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.

Visit our Web site to read more questions and answers or to ask Mark for advice on your own career:

-The Editors

Dear Mark: I have risen through the ranks of a $1 billion multinational company to become one of its youngest vice president/CIOs. Feeling very comfortable with my professional as well as my personal achievements, I find myself stuck.

I suppose reaching this status so quickly has caused me a dilemma of sorts.

What is next? Where should I look to develop myself? I am in a large company already, so scaling isn't that big of a draw. Perhaps developing stronger finance or supply chain skills to move onto COO? I am a bit lost. Is it too early to say, "I've made it, time to relax"?Dear Wunderkind: It's not too early to coast if that's what you feel like doing, but it doesn't sound like that's who you are, given your fast-track accomplishments thus far. You have already answered the first question of moving up the Fortune food chain-as you said, "scaling up"- and so a CIO role in a larger environment doesn't seem to be the challenge that will get your juices flowing. The next question is, Are you excited by the possibility of general management? If so, first make sure that your senior management (CEO, president or COO) knows and endorses your plan and agrees to be your mentor.

Get the MBA or executive MBA while also studying your company's business. Spend as much time as you can with the operating, sales and marketing, and finance people. And ask management to sign you up for a six-month tour of duty, perhaps even a year, on an operating assignment. The third possibility for you to consider is a senior management role in a technology enterprise (startup or mature) based on your taste and your risk-reward orientation.

Dear Mark: I have received an offer for a director of technology position in an Internet startup. My research on compensation in startups indicates that it is standard practice for a startup to offer below-market cash compensation in a trade-off for equity in the company. What should I expect in the form of equity relative to market standards? The company is closing its first funding round and I would be the sixth employee.

Dear Equity Seeker: Your research is spot on in that there is a definite trade-off between cash compensation and equity value at a startup business of any kind, especially at an Internet startup. That trade-off has become the name of the game as the risk of some short-term cash compensation sacrifice is weighed against the potentially large equity reward of an IPO or a sale of the company. There are generally two factors that affect the size of your equity stake: 1) Your position (higher positions get more equity, of course) and 2) the age of the startup (the younger the startup, the more you should get, as in "'higher risk equals higher reward.") As technical director and employee number six at the first round of financing, you should expect somewhere between 1 percent and 5 percent of the company, depending on who the other founders and financial backers are, antidilution protection and so on. You should get yourself a good contracts lawyer and let him or her guide you.

Dear Mark: Is it better to work within a business unit for a period of time to enhance the possibilities for advancement? I have spent my full career in the IT area. I recently completed an executive MBA program, and I'm now trying to identify "next steps" for my career. My goal is to head up a department that links the business unit with the IT department. What moves should I consider in order to make this happen? I'm currently involved in the IT infrastructure (database, network, architecture and so on).

Dear Next Stepper: I commend you on your executive MBA since it sounds like you are looking to continue on a career path focused on bringing IT value to your employer's business. But I'm not sure that I understand what you mean by "a department that links the business unit with IT." After trying many combinations and variations on the theme of IT liaison, the world has found that the best way to align IT for operational effectiveness and competitive advantage is by having dedicated business-savvy IT leaders collaborating with each business unit, and it seems like this is the way you should proceed. In any case, you simply must extract yourself from the infrastructure responsibility. This experience will come in very handy when it's time to become a corporate or divisional CIO. But for now, it's keeping you away from the business action.

Dear Mark: I am about to finish my MBA from a top 25 school and have focused on IS during this part-time program. This is the most formal IS training and experience I've had, though in my finance career (six years) I've always been handed the IS-related projects because of the expertise I've demonstrated in this area. My successful finance-IS strategy has gotten me to a finance director level with a large, conservative health-care system. Can you give any insights that might help me make a move to an IS management position with a more entrepreneurial high-tech company without having to take a pay cut or step down the food chain? Dear Finance Director: This is a tough one. The entrepreneurial technology world is such an exciting-and potentially rewarding-place to be, and there is a big need for highly qualified CIOs there as well. But having never been an IT executive will dictate that you take at least some step back when changing employers, unless you can convince your current employer to give you a shot at a senior IT management role from the inside (always a good career strategy) and then leveraging a lateral move into a high-tech company. Another concern I have is that sooner or later, your lack of a fundamental technology background may hurt your forward motion in high-tech, especially since those around you will be technology people rather than consumer-products or financial-services types, or whatever industry you're in. Watch out for this possibility and consider using your financial background for a future CFO or COO role.

Dear Mark: I have been on the traditional VAR side of IT for 15 years. The last eight have been in management, building and managing outsourced services for large customers and sales and marketing. I am experienced in managing large projects and rollouts and managing over 60 people. I generally work with the top executives of Fortune 2000 corporations. I would entertain leaving this side to join the corporate side of IT. Where would my skills fit best? Dear Side Switcher: Regardless of position title, look for a spot in which you can capitalise on your skills in large project management, system rollouts and managing project teams. Depending on the size and scope of the environment, this could land you at the project manager, application systems manager or even systems director level positions, the latter reporting directly to a small or midsize company CIO-and go forward from there. You will also maximise your success if you have any industry-specific expertise to leverage with a corporate employer.

Dear Mark: I recently joined a consulting firm that provides IT and business consultation at both the CEO and CIO levels.

I want to engage in further studies that will supplement my consulting framework when providing consultation to executives. Can you recommend any good postgraduate studies (MBA level) that are internationally recognised and available through distance learning?Dear MBA Seeker: I commend all efforts toward continuing education, especially business training that expands the CIO scope. My opinion is that there are no wrong choices when acquiring knowledge, and you should use the same criteria for choosing a venue in this case as always: stretch yourself to the highest level of institution that is challenging yet not suicidal. The good news is that with distance education becoming more and more common, geography no longer needs to be a key factor in your decision. What a good exercise for your favourite Internet search engines!Dear Mark: I have spent 25 years in engineering and operations management in the construction and the oil and gas industries. My last job was COO of a regional oil and gas company formed by the merger of two major local operations.

In the new company, I helped lead the development and implementation of an IT strategy and an SAP implementation. I am now an enterprise architecture consultant within the company, and I would like to pursue a career in this area as a senior manager or consultant. Is this career change possible? If so, what do I need to do to make it happen? Dear SAP Architect: This should be a slam dunk! The Big Five and most other top (and not so top) consulting companies would love to have your SAP implementation experience coupled with real industry operating experience. This is especially true of the firms that have vertical industry practice groups focused on your specialties-construction and oil and gas. The unknown variables in your question are the skills and qualities that you need to succeed as a consultant, namely energy level, willingness to work long, hard hours and to travel, client management skills and business development orientation. If consulting is right for you and it is what you want, then research and build a target list of appropriate consulting and recruiting firms to approach and go for it.

Dear Mark: I have been with a large telecom company for over five years and have climbed the corporate ladder rather quickly, with my current position of senior IT manager at age 29. My salary includes yearly bonuses and generous stock options. Currently, I am being courted by one of the Big Five consulting firms for an IT manager position with a base salary increase of more than 30 percent. Unfortunately, bonuses won't kick in until the senior manager level, and stock options are nonexistent.

From a long-term career perspective with the ultimate goal of CIO/CTO for a medium to large corporation, as well as from a financial perspective, what is your recommendation with regard to staying with private industry compared to joining a Big Five consultancy? Additionally, do you see any issues with transitioning from a senior management role in private industry to a manager role in consulting in relation to long-term career goals? Dear Big Five Magnet: There is almost never a blanket response as to the right or wrong choice between corporate and consulting experience. Recognise that there are many critical skills that are important to success in both environments, but there are differences as well, especially in lifestyle and in the marketing orientation of the consultant role as one moves up that ladder.

The most important question is, Which one fits you and your career objectives better? Also note that there are significant trade-offs in the type of experiences you can gain in the corporate world versus consulting. Again there's no right or wrong-but ask yourself which skills you wish to further develop to help realise your goal of becoming a CIO/CTO. Lastly, with some variation depending on which Big Five is courting you, there are both short- and long-term compensation trade-offs in salary, bonuses versus options, current income versus deferred income and so on. Make sure you understand these differences-but don't let them get in the way of a thoughtful decision based on who you are and what you want from your career.