Advice to Aspiring CIOs and IT Managers

TWO-FACED? Q: I am currently director of systems engineering in a large company. I have a great job, a good boss and mentor, and I love the work. But a wealth of opportunities in the Greater Boston area, coupled with some concerns about the health of my corporation, lead me to wonder if I should be more active in getting my rsum out to executive recruiters.

In my leadership role, I feel obligated to deliver upbeat, positive messages to the engineers, telling them why they should stay at this company, both to retain them and to ensure that my concerns don't become reality. How do I initiate a job search and not appear and feel two-faced in the process? If I do eventually take a new job, how do I face those who trusted me enough to stay?

A: You are one of the relatively few lucky souls who have a great job, a good boss and mentor, and who love their work. The fact that you are thinking about the available wealth of opportunities tells me that something else is bothering you, whether it's compensation, ambition or just wanderlust.

If it is an issue that your current employer might be able to address, like compensation, try to resolve it directly with your boss before making a decision to move on. But if what's distracting you can't be resolved then discreetly put your rsum and your feelers out in the market.

The second part of your question seems better suited for an ethicist rather than a career counseling column writer, but let's take a shot at it. Yes, you are indeed responsible for sending positive motivational messages to your staff, which means presenting the truth in its best light, with an optimistic spin, but without being untruthful or misleading. If your coworkers have concerns about the company's future, get them out in the open and immediately follow that with what management is doing to turn things around. You might even convince yourself to hang around in the process. But if and when the time comes to move on, your honesty and directness in dealing with the issues should leave you with a clear conscience.

FIGHT OR FLIGHT? Q: I have two questions. First, I'm 32, and I have a CIS degree and an MBA. I'm already a vice president for a $500 million-plus asset bank, and I have about 10 years' full-time experience, five in IT management. Does my age hurt me for consideration for CIO positions?

Second, as vice president of IT, I don't necessarily agree with my CIO's approach to projects, which seems to suggest he will do what's necessary to satisfy the directors--but no more. Our Internet strategy was developed in a day. I want to implement more. I have what I think are good ideas, and I fear we're missing some opportunities. Should I stay put and get more aggressive or look elsewhere?

A: Anytime there is a difference of philosophy or opinion between you and your immediate supervisor, at any level--whether between vice president and CIO or programmer and project leader--there is only one good approach to reaching a positive resolution. Set up an opportunity for you and your superior to sit down and logically and calmly explore the issues at hand. This means asking questions that usually start with why rather than making position statements that might be hard to reconcile or adapt. You may find the answers to your questions very enlightening, and the reasoning and realities behind them may help you understand your superior's course of action. Or you may find that you and your boss are just out of sync in some important ways. In that case, make sure that you are not the one who is being shortsighted or narrow-minded. If you are certain of yourself and your views, and if your boss is well regarded by management, then perhaps you are in the wrong environment.

And as I have said many times in this column, experience and capabilities are far more significant than age in determining if you're qualified to run your own shop. Simply be practical and remember that water always seeks its own level.

CIO TRANSFER Q: I have been at a large health-care company for the past 10 years, the last six of which I've held the IS director position. I've taken on a variety of responsibilities including application development, e-commerce and operations for telecom, networking and desktop computing. I've moved within the corporate venue and the smaller market/business unit sites to get a complete feel for both this position and this company. Now I'm looking to move on to other challenges. I'm very interested in applying my management and IT skills in another industry. What are your thoughts about seeking an equivalent director position, or a vice president/CIO role, in an industry outside of health care?

A: There are some very obvious pros and cons to switching industries midcareer. The primary consideration is the trade-off between staying in health care and bringing maximum experiential value to the market and to your next employer along with the commensurate financial reward to you, versus taking on the challenge of, and learning, a new industry and being rewarded with a broadened perspective of the business world and added versatility to your background.

If the latter scenario appeals to you more than the straight-and-narrow path of one industry, then you should surely go for it! The only way to find out how difficult the change will be, and whether or not you will like your new industry choice is, of course, to try. As always, follow all the best advice regarding crafting a great rsum and a smart outreach program, plus interviewing excellence--always placing an emphasis on your transferable skills and experience, both technical and leadership oriented, while not emphasizing the particularities of health care.

GROWTH SPURT Q: I have worked for a training company for nearly eight years, starting out as an instructor and consistently moving up in the company. I was our company's first network administrator, and seven years ago I was asked to start our technical training division.

As a result of the company's success, I have been promoted to 11 different roles in the past eight years, including program manager, sales manager and IS manager consecutively. However, most of my time has not been directly involved with internal IS issues but rather with client-focused activities.

Recently, I was promoted to a national position, where I have the opportunity to direct our strategy. However, since our company is based in another state, I feel my career growth is limited. I want to be on a career path to become a CIO. What is my best option? Should I go to a company with tuition reimbursement and get an MBA? Should I look for a more management-related role?

A: You have built a great promotional track record, and now you have an opportunity to drive your company's business strategy. If you are ready to walk away from all that, then you must really not be fulfilled in your current career path, despite the rapidly increasing importance of technical training and lots of new and compelling issues to address like instructional technology and distance education. And in this day and age of connectivity and virtual organizations, the geographic separation should not deter you from your company's offer.

But if you are truly determined to become a CIO, then you must shed your current training management responsibilities and get yourself back into a full-time IT role. Try doing this at your present employer first--always the best choice since they already know you and your success profile--or elsewhere if necessary. Assess your IT technical and leadership skills and experience to determine the appropriate level for you now and whether a step down the ladder--the CIO career path ladder--might not be a good restart point. And getting your MBA would be a good idea with either course of action.

LOOKING FOR E-XPERIENCE Q: How can I make the move to a CIO or senior IT position at a smaller organization, such as a dotcom or an e-commerce division of a larger company, after spending the bulk of my career as an independent consultant?

I have an MBA degree and 10 years' experience. Functionally speaking, my experience is in the areas of data warehousing, customer relationship management (CRM) and e-commerce.

I have grown from being a hands-on senior business analyst and developer to my current role in project leadership. My past clients are easily and readily recognizable household names, and I am currently with the premier full-service online bank implementing a CRM and data warehouse strategy.

A: I wish that all the requests for career counsel and advice I receive were as positive as yours. While your many years of consulting and hands-on project leadership experience have not fully prepared you for the business-driven strategic and corporate political demands of a significant CIO position, you have indeed put together the type of background and experience highly sought after today for the role of chief technology officer in the e-business world. Whether you pursue a startup, an early stage dotcom, or the new media or e-commerce unit of a traditional enterprise, the trade-off between the two (small and new versus bigger and more established) will follow risk and reward inversely, and the choice is yours to make according to your affinity toward risk. Craft your rsum to highlight those areas of relevant e-xperience and e-xpertise you mentioned in your letter, and get it out to a select few highly reputed and well-known search consultants--and include me if you will!

THE PATH TO CIO Q: I have a bachelor's in computer science. I am in my mid-20s and have about three years of hands-on programming experience as well as three years' experience as an IT operations manager in a small company specializing in B2C e-commerce and smart cards. My responsibilities include managing the company's infrastructure, research and development, and support.

I am looking toward becoming a CIO in an e-commerce-related company, as I'm also just about to start pursuing a master's in business systems. Though it's more technical than an MBA, it's still focused on business rather than coding. Should I start this program, or should I pursue a traditional MBA or a standard master's? Also, when I do graduate, should I look for a management position or a programming job?

A: The fact that you have thus far chosen to pursue a master's in business systems, coupled with your objective of becoming a CIO, tells me that you want to be involved in strategic business issues as well as technology. Additionally, your desire to become a chief information officer in an e-commerce enterprise will tie you to technology as a primary element of your intended employer's business model. And so I think your master's in business systems is probably a very good choice.

As for your career path, six years of experience, even in today's rapidly moving pace of e-business and dotcoms, is still a bit early for a significant CIO role. Be patient, solidify your technical skills and grow your business-oriented and management abilities by looking for a position with both technical and leadership content, and build a great foundation for your future.

Mark Polansky is a managing director and member of the advanced technology practice of Korn/Ferry International in New York City. He is also the chairman of the Greater New York Chapter of the Society for Information Management. The Web-based Executive Career Counselor column is edited by Web Research Editor Kathleen Kotwica. She can be reached at kkotwica@cio.com.

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