Expert Advice: Career Counsel

Expert Advice: Career Counsel

Looking for executive IT career advice? The following are excerpts from our ongoing Web site column "Executive Career Counselor," in which our resident expert Mark Polansky answers questions about senior-level career advancement, change, education, strategy and more. Polansky is a managing director and member of the advanced technology practice in the New York City office of Korn/Ferry International, one of the world's leading executive search firms. To read more questions and answers or to ask Mark for advice on your own career visit

-The Editors

Dear Mark: I have worked for 10 years as an IT director in a small (500-user LAN) nonprofit company. After I took the job, I realised they wanted my technical expertise (CNE, MSCE) more than my administrative skills. I am almost 50, and this seems like a dead-end situation. How do I get back on a reasonable career track that leverages my technical skills and, more important, my administrative experience, people skills and passion for information systems?

Dear IT Director: Regardless of your age, a dead end is never where you should be if you have more strategic and leadership value to offer your employer. First, talk to your managers-in a positive way-about the exciting things that IT can do for the organisation, like saving money through operating efficiency, raising more contributions through an intelligent fund-raising database system and so on. If they don't get it, then perhaps it's time to move on to a more progressive and enlightened environment.

Dear Mark: I am contemplating going back to school to get a master's degree. My career goals include making it to the ranks of CIO at a major organisation. What would be the best master's degree to pursue to continue on my upward path?

Dear Upward Bounder: We don't look for advanced degrees (MS) in computer science or other technical disciplines in the backgrounds of up-and-coming and top CIOs. An MBA is the clear choice of master's degrees to prepare a CIO to understand and effectively align IT with the business plans and the operations of an employer. An MBA should enable you to not only hold your own but to intelligently contribute at the company's executive management table. And if you can't take the time away from your career, check out the wide availability of executive MBAs available both on campus and online through distance education. As to your area of concentration, once again information systems would tend to brand you as insular rather than business focused. If you have a chosen industry orientation then select an appropriate field, for example, finance for investment banking or marketing for consumer products. A management concentration is neutral and always helpful. Whatever your choice, make sure to include enough finance content so that you really understand profit-and-loss statements and balance sheets-your CEO and CFO will really appreciate that.

Dear Mark: During the past 10 years, I have served as CFO, then COO of a group of related subsidiaries of public energy utilities. However, my background, dating to the mid-'70s, was in systems development and implementation for large financial information services companies (multibillion-dollar public companies). Even today, I'm drawn back into IT issues because my constituents trust my judgement. My past work has evolved into some high-profile successes, and frankly, I enjoy that more than what I do now. Unfortunately, the one attribute of my current job that surpasses all others in satisfaction is seeing the winds of political change and my resulting ability to anticipate the appropriate company positioning.

My question is this: Are there career opportunities that combine a love of technical strategy with true senior management equivalency? If so, is it best to approach these with a developmental/project-oriented presentation or with a senior management accomplishment background?

Dear COO: Consider looking for a senior management position in the IT industry. IT product and services companies-both large and small, startup and mature alike-are hungry for executives who understand their technology and customer value and who can provide the vision and leadership to help grow their businesses.

Dear Mark: How does one move from a director-level position into a CIO position? What are the major skills required?

Dear Director: Making the break from director to CIO is based on your making the change from a more tactical and less strategic role to the reverse, of a mostly strategic and business-driven role with far less tactical focus. This is the single most important attribute of a true chief information officer. The key skills are vision, leadership, solid technical grounding, strong business acumen, creative thinking and problem solving, excellent communication and relationship building, and a can-do attitude.

Dear Mark: I have over 31 years of experience as a systems engineer, consultant, entrepreneur and CIO. I have analysed, developed and implemented systems in all business areas such as manufacturing, materials, accounts, costing, budgeting, marketing, MRP and so on. I have been a key person in reengineering and change-management projects involving ERP systems such as SAP and Oracle Financials. I have custom developed large client/ server IT solutions and have set up a large, high-process maturity software development factory. I am heavily into process improvement, quality management and TQM, and have strong skills in project management, reengineering and organisation change management. I am working in a consulting company and am looking for a change. Could you suggest a suitable approach?

Dear Jack-of-All-Trades: Sure-send me your resume before you send it to anyone else! If what you say is true, it is clear that you have many skills and experiences that would make you a highly attractive senior management candidate in the corporate IT arena. The transition from consulting to corporate IT leadership will hinge on your ability to align your IT organisation with the mission and the business plan of a prospective employer company-in contrast to the more common project-oriented focus of a great many consultants.

Dear Mark: I have worked directly for CIOs and directors for the last 10 years. I have the skills (so I have been told by my peers and bosses) to be a CIO or director, but how do I break the barrier? I am told I cannot be hired or promoted to a higher position until I have some actual experience in the position. Is this the old Catch-22?

Dear Barrier Breaker: Nonsense. If you are truly qualified to be a chief information officer, some company out there will welcome your skills and experience. But don't let flattering remarks turn your head-get some independent assessment of your readiness. And if you are CIO material, then strike out after your goal. Good luck!

Dear Mark: I'm currently the IT director for a small U.K.-based, international biotechnology company. It's a position I have held for almost three years. For the previous two years, I was regional IT manager for one of the world's top engineering consultancies in charge of all aspects of IT for its third-largest global region.

I'm now considering the options that lie ahead. There seems to be a lot of exciting opportunities in the United States. As a UK national, I'm wondering if there is a realistic chance that a US company might select me, sponsor the appropriate visas and relocate me to the United States?

Dear Brit: Yes, I think there is a chance that you could find a suitable position on this side of the pond, but it won't be easy. First, you must use all of your selling points as a candidate. That means trading on your industry experience in biotechnology and engineering consulting, your international experience, which should be attractive to a global company, plus any other specifics you've been involved in, like a hot technology, an ERP implementation or an e-commerce initiative. Then do some research and send a cover letter and resume to as many U.S. companies that match your personal market value proposition as possible.

Second, because you are coming from a small foreign company, look not only for a number-one job at a small US company but also give very strong consideration to the number two, three or four jobs at bigger organisations, or more likely a project-management spot in one of the major American biotech companies with the idea of getting inside and showing them what you can do. Besides, there are a lot more of those positions available. Also, send your letter and resume to the recruiting communities in your industry experience groups as well as in IT. Lastly, if you can afford to, take a few weeks off and come to the United States. Use your cover letters to let everyone know when you will be here and set up as many appointments ahead of time as you can, then follow up by phone with your prime targets once you arrive here.

Join the CIO Australia group on LinkedIn. The group is open to CIOs, IT Directors, COOs, CTOs and senior IT managers.

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