Advice to Aspiring CIOs and IT Managers

Advice to Aspiring CIOs and IT Managers

Q: When does one finally decide that it's time to move on? I've been a vice president/CIO for 12 years, and the growth, challenge and fun have faded away--but the money is still quite good.

I've been extremely successful delivering corporate goals, but there is no future promotional opportunity. I don't smile on my way to work anymore, and I'm way too young to retire. I've been thinking about something outside the IT area. What's your opinion of my situation?

A: Great question. You have reached the top position in your chosen field of information technology, namely vice president and CIO, but you seem bored, perhaps not challenged and definitely uninspired. It does sound like it might be time to move on. First, determine whether your ambivalence about your current position is due to the company (too small?), the management team (lacking top-talent peers?), your responsibilities (too simple?) or some combination of these and other factors. If you can identify the issues, then perhaps you should seek a move up the corporate food chain to a larger, more complex, sharper environment that needs a significant upgrade of its IT leadership, vision and execution.

On the other hand, if you have simply become bored with IT and find yourself looking longingly at the COO's job or a division manager's role, then set your sights on moving over into general management. Prepare yourself for this lateral migration by spending as much time as possible with your user community and learning as much as you can about the business. Continuing education in business operations, finance, marketing or management--perhaps an executive MBA--will support your move. Your best bet lies within your current company by using your knowledge of its industry, products, services, processes and so on to convince management to give you a chance to grow beyond IS.

If that doesn't work, try pursuing a stepping-stone IT position at a competitor or related company with the understanding that general management is a common objective. Lastly, check into appropriate opportunities in the high-tech and dotcom worlds where you can leverage your technical background and management experience into a broader portfolio of responsibilities.


Q: I have manufacturing operations, financial services and IT project management experience of about 10 years in each area--in total spanning the last 30 years. At age 50, with four degrees including an MBA, plus three separate industry certifications, I am looking for a senior executive post (CIO, COO) where I can display my strengths in planning, implementing and managing strategic missions. How and where do I begin my search?

A: If your years of IT leadership are the most recent of the three parts of your background, you should find a fairly enthusiastic reception in the marketplace. Today the demand is sky-high for managers who can apply their technology-based experience to the business initiatives of progressive companies that value IT. This should be especially true in either financial services or manufacturing environments where your IT expertise can be further leveraged by your industry knowledge and expertise.

The issue of whether your hard skills and experience, plus your soft skills and abilities, qualify you at the CIO or COO levels is impossible to judge from your question and may not be obvious. Seek out the sincere, nonpatronising views and opinions of those around you--family, friends, mentors, business associates and colleagues--or your boss or your company's professional development staff if your employer's human resources function is strong. Speak to career counselors, search consultants or those who might interview you. Ask for their feedback and honest opinions rather than just selling yourself because you want a shot at it. In other words, know thyself.


Q: I am an IS professional with more than 25 years' experience in the development of strategic technical plans and the execution and management of those plans. In searching for my next position, I have been on a number of interviews and have been told that my business and leadership skills are excellent but that I do not have direct experience with the new technologies of e-business.

I have proven leadership skills and believe that the new technology knowledge can be attained with on-the-job experience. Should I concentrate on getting that knowledge first?

A: This is simply the latest version of the age-old experience Catch-22 applied to the latest hot topic--e-business. If you can't get the job without having the appropriate experience, then how can you ever get that experience without access to the jobs that offer the experience? In other words, if you can't do or manage something that you've never done or managed before, then how does one get to do or manage it for the first time? The answer as always is that your best option to get to do or manage something new is at your current employer.

The obvious path, then, is to lead your company forward into the brave, new e-world. Start small, look for easy and inexpensive low-hanging fruit, and gain some initial success to build on. If that's not possible, then fall back on another classic piece of career wisdom--use what you have to get what you want. That is to say, leverage your core competencies and knowledge of your industry, processes, products, services, technologies and so on to open the doors to other companies (competitors!?) that will value these assets and "get it" with regard to doing e-business. I am confident that your patience and perseverance will be rewarded.


Q: I have an MBA and an undergraduate computer science degree, though the MBA is not from what is considered to be a top-20 school. With over 10 years' experience (from hands-on applications development to project leadership and management, all with large, well-known companies), do I need to try to compensate for a "no-name" MBA by attending an executive education program at a top school to achieve the next level--the director level?

A: Let your education stand on its own among your professional qualifications. You can't change where you earned your MBA, and you shouldn't apologize for what is otherwise a significant accomplishment. More important, you can enhance your educational credentials by complementing your MBA with executive courses and seminars in new topics and subject matter.

You haven't told me the concentration of your MBA, but whatever it is, add to your "knowledgeware" in other business-oriented areas such as e-commerce, finance, management, marketing, distribution or whatever will help prepare you to better connect with your business-side partners, align your IT activities with the business plan, goals and objectives of your internal customers, and provide world-class products and services to your company's external partners and customers.


Q: I'm currently in a secure but unchallenging project manager position at a Fortune 500 company. The salary and package is comparable--if not in the upper quartile of most salary surveys. Would it be wise to gamble and take a more challenging position with a pre-IPO dotcom company with significant stock option gains but at a lower salary? I'm concerned that if the position or company does not work out then subsequent employers would use my current lower salary as a starting base to negotiate from.

A: Once again, the gamble of an entrepreneurial dotcom company makes sense only if you meet the following criteria: one, you can financially weather the storm of lower cash income until either the company has a liquidity event, like an IPO or a sale or merger, or if it fails, and there isn't a big payday, and you must move on; and if being an entrepreneur is really what you want to do.

Playing at a startup for less salary can get old quickly if you're not enjoying the long hours and the drive for success. Follow your heart, and make sure your brain (and your spouse) buy into this life change 100 percent. And should the venture fail, any good employer will compensate you at the market rate, and not judge your value based on your dotcom salary unless, of course, you go to another dotcom.


Q: I am almost 67 years young and received my MBA last year. I started in data processing in 1960 and went through several levels of positions with many businesses. After 13 years in data processing, I left the computing world and went into sales in an unrelated field. After 20 years of making good money in sales I was burned out and returned to the computer industry. I received 180 CEUs in all types of computer classes, went into instructing and then into systems administration work.

For the last two years I have been director of MIS for a very small city where salaries are about half those of private industry. I did what I set out to do for the city, which was to bring it through the year 2000 and into the 21st century, but my position is dependent upon the existing mayor being reelected in two years. I really want to move on and up. Am I too old to expect any private company to be willing to pay me for my experience and my education?

A: Legally and morally, your age is a nonissue. Realistically, however, there's good news as well as bad, and your job search will be challenging but ultimately successful.

First the bad news. For all our modern enlightenment and open thinking, there is still a great deal of bias in the workplace, in hiring as well as in promotional opportunity. That certainly includes age, both too young to qualify for senior management roles and too old to get the job done. Especially in the latter case, imagined concerns about continued good health and longevity in the position are used as rationalizations for inappropriate decisions.

The good news is that IS is more egalitarian and open-minded than almost any other vocational discipline, and the severe supply and demand crisis in the technology workforce will work strongly in your favor. Best of all, you sound like a guy who is full of energy and drive. Hopefully that will come across in an interview--visually do everything you can to look young and in good shape.

The hard part is opening doors and getting interviews. Make sure your resume is focused on up-to-date IT management concepts and technologies, and keep the older stuff as terse as you can. Networking is always a good bet, since those who know you will be your best advertisement. And don't hold out for the top job at the biggest company in town. Your objective must be to get your foot in the door and prove that you still have what it takes. Lastly, consider consulting. This avenue can give a potential employer a chance to "try then buy."

Mark Polansky is a managing director and member of the advanced technology practice at 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


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