Bob Violino
Contributing writer

From CIO to consultant: IT leaders on making the shift

Jun 22, 2022
CareersCIOIT Consulting Services

IT leaders seeking a new challenge can leverage their business and IT know-how to achieve sustained success in a consulting role. CIOs who have made the shift offer tips.

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The CIO role can open a lot of doors for career growth. When they’re ready to move on from leading IT operations at their organization, CIOs can shift into another C-suite position, take a leadership role at a technology vendor, start up their own venture, or leave the corporate environment altogether.

For some, consulting is the way to go, whether through the creation of their own advisory firm or joining an existing consultancy. IT leaders who have shifted to a consulting role say it can be a rewarding way to leverage their considerable knowledge of technology and business to provide guidance to others.

But the shift can be challenging, according to those who have done it.

“I was not initially prepared to be a consultant nor an individual contributor,” says Jim Rinaldi, former CIO at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) who now works as an independent consultant and executive coach. “I only knew how to be a CIO. So when I decided to step out of my CIO role I thought it would be an easy transition. It was not.”

Rinaldi’s transition into an advisory role actually began while he was still working at JPL. He was appointed chief IT advisor for the organization in 2019, after serving as CIO for 14 years. Among his responsibilities were assessing and benchmarking outside organizations while acting as enterprise strategist for IT and liaison to government organizations to understand future requirements on IT and cybersecurity.

As part of the transition Rinaldi made sure he stayed connected with his professional network to maintain relationships. He also joined organizations that enabled him to use his expertise, build relationships, and run a few entities as a contractor.

“It was part-time and did not interfere with the work I was doing at my main organization,” Rinaldi says. “Thanks to the pandemic, opportunities to do more [advisory work] arose and I started feeling more comfortable. Then I retired from my current company after two years removed from being the CIO and was able to focus more on future endeavors.”

IT executives should have confidence that their experience matters, because many others are interested in how they did things in their role as technology leaders, Rinaldi says.

james rinaldi cio jpl

Jim Rinaldi


“Leverage this to do the work of a consultant,” he says. “There are many capable people out there in CIO roles, but [they] don’t have the experience. You as a consultant can work with other CIOs or their direct reports on strategy, cybersecurity, or system implementations.”

For Larry Bonfante, former CIO at the United States Tennis Association and now founder and coach of executive consulting and coaching firm CIO Bench Coach, the challenges of creating a new business include being on your own.

“No more finance manager to deal with invoicing, no more executive assistant to deal with travel plans; you are a one man/woman show,” Bonfante says. In addition, there can be a sense of isolation, at least at the beginning. “You aren’t part of the day-to-day fabric of a team, so you don’t have the same level of ongoing social connectivity as you may be used to,” he says.

But on the positive side, becoming a consultant offers “the ability to truly make a difference in people’s lives,” Bonfante says. “I’ve had many clients who were promoted to CIO roles or got senior roles in new organizations tell me that my coaching was instrumental in helping them attain these positions. It’s incredibly gratifying having the privilege of playing a small role in another person’s growth and success.”

In addition, Bonfante now has complete autonomy and control over his calendar and who he works with. “If I don’t think you’re a person of integrity, then I can walk away and not work with you,” he says. “In a CIO role, you don’t have anywhere near that level of autonomy or control over your day-to-day work life.”

Here are some tips from IT executives turned consultants about how to best make the transition.

Make sure it’s the right move

It might be tempting to move into a consulting role as a break from the day-to-day grind of being a CIO or for some other reason. But any executives thinking about going into consulting need to determine whether they really can and want to do it, Rinaldi says.

Larry Bonfante, former CIO at the United States Tennis Association

Larry Bonfante

CIO Bench Coach

“Do you have the communications skills and patience to be on the other side of the table?” Rinaldi says. It is important for CIOs to leverage their negotiation skills and to collaborate with their customers in much the same way they did with executive colleagues within their organizations. “Consultants learn how to listen by asking good questions,” he says. “Many CIOs know how to do this.”

IT executives considering a career shift can apply a bit of personal analytics to help with the decision-making. “My advice to anyone considering making a change is to draw a Venn diagram with three overlapping circles,” Bonfante says.

“The first circle represents what you are passionate about, what gets you up in the morning, and what you would do for free if you hit the lottery,” Bonfante says. The second circle represents a unique quality that separates the individual from the pack. And the third circle represents the potential market demand for the services the executive can offer. “The point of intersection of these three circles is the contribution you should aim to make,” he says.

Consult with consultants and trusted contacts

As with any career transition, it’s often worthwhile to bounce ideas off others. And there is probably no better way to get a sense of what moving from CIO to consulting will be like than speaking with people who have already made such a move. For that matter, it might be helpful to gain insights from any experienced IT consultant, regardless of their background.

“Make sure you talk to many people already doing consulting work,” Rinaldi says. “There are many things you may not know,” such as whether to create an LLC or work as a freelancer. “Find out what is best for your situation by talking to those who are already doing it,” he says. “It will save you time and give you useful information.”

If feasible, discuss the idea with executive colleagues or other trusted contacts before making a decision. And of course, seek input from family members and friends who might be able to weigh in on whether such a transition is a good move.

Learn to sell and market yourself

“As CIOs, we are often focused primarily on building an organization optimized for delivery, operations, and service,” says H. Michael Burgett, former industry CIO and now founder and chairman at executive search firm CIO Partners.

“And while these are extremely important in building a consultancy, the most important element of building a business is often missed,” Burgett says. “Coming out of the gate, focusing 99% on sales is a key contributor to success. Without sales, nothing will happen.”

H. Michael Burgett, former industry CIO and now founder and chairman at executive search firm CIO Partners

H. Michael Burgett

CIO Partners

While this might seem obvious to many businesspeople, it might not occur to former technology executives that they need to sell their abilities.

“Even when that first sale is achieved, our tendency will turn toward delivery; sales will be put on the back burner,” Burgett says. “The project will [be completed] and our sales pipeline will be empty. It is important to keep the accelerator pressed and devoting a large portion of our time toward building a sales pipeline, even when in the midst of delivering on a current client engagement.”

Aim to build a lasting brand

If the goal is to create a company and not a one-person business, CIOs need to be committed to making it work for the long haul.

“In my experience, many who begin the journey to build a consultancy can be successful in doing just that,” Burgett says. “However, the real challenge will be in building a sustainable company. A successful consultancy can be short lived, while a company can be enduring.”

Burgett says it amazes him that some consultants build a practice but never build a real company and brand. “It is important to invest in talent to help lead your organization along the way,” he says. “Remove your ego in not making your organization all about you and build a strong leadership team to ensure the long-term viability of the endeavor.”

Be prepared for setbacks

As with any major career move, there are positives and negatives to becoming a consultant after years in IT management. “You may not be ready or good at consulting,” Rinaldi says. “It may be better to look for advisory positions or board positions and use your expertise in those situations. Of course, I found myself doing both and I benefited by doing so.”

For those not ready to make the complete transition, coaching or mentoring might be a way to prepare. “This is a good first step to determine how much you want to work as an individual contributor, plus you are helping someone,” Rinaldi says. “Coaching also builds confidence and helps you use skills you had as a CIO.”

By taking the time to explore the field and learn about what consulting involves, there are potential benefits for CIOs. “Consulting work can be very rewarding intellectually,” Rinaldi says. “You get to use your skills developed over the years to solve problems you have familiarity with. But you also get to learn new skills and can continue to grow. No matter what age, there is life after the CIO role.”