Hank Leingang was interviewing for the CIO post at a major company when his internal alarm bell went off.
He realized that the other executives were engaged in an ongoing debate over what the CIO role should be.
"They couldn't articulate what they expected from the CIO, and they were also clearly not interested in having an 'impact CIO' in the organization," says Leingang. "I remember leaving the interviews, going back to the airport, calling the headhunter and saying, 'No way.'"
Discerning what your prospective boss wants from you is a survival skill everyone should have, particularly in IT, where duties, responsibilities and expectations are frequently underdefined or unarticulated.
It's not always easy to learn, but you can get the information you need by asking the right questions of the right people, seeking out insiders for unfiltered perspectives and using the whole interview experience to get an accurate view of what the position really entails.
"Based on the information you gather, you'll have to do your own assessment: whether what's needed in the organization is something you can deliver, if it's doable, if you can build the team to do it," says Leingang, now president and CEO of ITM Software.
A Lot to Lose
The stakes are high. Jerry Luftman, associate dean at Stevens Institute of Technology's School of Technology Management, recalls a colleague and proven IT leader who took a CIO job without conducting due diligence. He soon found that the company's culture was too formal and that the scope of work was too broad for him to succeed. He quit within a year.
John Chambers, president of JCC Executive Partners, an executive consulting firm, tells of a colleague who was recruited by a friend to join a company as head of engineering. But he quit after six months because he was turned off by the abrasive culture and an impending downsizing.
"Even though you might be recruited by someone you trust, it's still incumbent on you to talk to everybody and understand the vision at that organization," Chambers says. "It's to ensure that this is the right fit."
Executive search firms often get descriptions of IT jobs that are only three sentences long, so it's essential for candidates to push for more details, says Al Guibord, chairman and founder of The Advisory Council.
For insight into what the company really thinks of a position, find out to whom it reports, he says. For instance, a CIO who reports to facilities is likely not in the same universe as one who reports to the CEO. Then clarify any doubts by asking why the position reports to that particular group.
The responsibilities of IT positions, including the CIO job, aren't clearly articulated at many companies. That makes it more difficult for candidates to understand what companies want, and it makes it challenging for companies to find a candidate who will succeed.
Determining whom the CIO will report to is key to understanding the job. Jerry Luftman, associate dean at Stevens Institute of Technology's School of Technology Management, has done some research and found that "for CIOs who report to CEOs, their business-IT alignment maturity is much higher. Those who report to CFOs are consistently lower, and those CIOs who report to others, such as COOs or VPs, are even lower."
- CEO: 31.4%
- CFO: 29.3%
- COO: 22.1%
- Business unit executive: 7.1%
- Other: 10.1%
- Base: 130 IT executives
- Source: Society for Information Management, 2007