Career counsel: Dressing up a degree

Q: I am almost finished with a master's degree in executive management that, while lesser known and recognised, has a very similar emphasis. Included are economics, financial systems, marketing, IT management, research analysis, leadership, policy, strategic planning and executive decision making. The basic difference, in my opinion, is when the classes are taught, day or night.

I have considered looking elsewhere for a program that would take my coursework into consideration and allow me to add whatever difference to get an MBA. But, "Why bother?" I ask. Short of hiring a PR specialist, how would you suggest dressing up the executive management degree to be the strong credential for management that it is?

A: Yes, I have long maintained that the combination of a technical undergraduate degree and an MBA is a prototypical and very powerful combination of educational credentials for a model CIO resume.

That said, I always focus on the learning objectives, curriculum content and pedagogical quality of any educational achievement when evaluating its significance. Your master's degree sounds like it has MBA-type course requirements, and I don't think you can, should or need to dress it up. You certainly should not be defensive or apologetic for it.

However, you would be well advised to list the program's courses, just as you did for me in your question, in the line that follows the degree on your resume. Your written or verbal explanation of the program's focus and content will address the bias of the reader or interviewer who is hung up on the letters of your degree rather than on what you've learned, or perhaps not. In the latter case, move on to a more reasonably minded audience.

CERTIFICATIONS: WORTH THE EFFORT?

Q: I have more than 15 years' experience in IT, starting as a programmer and working my way through various industries to a regional IT director position. I've decided to strike out on my own as an independent, and I really love working with the new and popular technology. To update my knowledge and to gain further credibility, how desirable are the current certifications offered by the major software and networking companies, and do prospective clients consider these certifications valuable when selecting a consultant or contractor?

A: Certifications are always welcomed on a resume as an indication of having received proper training in a particular technology or skill, and perhaps as a reflection of you as a focused, determined and conscientious professional. Certifications usually demonstrate a positive attitude toward putting forth the time and effort for self-improvement - toward one's career in general and the desire to excel and get ahead. And certifications can be an extremely significant differentiator among those who lack on-the-job experience but have the relevant training, and can often help you get a foot in the door.

Certifications won't substitute for hands-on experience in landing a position that requires know-how, but certifications will enhance the value of those who have them. Take advantage of any potentially meaningful opportunities for education, be they degree courses, certificate programs or seminars. Just be wary of the commercial training hucksters that unfortunately seem to follow closely behind the hot skills of the day and the job market.

WHAT'S IN A RESUME?

Q: I've read several books on resume

preparation for high-end positions, and I feel that my resume has been cast in a manner that is consistent with the advice provided. I also sought the assistance of a national and well-respected company that specialised in executive resume preparation. With all that, the typical response that I am receiving is that I am either too technical or they are very impressed, but something's missing. What could I be doing wrong?

A: If the "too technical" or "impressed but . . ." responses follow a reading of your resume, then you are indeed too technical or you have inadvertently portrayed your experience that way - or there is something else on your resume that is turning the reader away, something that the reader can't or won't acknowledge. It could be a legitimate concern like your job history, the places you have worked, your education or an illegal issue like gender, age, religion and so on. To guard against the first possibility, read your resume again, very slowly, and ask yourself what impression each and every entry might tell a reader about you - then get a trusted third party to do the same. Unfortunately, there's no way to guard against the latter possibility. If on the other hand, the "too technical" or "impressed but . . ." reaction comes after a face-to-face meeting, then look to develop and polish your interviewing skills and try to discover what's holding you back.

A FORK IN THE ROAD

Q: I have an opportunity to take one of two jobs. The first is as IT operations manager of a small but fast growing company that develops software for marketing resellers of all product types. The intent is to groom me for the IT director position.

The second is with a top company in e-billing services as director of distributed systems. However, I would have to compete with four other candidates for the next promotion - vice president of IT operations. In your opinion, which position should I take in order to stay on track for a future CIO position?

A: It is difficult to answer you definitively from the little information you have provided, but let's give it a try. If I'm not mistaken, the first situation sounds like an internally oriented responsibility for IT operations, keeping the infrastructure running smoothly and managing the company's enterprise transaction and information applications processing. This sounds like it might be a prelude to an IT director position and if so, may be quite appropriate in keeping with your CIO goal.

Alternatively, the second option looks like a chance to manage distributed systems - also presumably the IT infrastructure and operational aspects - for a leader in the very hot e-billing space. This experience will surely keep your skills and knowledge current and timely. In the big picture, I would advise you toward the latter choice - it may be more competitive but will be a better opportunity for building your resume in e-business content value, while still offering you comparable management responsibility.

THREE-LEGGED STOOL

Q: I have an opportunity to move from a financial executive position at a subsidiary company to a newly created CIO position at the parent company. As the new CIO, I will assist in a worldwide re-engineering program and implementation of new systems to support the new business model. I have had prior IT experience through responsibility for management of staff and consultants maintaining proprietary software; implementation of a network environment; selection, negotiation and implementation of an ERP system; and re-engineering of a business model in expectation of the ERP implementation.

However, I've had limited involvement in the three legs of IT (technology and architecture, operations and technical support, and application systems development and support) that you mentioned in response to a past question. Will involvement from an executive level compensate for the lack of lower-level technical experience, or will it impede my ability to move to other organisations in a similar role in the future? Overall, would you consider this a good move?

A: Yes, I would recommend the move but only if you are certain that you will truly enjoy being a CIO and having a CIO career, or if a turn as CIO is part of your plan to acquire a broad base of experiences in preparation for general management.

Your prior IT experience, especially your role in the ERP implementation, is clearly part of the "applications systems development and support" leg of the stool, and it appears to be highly applicable to the short-term mission of the new CIO position. So you are in the game.

I also agree that your lack of prior technical experience is a handicap as a CIO, both in the current situation as well as at any future employer. You can compensate for this hole in your background by leveraging your business knowledge and strategic planning skills to create strong value for your IT function, and by utilising your financial expertise to put forward a strong business case for each of your IT initiatives based on compelling returns on the investments.

Most important, seek out and hire the very best lieutenants you can find to serve as trusted deputies to manage the infrastructure and operational aspects of your new domain, either in-house or through the very best outsourcing solutions available to you. In either case, this will minimise your experience gap and leave you free to focus on the strategic value of your responsibilities.

CAREER FEEDBACK

Q: I have been a project manager in applications development for 15 years. I feel I am ready to move to the next level. In a previous response to a question about readiness in pursuing a director or CIO-level position, you stated that an independent evaluation of that readiness might be appropriate. Where does one obtain an independent evaluation?

A: The very best source of career feedback, including readiness evaluation, is a mentor who is committed to and capable of being candid, objective and comfortable giving constructive criticism as well as positive reinforcement and encouragement. If you don't have a mentor, seek one out - preferably someone outside your own company or at least someone who is not above you in your direct reporting chain. Look for a mentor in industry groups and associations, or call into a neighbor company and do some networking of your own. Your mentor should be someone you admire, both for his or her career accomplishments but also for leadership, values and style. Regardless of whom you choose, assure yourself that this individual is truly honest with you and not just saying what you want to hear. Second opinion? Your boss, of course. Third opinion? A good IT specialist search consultant.

GETTING UP TO SPEED

Q: I have a technical background as a

systems engineer and an MS MIS degree from a prestigious European school. I have always been informed about the newest technologies and issues, but I left everyday IT nearly seven years ago to start a new business. I now have managerial experience but no telecomms experience, and no e-commerce projects to add to my resume. I know technology, I know how to manage people and I am also bilingual. Should I give it a try as a CIO?

A: Seven years away from IT is a very, very long period of absence in this fast-moving continuum. As you've noted, you have not yet acquired any experience in two of today's most important IT areas - networking and e-commerce - and you are likely unfamiliar with much of the state of the art in distributed computing, data warehousing, ERP systems, customer relationship management (CRM) applications and so on. And when you left IT, you were a systems engineer with little or no management experience.

Having said the obvious, you have an information technology foundation and leadership experience to bring to bear, plus some particular industry expertise that you haven't mentioned. I would therefore venture into the market to see what reception you might receive in competing for the top IT position at smaller companies within your industry knowledge space, but be prepared to fall back to a lower level. Your main objective must be getting back into an appropriate IT career path and gaining an opportunity to update your skills and experience for future growth.

Mark Polansky is a managing director and member of the advanced technology practice in the New York City office of Korn/Ferry International.

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