Be Ready for CIO Turnover: Cultivate a Professional Network

CIOs As Free Agents

As Moody's and Nell's situations demonstrate, the job market isn't what it used to be. Landing a new CIO job can take a while, says Phil Schneidermeyer, a partner at executive search firm Highland Partners in Stamford, Conn. And if you haven't cultivated your network yet, the job hunt will likely take much longer.

You're Fired!
How one CIO bounced back.

Looking back on the day I got fired from my CIO job, I can honestly say I saw it coming. I can even admit -- subconsciously, at least -- that I wanted out of this troubled company, which had churned through multiple chief executives and shifted strategies in an increasingly frantic fashion.

But it was still a disorienting shock to be adrift and jobless. I had always been the one recruited into positions, not dismissed from them. I'd never heard someone tell me that I was being "let go" before. The message is, "You've failed," and there's no blow to your ego quite like that.

Intellectually, I knew I wasn't connecting with our latest CEO. I'd gotten so disillusioned with the company that I didn't have the energy. I knew the CEO didn't view IT as strategic to achieving business goals. Yet instead of trying to resolve those issues, I hunkered down and focused on getting IT projects done. Funny how we don't see the classic mistakes as we're busy making them.

Painful Truths
The whole experience illuminated two important and painful truths. One was the danger of not engaging fully with the CEO and the business strategy. The other was the need for a solid professional network, which to some degree I'd let lapse. In those few strange weeks afterward, I recall getting a lot of yard work done but not much else. Finally my exasperated wife asked, "Don't you have some calls to make?"

So I tapped into my comfort network: the usual suspects among my friends, colleagues and professional contacts I knew well. But as we talked, I realized that if they knew about a position, I would already know about it too. What I really needed was to get outside my comfort zone and extend this network.

One thing I had always done, whether looking for that next job or not, was network outside of my current company. I enjoy talking to people. But the more I got caught up in the maelstrom at the office, the less active I became outside it. And it quickly became evident how vital this connection to the outside world was once I was the one making the calls instead of receiving them. I also hadn't envisioned my next move or even thought much about what else I wanted to accomplish in my career.

Get Down to Business
So I got down to business. We all know x number of people in x number of companies. These people know other people, and before you know it, you're only a few degrees of separation from any industry or company you're interested in learning more about. I made phone calls and set up meetings. Once I had identified the industries I was considering moving into, I asked my new connections a lot of questions. Most were happy to tell me everything they knew about the future, the business plans and the growth potential of these industries.

Extending your network beyond your comfort zone taps you into opportunities you'd never hear about otherwise. Sure, you might find a job from online postings or through re-cruiters, but my money is on personal connections. In my case, I heard about a position through a friend who's a supply chain executive at my new company. But it wasn't until I called him to talk about his industry (and what I was looking to do next) that he made the connection. He'd heard they were looking for someone with my background, but like most executive positions, the job was never even posted.

It took me just a few months to find my new job, but it seemed like a lot longer. The three biggest lessons that being fired taught me are these: Stay focused on the business strategy, identify and pay attention to your own career aspirations, and keep pushing your network beyond those comfortable boundaries.

Now, don't you have some calls to make?

The author is a senior IT executive who shared this story on condition of anonymity. To comment on this article, write to editor@ciodecisions.com.

Moody is now trying to make up for lost time. He has joined the Technology Executives Networking Group, or TENG, in Derby, Conn., an invitation-only organization for unemployed senior IT leaders who are actively looking for a job. (Moody was referred to TENG by a fellow member.) In addition, Moody has pursued other networking venues, such as participating in online groups on Yahoo and contacting vendor representatives he has worked with in the past.

He's also plumbed far and deep into his work history, tracking down anyone he reported to during the past decade and a half. Somewhat to his own amazement, he's compiled an impressive list of contacts, including a current COO and CEO to whom he reported years ago. So far, while no one has had a job to offer him, at least Moody can use these revitalized contacts for references as he seeks an IT leadership position in the biotech industry.

Self-described consummate networker June Drewry claims she's never had to look for a job in her more than 25-year career. Every move she's made (to Liberty Financial, Aetna, Aon and, in August, to Chubb Corp. in Warren, N.J., where Drewry is global CIO) has been the result of someone contacting her first.

Yet Drewry notes that most of the IT professionals she encounters haven't cultivated outside contacts. That oversight has come back to haunt them, and not just in finding a job at a new company. Drewry estimates that in 90% of cases where an internal candidate is passed over for a job in favor of an external one, it's because the outsider has a more extensive network.

At Chubb, Drewry's chief responsibility is IT staff development, and she requires her staff to network by joining professional associations and attending local meetings regularly. For her own part, Drewry has been an active member in the Society for Information Management, an association for senior IT leaders that has chapters around the country. "Even if you're doing your job and aren't in dire need of a new one, you should continue to build your network of peers and colleagues," she says.

Increasing one's personal visibility is another networking technique Drewry recommends. She encourages CIOs to write white papers, serve as a source for articles, present at conferences or participate in a panel (see "CIOs On Stage," CIO Decisions, August issue). All provide opportunities for CIOs to get their names out there, to meet peers and to expand their professional horizons, Drewry says. And as it happens, all such activities can put you in touch with people who might ultimately offer you your dream job.

Such a strategy is particularly effective for CIOs who are gainfully employed but looking for a new challenge without broadcasting that fact to their current employer. Says Heller of Z Resource Group: "If your name is out there, if you're publishing and speaking, you're going to get calls from recruiters."

And that's good news given the volatility of the CIO role. The bottom line: Today's CIO needs to manage his career differently from the past. Now he must be a free agent who's conscious of his image at large rather than a lifelong foot soldier bound to one company. And this means keeping an eye on the landscape beyond your current position. "You have to work at creating some visibility" for yourself, says Highland Partners' Schneidermeyer.

After all, you don't want to look up and find yourself out of work. Indeed, by actively managing your own career, you may discover that, like Drewry, the jobs find you.

Megan Santosus, a former senior editor at CIO Decisions, is now a features editor for SearchDataCenter.com. Write to her at msantosus@techtarget.com.

This was first published in October 2005

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