As a CIO recruiter, I used to tell my clients that “IT leadership transcends industries,” and that they should not limit their search to candidates who come directly out of their own industry. More recently, however, I am finding that argument a bit tougher to sell. It is hard to say that “IT is the business” out of one side of your mouth and then out of the other side, claim that a background in your client’s business is not necessary.
To be sure, CIOs are still switching industries all the time. Dave Smoley just left manufacturing services giant Flextronics to become CIO of AstraZeneca, and Oliver Bussman moved from financial services to SAP and then to financial services again. However, an increasing number of my clients are looking for CIOs who have spent several years in their own industry.
So, what do you do if you are a CIO who has had it up to here with your own industry and are ready to make the move? Here are some thoughts on how you might buck the “industry criteria” trend and move into something new.
Focus on late adopters. If you’ve just rolled out a BYOD policy or transitioned a chunk of your infrastructure to the cloud, a company outside of your industry that has plans to do the same may give more weight to your technology deployment experience and care less about your lack of industry expertise.
Follow the vendors. Let’s say you’re an expert in deploying mobile applications. Talk to your mobility vendors about the new industries they’re targeting and concentrate your efforts there.
Find or create common ground. Retail, food service and travel have plenty of differences, but they have a key similarity; they are all focused on the consumer. Try emphasizing your consumer background, as you network, in order to move from consumer-focused industry to another. But remember that if you’re a hospital CIO who wants to work in banking, you’re making a big leap. You might be better off joining a health insurance company for a few years first, and then make the more subtle move from insurance to banking.
Try pro bono. Another tactic that works for some CIOs is to do some pro bono work for a foundation or trade group in your target industry. This kind of work will help you develop relevant relationships as well as some industry knowledge.
For those of you who have switched industries, what advice can you offer IT execs who would like to follow your path?
Martha Heller is CEO of Heller Search Associates, an IT executive recruiting firm specializing in CIO, CTO, CISO and senior technology roles in all industries. She is the author The CIO Paradox: Battling the Contradictions of IT Leadership and Be the Business: CIOs in the New Era of IT. To join the IT career conversation, subscribe to The Heller Report.