soon. “I will find something I want rather than doing something someone just needs.”

Jerry Hodge

Jerry Hodge says he probably experienced every emotion there is during his job hunt. He searched for a full-time position for three years after being laid off as senior director of information services at Hamilton Beach in 2010. At times angry or depressed, then sometimes sentimental and sanguine, Hodge says this period changed his life.

At first he confined his search to the area around Richmond, Va., where he lives. As the months passed, he expanded his range to the southeast coast, not wanting to be more than a half-day’s drive from his two sons, who were in elementary and middle school then. He and his wife divorced during this time, compounding the stress.

Geek that he is, he says, he kept a spreadsheet of the more than 200 job inquiries he made and their results. It was one way to bring order to a situation that felt chaotic. “Unfortunately, unemployment is not like a project,” he says. “You don’t know when it’s going to end.”

He didn’t miss a mortgage payment, but he had to dip into savings, he says. “But certainly not some of the desperate moves other people have had to do.”

A close friend was let go from his company at about the same time. And a group of 10 CIOs around Richmond meets regularly to talk. “We had each other to lean on and ask the philosophical questions,” he says. That includes grappling with issues of self-esteem and family relationships that arise when going through professional upsets. “I could call any one of the group and say, ‘I’m struggling. I need someone to talk to,'” he says. “They’ve been there. Likewise, I’m there for them. There isn’t anybody who is just a taker.”

He landed as director of IT at Dynamic Brands last July, and in January they “parted ways.” Hodge is again looking and hopeful to get a 9- or 12-month contract position through contacts still warm from his 2013 search. He’s determined to stay positive. “That’s the only attitude you can take,” he says, adding that recruiters pick up on negative vibes. “This is just a temporary bump in the road.”

Mark Tonnesen

Sometimes adverse business events can interrupt a CIO’s career, as Mark Tonnesen, former CIO of Electronic Arts, knows.

Tonnesen was at Electronic Arts for 16 months, helping build the company’s cloud computing setup to support its online and mobile gaming business. But revenues have swung up and down for the past several years, and CEO John Riccitiello resigned in March 2013. Tonnesen, whom Riccitiello had hired, soon followed.

Now Tonnesen, who has also been CIO at IT vendors McAfee and Logitech, isn’t necessarily looking for another CIO post. He is focused on high-growth companies where he can influence business strategy. That could mean a senior role in operations or customer service, he says.

To make it happen, he spends about an hour a day on LinkedIn, refining his profile and communicating with his network. He sets up about five breakfast, lunch or dinner meetings per week, reserving Fridays for family time. The meetings help him define his own strengths and selling points. Meanwhile, Tonnesen consults on cloud computing and is a temporary CIO-for-hire.

Unemployment is frustrating in some surprising ways, he says. For example, the administrative work of tracking job-hunt expenses and wading through private health insurance options can be onerous. Also, Tonnesen has opened up his job search worldwide. One day he could be flying to Chicago, another he might do phone interviews with a European company, and third day could be quiet with no interviews. “There was nothing about it that was routine,” he says.

Erik Viens

Experienced CIO Erik Viens was in the job hunt in 2009 and 2010. He had left Invista, a chemical company owned by Koch Industries, intending to retire, but found he missed work. He then got into consulting while looking for a full-time CIO position–a process he hadn’t undertaken for a couple of decades. He had joined DuPont in 1981 and later progressed through the IT ranks before being selected to help lead Invista as DuPont spun it out into a separate company.

If a CIO targets the Fortune 500, he says, “it can be daunting to be looking for a job where there might be 10 jobs a year and there are 100 really qualified people looking.”

Viens laments that interviewers can’t get to know you well, even during a whole grueling day of talks, meals and glad-handing. He recommends interviewees undertake meticulous preparation that includes researching the company’s business issues and enumerating how potential solutions match your own skills. For an interview with a $7 billion metals manufacturer, Viens created a PowerPoint presentation outlining how his style of leadership could benefit the company, given the challenges and competition it faced. He also made a spreadsheet for himself showing ways his experience, skills and ideas matched each part of the job description he’d been given.

“Be aggressive about showing them what you want them to know,” he says. But, he adds, be aware that even if you come off flawlessly, the final decision may be based on criteria that’s out of your hands, such as another candidate not needing to relocate. “It can be a very traumatic situation for a lot of people.”

Last September, he joined Univar, a privately held distributor of chemistry products and services, as CIO.

The unemployment experience has made him more sensitive to peers when they’re in a similar situation, he says. He provides mentoring, references and feedback as much as he can. “I do that much better now because I’ve experienced it.”

Michael Iacona

In late 2011, CIO Michael Iacona was looking for something new after five years at advertising firm TMP Worldwide. Fortunately, he was in a financial position where he could take up to a year to find the right job. For him, that meant a New York-area company where he could take risks and learn. Although he wasn’t set on finding another CIO role, specifically, he did interview for several at very large companies.

Each time, he made it to the final two and didn’t get it. At TMP, he had 150 people reporting to him. At these prospective CIO positions, we would have had thousands on his staff. “I was a quality candidate, but I realized the odds of them taking a shot on [me] were low,” he says. “They want the person who’s been there, done that.”

After six months, he had multiple offers for CIO or CTO roles but chose to take a more “intriguing” job: He went to Thomson Reuters as a VP in the technology organization, overseeing mergers and acquisitions–a newly created role he knew would enhance his professional stature. He learned a lot about assessing businesses and about the critical part IT plays in making an acquisition successful. “That was invaluable,” he says.

Meanwhile, an opportunity he explored before joining Thomson Reuters was coming to fruition. He had met several times with the founder of the Institute for Integrative Nutrition, an online education company, and acted as an adviser there on the side. Now the founder was looking for a president to oversee operations. Iacona joined the company in February 2013, making him one of the rare CIOs who make the leap to the head office.

Maintaining that relationship, even when it didn’t turn into anything right away, proved to Iacona the value of keeping feelers out. “It’s a chess match. You think two moves ahead.”

Kim Nash is managing editor of CIO Magazine. Follow her on Twitter @knash99.

Follow everything from on Twitter @CIOonline, Facebook, Google + and LinkedIn.