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Stand out from the crowd

Stand out from the crowd

There's a regular stream of top executive roles appearing, and many CIOs would like to be in the frame. Find out how to make the right moves to get on the search firms' radar.

When MIS Australia (a sister publication of CIO New Zealand) named Simon Smith as one of its chief information officers of the year at the end of 2006, the number of phone calls from prospective new employers took a noticeable upturn. He was CIO at digital production house Omnilab at the time and already firmly on the radar of the recruitment industry. The public exposure only heightened the interest. A couple of months later, he was sitting behind a new desk as a CIO at News Digital Media, the online arm of News Ltd. It is the latest step in a career that Smith says is well planned out and encompasses a realistic approach to the business of career moves. There is an art to putting yourself in the reckoning when the big gigs come up, and Smith is one CIO who does not intend to sit around wistfully waiting for his phone to ring.

"I have multiple plans [for] how my career will progress. A large part of a CIO's job is around risk management and I take the same approach towards the project of my career," Smith says. "I make sure I have contingency plans in place and diversify so that there is a plan ... that will take me where I want to go."

It is advice worth taking on board for CIOs who are becoming accustomed to opening up newspapers and magazines, reading about the musical chairs in the community, and wondering why they're showing no sign of joining the game. There are a number of big jobs in the offing, including recently vacated posts in the Department of Defence, the technology hot seat at Westpac Banking Corp and the whole of government CIO position in NSW. Add to that the CIO role at Qantas Airways in the not-too-distant future and you can understand why executive headhunters are claiming the Australian market has never been better for them.

The head of the CIO practice at Talent2, Paul Rush, says the high-profile moves that have occurred in the past 18 months have had some significant knock-on effects within the organisations and in the industry as a whole. He says many chief executives are reassessing and shoring up the talent within their organisations, and this can often lead to a change of CIO. He adds that a buoyant economy means the cost-centric CIOs of a couple of years ago are not always the right people for the job when the business is looking to drive forward and grow. At the same time, Rush says, many CIOs are starting to look outside their environs to greener pastures elsewhere.

"CIOs are like any other C-level executive, in that they have to be intrinsically aware of the business climate," Rush says. "We're in a strong economy so the people in the safe chairs are willing to move now, whereas when the market tightens up they are less willing to take a chance and look outside their current role."

Understand the process

Many senior positions are tendered out to external search firms who head hunt the right person for the job, and present them to an organisation for interview. So it is certainly worth understanding the process a company will go through when it decides to enter the market for a new CIO.

The managing director of executive search firm Edward W Kelley & Partners, Marianne Broadbent, is leading the team endeavouring to place a new CIO at the Department of Defence following the departure of John Monaghan.

She says the initial aims for any search firm engaged on a job are to identify and access what might be a quite specific candidate pool and to minimise risk. Before a search begins the client and search firm will have detailed meetings to discuss the nature of the position. These initial discussions often involve a back and forth with the client on the description of the position.

Broadbent says an average CIO search takes about three months, which includes the time needed to gain an understanding of the business and the position, and to source people who may have suggestions about potential candidates - plus the time taken to build a broad prospect pool that will then be narrowed down. She says that about 70 per cent of the people whom search firms place are not looking for a new job when they are asked if they want to be considered.

Broadbent and her team will customise a set of capabilities for the hiring organisation and position, which forms the foundation criteria for the search. They develop a list of 40 to 50 traits that are honed down to the 25 most important. The team then selects questions to help identify those capabilities. The recruiter will go through these with candidates and present a list of prospects to the client, along with a rigorous assessment of each one.

"Clients are usually particularly interested in three or four things that are absolutely critical to them," Broadbent says. "It might be about personal values that this person needs in order to fit in well with the existing executive team, or it may be that they need to have drive and energy to be involved in a transformational position or a change-management position. It may also be that they have the background of having led an outsourced organisation or procurement-based company. Either way, there are always a couple of things that weigh quite heavily for the client."

Front of mind talent

Talent2's Rush says the hunt for the right CIO is a two-pronged attack, focusing on the types of companies the client would like to target and people the recruiter thinks would be good candidates, based on their experience and expertise. Rush says in the tendering process a hiring CEO will usually expect headhunters to specify some initial targets spontaneously. Being on that list is down to how CIOs perform and, just as importantly, how they project that performance.

While applying for advertised jobs may be one approach, this is rarely the way the top jobs are filled.

"The reason headhunters are headhunters is that they are not principally interested in the apples that are lying on the ground. They would rather go and get an apple that is halfway up the tree and is just ripening. You don't want an apple at the top of the tree because it is still a bit sour and bitter," Rush says. "You don't generally find the top search firms advertising, for that reason. They want to identify people. The role of the headhunter is not just about placing a candidate, it is about gathering information about the market."

One way of making sure recruitment companies access information about you is to develop a good relationship with them when you aren't necessarily looking for a job. Kelley & Partners' Broadbent says she never ceases to be amazed by the number of CIOs who will rudely give her short shrift if she phones up to seek advice or opinions and hide behind the veil of being incessantly busy. She says that, depending on the profile of a business, executives who never talk to search firms may remove themselves from the radar - even if they have lodged their CV for future positions - because at the executive level a database of candidates is less useful to a search firm than a deep industry knowledge and extensive long-term relationships.

"These days, if you want to work at an executive level, you have to understand how you are perceived by others, how you interact with others and how others receive you," Broadbent says. "People will judge you based on how you have interacted with them, rather than looking at your CV. Your behaviour is important, as it determines the impression you might give. If you always give others the brush off, if you don't treat people well, then people tend to hear about it. [Being] arrogant and disrespectful, in the long term doesn't help you."

Perfect profile

Of course, the personal profile is not entirely down to how a CIO or senior IT executive has previously dealt with the recruitment industry, or indeed their IT suppliers. There are a number of ways to elevate the perception of your talents outside the four walls of your own office.

These include speaking at conferences, being interviewed by the media, and attending networking meetings and events, where you can make others aware of the issues you have faced and the expertise you have built up.

"It's not rocket science. You have to invest some of your personal time and career plan in building your profile," Rush says. He says whenever a CIO whom he hasn't come across before is suggested to him, one of the first things he does is type the name into Google. If he finds the person quoted extensively in magazines and talking knowledgeably about a range of business issues, then he can be more confident that this is a person he can seek to learn more about.

For some, this external exposure can involve developing skills that are not the natural remit of the CIO. This is particularly the case for those who have worked their way up through the ranks of the IT department and are more comfortable engaging close colleagues on matters of technology architecture than entertaining a drowsy post-lunch conference crowd.

News Digital Media's Smith says: "For me, a definite part of my plan was to do more articles with magazines and do keynote speeches in order to get my name or my brand out there. It is not just about promoting myself and being recognised, or acting like a politician. I have tried to balance it with what I and my team have achieved internally. The media exposure has to be valuable to your organisation as well."

Smith recognises that everyone isn't born with public speaking skills. He has undertaken a number of presentation courses and makes sure he has individual coaching if he knows a high-profile event is coming up that is going to include him.

For it is not just a matter of biting the bullet and taking those shaky steps into the spotlight on a stage. It is important that, if you commit to making your existence as a CIO public, you do yourself justice and don't mumble through a couple of PowerPoint slides before sprinting to the bar.

This can be as simple as seeking professional coaching or observing other executives on stage and assessing who performed well, and why. Smith says he notices that visiting CIOs from the US are often the better performers at local events, and believes there are things some Australian CIOs need to learn before they can confidently use industry events for career enhancement.

"I get the feeling that a lot of Australian CIOs are operationally focused and see themselves as IT managers," Smith says. "They are less front line and are not as engaged with the C-level as they could be. And it shows when they express themselves in public. With the US CIOs, it is all about the delivery. You could put two dot points on a slide and deliver a great presentation that is far more inspiring than 500 points across 20 slides."

Mix in the right circles

Rush says the No. 1 attribute that most organisations are looking for in a new CIO is leadership. He distinguishes this from management by describing it as a mixture of having strategic vision and managing it across business, technology and other stakeholders. This requires the ability to discuss the issues your department faces with executives from outside the technology section and sometimes outside your organisation. This is where industry networking groups come in handy. There are a number of IT networking organisations to join, and Broadbent says the general industry groups are often more useful. If you are thinking about aiming for a top role in the retail sector, for example, get involved with an organisation that promotes issues related to that industry. That way you put yourself on an equal footing with executives from other disciplines who share your desire for the business to perform in its market sector.

A dose of realism

Smith says the initial contact for his recent move to a bigger organisation came through his involvement in an industry workshop. He says that simply putting himself out there introduced him to influential people who weren't part of his natural sphere of connection and helped him understand his place in the market.

Broadbent says it is a lack of understanding that holds back some executives who want to make the leap into a bigger organisation. She says she often fields questions from disappointed IT executives who can't understand why they weren't interviewed for particular positions when they believe they could have done the job.

"I do find that people are unrealistic about where they see themselves. You have to look at the scale of your organisation, and also what your track record is."

She says very few S&P/ASX 100 CIO positions become available at any one time, and CEOs in these firms expect significant industry and business experience. There are often few people in the suitable candidate pool. She advises those in the level below CIO at a top 100 company to first seek a transition to a CIO post in the next tier of companies down, and similarly for CIOs in smaller companies to refrain from viewing a second-in-command position in a much larger organisation as a step backwards.

Most important is a willingness to take the time to plan your career path and to make sure the right people know you are open to a move elsewhere if the right opportunity comes along.

"The key thing is having a strategy and a goal, and a few alternative plans to get there," Smith says. "Like [the way sales representatives work] their network, a CIO needs to do the same thing. The more you network, the more opportunity you have of being headhunted, as you stay top of people's minds. It is just like selling a commodity, only this time you are essentially selling your own personal brand as the product."

Get out there

* Develop a career plan with goals and methods of attaining them.

* Take a realistic approach to potential new roles.

* Make contacts within executive search firms as a part of your regular business and also when they need your assistance.

* Keep abreast of potential new jobs in the market by reading the news.

* Raise your external profile by appearing as a speaker at conferences or being interviewed in the media.

* Mix in business groups outside of your organisation and outside of your comfort zone.

* Make sure you have a good relationship with your executive peers, as bad news travels fast.

* Tell search firms if you are interested in new opportunities overseas or interstate, as they may not otherwise consider approaching you. MIS Australia

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

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