Recruiters cite essential IT executive skills

The job market for CIOs and other high-level IT managers is starting to pick up again from the depths of the dot-com bust, according to a panel of three executive recruiters who spoke at Computerworld's Premier 100 IT Leaders Conference in Phoenix this week.

But the panelists noted that for the most part, the hiring of new IT executives isn't being driven by any hot technical skills. What's important to their clients, they said, are qualities such as leadership skills, the ability to build productive relationships with other corporate managers and business savvy.

CIO candidates need to show "more of a competency" than a mastery of any particular technologies, said Tom Berray, a partner at Cabot Consultants. The specific attributes companies are seeking differ from case to case, Berray said. "But across the board, it's broad leadership skills and the ability to build relationships" that companies want, he said.

Companies typically look for "someone with mature judgment, who resonates well with the operating management of the company and who understands business issues," said Steve Kendrick, president of Kendrick Executive Resources in Dallas. "You're not dealing with the minutia of speeds and feeds."

Kendrick did add, though, that experience with middleware deployments is helpful. "Integration is a popular issue that many CIOs are having to wrestle with," he said.

Berray, who has conducted about 20 searches for high-level IT managers in the past two years, said many clients were looking for executives who could show they had successfully managed large technology projects.

Not surprisingly, cost-cutting skills remain important, said Beverly Lieberman, president of Halbrecht Lieberman Associates. "Over the last couple years, on the CIO searches that I've done, part of the requirement has been to bring in someone who has gone through consolidations," Lieberman said. "The theme has been cost management and bringing in someone who knows how to get more done with less."

Another must-have quality is the ability to manage internal expectations about IT projects, according to Lieberman. "Most CIOs lose their jobs because they're not able to deliver what they promised in the promised time frame," she said. "You need to set expectations for what's possible, not what's heroic -- because nobody can live up to that all the time."

As for the current job market, Lieberman said she's seeing "fairly strong pent-up demand on the part of CIOs to find something better than what they have today." And she and her fellow panelists indicated that demand for new IT executives appears to be increasing.

"We're coming out of the 'trough of disillusionment,' " Berray said, borrowing that phrase from former employer Gartner. "The market isn't back to where it used to be, but it's getting better."

Kendrick said financial services and health care are the two industries where he's seeing the most job openings. Other industries are also showing increases, "but they tend to be more incremental," he said.

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