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The CIO job and age discrimination

Linda Tucci, Executive Editor

Is the CIO job more vulnerable to age discrimination than other C-suite positions? Ask an executive recruiter specializing in technology whether the CIO job is a young

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person's game, and the initial response typically comes in two waves: first, the slightly nervous laughter and a comment about the sensitivity of the topic, then the parsing.

"I don't think it's so much about overt ageism as it is about taking a hard look at the situation and deciding what is really the best fit for the role," said Shawn Banerji, managing director of the global technology practice at Russell Reynolds Associates Inc., a senior executive search firm in New York.

"So much has to do with the experience of the executive hiring committee," said Martha Heller, president of Heller Search Associates, a retained executive search firm in Westborough, Mass. "Sometimes they want to clone the last guy, and sometimes just the opposite: If they had a young go-getter, a cowboy who spent a lot of money but never matured enough to bring the team around, they will be looking for gray hairs."

"Right now the big topic is cloud," said Chris Patrick, global CIO practice leader at the Dallas office of executive recruiter Egon Zehnder International AG. "Frankly, there are a lot of people who have no idea what it means, or how it should be deployed, and is it real or not; and that has nothing to do with whether they grew up in an MIS environment or are freshly minted out of Carnegie Mellon or MIT."

The CIO job's New Wave

"The pendulum has really swung," said Gina Schiller, senior vice president for technology recruitment at the New York executive search firm J. B. Homer Associates Inc. "In the dot-com era everyone thought that if you were above 40, how could you possibly function in this brave new world of IT? Now the quest is for CIOs with experience and still attuned to the latest technology," she said, adding, "but it is less about age than being young at heart."

With CIOs, unlike, say, a CFO, there is sometimes a tendency to privilege a younger candidate, because of the belief that technology innovation and youth go hand in hand.

Martha Heller, president, Heller Search Associates

Get beyond the platitudes and initial disclaimers, however, and these seasoned headhunters make it clear that the CIO search is like almost no other in executive ranks. "With CIOs, unlike, say, a CFO, there is sometimes a tendency to privilege a younger candidate, because of the belief that technology innovation and youth go hand in hand," Heller said.

"The reality is that there is a bias against individuals towards the tail end of their career," Egon Zehnder's Patrick said.

Moreover, unlike the CEO position, if an IT professional has reached his mid-50s without ever having reached the executive ranks, chances are slim for his reaching the CIO job at a large company or even a midcap company, said Jerry Luftman, executive director of the Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, N. J. He backs this claim with his multiyear CIO research on IT executive careers for the Society for Information Management. CIOs start relatively young, he said, adding that they head IT at small companies after being trained at large companies, and "trade up."

Heller disagreed about a cutoff age -- "I like to say there is a lid for every pot" -- but said the older the candidate, the more important that networks and referrals become: "Because, if you are up against those younger high-potentials, it is going to be people vouching for you that gets you the CIO job."

So yes, age is an issue for CIOs. According to these experts, however, it's a nuanced issue that -- as much as it has to do with stereotypes about age -- also has to do with the rapidly evolving nature of the CIO job, the mind-set of technologists trained 30 years ago, the taint of unemployment (even in a recession), and the difficulty of hiring a CIO.

'Reverse' age discrimination in the CIO job

Age bias correlates to some extent with the type of CIO a company is looking for, Russell Reynolds' Banerji said. In a search for what he calls an "operational CIO" -- someone whose primary job is to manage people, do resource planning and run IT as a capable utility within the enterprise -- "there may be reverse age discrimination," he said. "Particularly, when you get into the Global 1000 companies, there is a perception that you want a steady, mature set of hands at the wheel. For the 40-year-old who may have 12 or 15 years in the field, the question is always, do they have the competency and the gravitas, if you will, to be viewed as a credible leader in the company."

CIO job experience is paramount at large global companies, where CIOs need to manage across many divisions and are dealing with lots of legacy IT systems, agreed Jack Santos, research vice president at Stamford, Conn.-based Gartner Inc. and previously a CIO in banking and health care. "CEOs at these companies hire what they know: someone like themselves who has seen it all and can keep their cool when things go wrong," he said. That's a profile that tends to fit an older candidate.

The CIOs J.B. Homer's Schiller places are "running a business within in a business," she said. IT often is run as shared services that cross multiple divisions and span the globe. "Leadership, financial acumen, business savvy are critical," she added, skills that are honed by age. Even cutting-edge computing -- a company's mobile computing strategy, for example -- starts with understanding what the business needs to get out it, she said.

At small growth companies, not surprisingly, youth is the hot commodity. "You have a $100 million business wanting to be a $500 million company in two years," Banerji said. "They're building their platform of the future using [the development platform] LAMP; it's all open source and integrated into Web 2.0. They have 10 crackerjack developers using Russia and India to supplement the team -- that is probably not a 50-year-old operational CIO profile. You're looking at a 35-year-old to 42-year-old, still pretty hands-on, geeky person."

CIO job requirement: 'Someone with runway'

This age-experience dichotomy, however, often does not play out quite so straightforwardly. "Companies probably have more difficulty in successfully hiring CIOs than any other function," said Heller, who has coined the phrase CIO paradox to describe the competing demands put on CIOs.

First, IT is not an area of knowledge or comfort for CEOs, so they don't always know what they are looking for. While almost all companies now mouth the desire for a "business-leaning" CIO, they still sometimes equate the job with technical expertise, Heller said, citing one recent CIO job search for a fast-growing $5 billion retail company. The hiring committee wanted somebody with financial acumen and who could work with the business, and she had found them a "fantastic candidate," she said -- whom they hired but not without some last-minute hand-wringing.

"In the final round, I'm asked, 'But can she really roll up her sleeves and get technical?' She is running IT for a $5 billion company! Did they think she was going to be writing code?" Heller said. "CEOs would never ask if a prospective CFO was hands-on because they know that the CFO is going to be directing the people who crunch the numbers. With IT, they don't know."

Because CIO searches are so difficult, often CEOs think they want a person who will "stick around," Heller said: "If you are near the end of your career but have a good five years ahead of you, a CEO might not want to invest in you because he or she knows that the replacement search is going to have to happen sooner rather than later. That is another reason why there might be some bias against an older person."

Egon Zehnder's Patrick often hears from clients that they want a CIO "with runway," a person who can "grow with the business" and be there for a period of time -- and by the way, who possesses business acumen and preferably vertical expertise, he said.

At some point experience becomes less of a calling card, recruiters agreed. "A person who is 48 is sometimes perceived as having as much relevant experience and competency as someone who is 58," Banerji said. "At that point, the delta between a 28-year veteran and a 38-year veteran is incremental at best, versus the delta between a 15-year and a 25-year veteran," he said. Fifteen years in the business is middle management. And 25 years? "You're in your prime."

"Once you creep beyond that 52-to 53-year-old range, you're in competition with people who are anywhere from 4 to 10 years younger, and rightly or wrongly, are perceived as having the same degree of competency and pragmatic work experience," Banerji said.

Let us know what you think about the story; email Linda Tucci, Senior News Writer.


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