Career Counsel

FRAMINGHAM (05/01/2000) - OPPORTUNITY KNOCKS Q: My company was planning rapid expansion, which has turned out to be a lot slower than originally planned.

Among other duties, I was responsible for making my company's legacy core system Y2K compliant. Shortly before the end of the year, both the corporate IT director and the MIS manager were let go and I was promoted to director of IT.

The transition, while sudden and traumatic, has been smooth with no Y2K disasters or any other bumps in the road.

What is the best way to get up to speed in the areas previously handled by the IT director? I have the application and team management areas covered, but I want to know the best way to grow into this new position.

A: Congratulations. What a wonderful opportunity and a great question! First order of business is to ascertain why your predecessor and your former peer in technology and operations (the MIS manager) were dismissed. If the reasons are valid, then you can establish credibility and get some quick wins by quickly reversing or avoiding their errors of omission.

Next, find out what senior management truly thinks and expects of IT: strategic element or operational overhead? If being a CIO is right for you, and if the opportunity to contribute to your company's top and bottom lines through technology-driven initiatives is there, then you've got a winner. In that case, get to know as much as you can about your company, its business plans and its business operations. Spend time out in the business units and the trenches learning firsthand about the business and its key processes. Establish a dialogue and a partnership perspective with the business and operational unit heads. Get some pilot projects going to establish an IT strategic plan that includes some exciting innovations.

However, if all this good stuff is moot, then simply be a great IT director for a while to establish your new level of operating management experience, and then decide when to move on if being a CIO is really what you want. In either case you will need to identify, from the outside or in, a good and trusted deputy to whom you can delegate the planning, care and management of the infrastructure, or outsource it. And lastly, if the company promoted you to do both jobs, get your rsum ready.

WHAT DOES I.T. COST? Q: Has the qualification set for a CIO changed with the shift in business architecture? I run a $40 million front-office solutions group for a Fortune 500 company serving the financial services and telecom industries. Our strategy group continually runs into organizations with a strong business need to reshape their fundamental processes around customers whose CIOs have not prepared the infrastructure. Rather than an emphasis on knowledge management and enterprise processes, I see far too many CIOs stressing transaction-processing costs and efficiency. As I think about my next move, the opportunity to take on a CIO role is appealing; however, I am concerned about the emphasis I see on cost rather than on value. How does one spot the companies that understand the strategic value of IT and truly allow a CIO to enable the business?

A: You have articulated the essential question of old versus new thinking, of seeing IT as a cost center rather than as a strategic tool or business enabler for competitive advantage--except that a sound cost structure must come first.

In fact, being a low-cost provider is still a valid strategy in a commodity-oriented product or service business. And you can't build advanced business processes, KM systems or e-business platforms if the infrastructure is weak and not cost optimized. That's why you have a great CTO working for you--to stress over those things while you do the heavy thinking.

As far as spotting the right companies that get it, find out to whom the CIO reports (it should not be the CFO) and whether the CIO sits on the executive management committee. Ask to see the company's IT strategic plan and insist on talking to the CEO, the COO, the CFO and the peer department heads and ask them all the hard questions that should tell you what you need to know. Anything less is a gamble.

E-MAIL IS BEST Q: When starting a job search, is there a best method for making initial contact with executive recruiters? Do they prefer phone, mail, e-mail or receiving a response via their website?

A: My preferred choice, and the choice of many of us in large organizations, is via a concise e-mail text cover letter and a rsum attachment. This contact method gives me the option of reading the letter to determine if this is an appropriate candidate for the opportunities in my own practice area. If it is appropriate, I will then open and review the rsum. If not appropriate for my practice, I can usually determine from a well-written cover letter whom of my colleagues should receive a copy of the inquiry.

In either case, it is extremely convenient for me to review, possibly refer onward and have the rsum captured into our database for future access by our research department as new search assignments come in. By the way, this method also gives me the option of printing inquiries or downloading my e-mail inquires for offline review on my train commute or on an airplane trip. Website access should accomplish the same result, but your message will be reviewed first by a researcher rather than by a search consultant. Snail mail is OK but not nearly as good as e-mail since it has to be photocopied or faxed in order to be forwarded to colleagues, or it must be scanned to be captured into a database. My last choice, regardless of what the books and outplacers say, is phone contact.

SUCCESSION PLANNING Q: I am currently a CIO in municipal government. I plan to leave for my next opportunity within six months to a year. For the good of the organization, I'd like to raise the issue of succession planning with my CEO.

However, I am concerned how this issue might be received. Is there a way to broach the topic that minimizes the risk? It seems that the lowest risk to me personally is to wait until my next position is assured, but then of course it's too late.

A: It would be very helpful to know the nature and the depth of your professional and personal relationships with your boss. I will, however, assume from the tone of your question that the relationship is not strong enough to accommodate an advanced warning of your intention to move on. Your obvious plan of action then is to say nothing of your leaving and craft a succession plan as a normal and important ongoing activity that should be done by all good chief information officers as part of an annual plan or part of a contingency plan (did you neglect to include human contingencies?).

WHILE I WAS AWAY... Q: I am 45 years old and have had a significant career with investment banking and financial services, IT corporate management and consulting firms. I have a solid background in technology and an MBA in finance. I'm articulate and possess serious leadership skills and experience.

However, I took time off to pursue my own business unrelated to IT, sold the business at a profit and am back now to pursue a career as a CIO or COO. I missed Y2K and the beginning of the internet world! Is my five-year hiatus that much of a minus? Rsums I have sent on the internet have not been answered and headhunters have been mildly interested thus far. Please provide some words of wisdom to facilitate my search in earnest.

A: In this golden age of entrepreneurial activity, your question has become a frequently asked one. Yes, I think the time off is a drag against your job search since you not only missed the growth of the internet but also much of the state-of-the-art in networking, distributed computing, data warehousing, ERP systems and customer relationship management systems. Also remember that recruiters and potential employers perceive a palpable risk that you will jump ship once again in the future for some other entrepreneurial opportunity.

On the other hand, you say that you have a very strong and well-established track record of IT management--plus solid expertise in the very hot brokerage/online-banking industry. I suggest that you go on the market as a CIO candidate for a small financial services firm and gauge the reception you receive, or at the director level in a larger environment to regain your career momentum and then continue toward the CIO, CTO or COO level.

As for using the internet in your job search, it should be only one facet of your search resources, especially at this level. You will do much better through personal networking and traditional executive search firms that can get you and your situation past the noise of online recruiting. By the way, it would be wonderful if self-confidence alone could get you there--keep it up but take care not to overdo it.

FIRST-YEAR CONCERNS Q: I recently accepted a position with a very large $14 billion financial institution. This is a very different culture from the entrepreneurial companies I've worked for in the past 20 years. A successful transition is important for me to establish continuity in my career--following being laid off by new management in my prior two positions. What specific books, publications and other resources that deal with the first year in an organization--successful cultural assimilation, becoming recognized and known (smaller cog in a larger organization) and so on--do you suggest?

A: I must admit that I am not familiar with any books or publications that deal specifically with the short-term assimilation and cultural challenges that you face. (Perhaps our readers can make some suggestions?) My strong recommendation for integrating into your new environment, regardless of the particular nature of the new space versus the old, is to acquire a mentor at your new company. I have previously written in this column about having a mentor; it is your best bet for learning the ropes, gaining a sense of the politics and navigating the rules of the road at your new place of employment. And you don't have to stay within IT to find a mentor! Just make sure that you chose someone who is well positioned in the company and preferably someone who has a stake in your mutual success.

STRATEGIC PLANNING Q: How can I find a conference on developing the ability to create a strategic IT plan?

A: Good news! There are a very large number of resources available here, since IT strategic planning is such a critical and pervasive topic. Most of the IT industry associations (for instance, the Society for Information Management, Association for Computing Machinery, Data Processing Management Association) have seminars, working groups and white papers available. The professional exchanges and training organizations, both for-profit and not-for-profit, such as the Conference Board and the American Management Association, offer relevant seminars and publications. And the IT industry advisory services (Meta Group and GartnerGroup, for example) and the management consulting firms (Big 5 and others) all have well-established methodologies and practice expertise in IT strategy planning.

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

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