In my role with executive programs in Gartner, I talk to hundreds of chief information officers around the world every year and I answer many questions about how they should respond to the challenges of being a successful CIO. But surprisingly (or maybe not), one of the most common comments that I hear is, “I’d love to get out of here, but where would I go?” The simplest response is to tell them to find another CIO role at a different enterprise. Often, however, I tell them that they are asking the wrong question. For many of these “weary” CIOs, the question they need to answer is not “where” but “why”? Sometimes a change of job is not enough. Same job in a new place will not satisfy them. A change of career may be needed.
So how do you know when it is time to think beyond where to find your next CIO role? Although the need to change can be imposed upon you by outside circumstances or events, the need to make significant change often comes from within you.
We all like to feel safe, and sometimes staying in a familiar role is a very safe choice. Change is scary and we often convince ourselves that it is not possible to seek a totally new role. But fear should not force us to stay in a job in which we are stagnating, our talents are going to waste, or the work is not challenging. If you often feel bored, overwhelmed, unappreciated, anxious or insecure, it may be time for a real change.
It’s not always negative feelings that can indicate the need for change. You might feel like you have really accomplished what you intended, and are happy to start thinking of a completely new challenge. As Graham Otter, the former CIO of Rio Tinto says: “I think you need to start thinking about your life at the macro level rather than the micro level. If you start at the micro level you may find yourself doing the same things you did before. It’s very energising starting over with a blank sheet of paper and with a whole world of opportunities ahead of you.”
So here you are, faced with that very blank piece of paper … now what? Here’s some general advice:
• Be careful, don’t rush and keep your anxieties manageable.
• Identify the parts of your work that make you feel dissatisfied.
• Work out what needs changing.
• Explore possible changes you might make.
• Identify constraints on the changes you can make.
• Identify how the changes will affect other aspects of your life.
• Deal with your own fears and resistance to change.
I can just hear you saying: “That’s interesting but I’m a CIO, I’ve been in IT for years, realistically what else can I do?” I can hear that because I heard myself saying that a few years ago.
I was faced with the opportunity to examine myself – the role I played, the content of my work, the organisation I worked for, the industry I worked in, where I lived and why I lived there. I’m not so naive as to presume that my decision process is universally applicable, but since I was a CIO looking for a serious change I thought that I might share it with you.
I must admit that my first thought was to retire and do nothing. But I decided that I was just not ready to sit in my rocking chair and read books … so that was quickly rejected.
So what had close to 40 years in IT management given me? For a start, I’d acquired a fairly comprehensive purview of technology; solid general management experience; some leadership, strategic thinking, and influencing skills; a determination to deliver; and the ability to balance priorities. Plus the ability to rise above the day to day, to think how technology can make a difference to the business and contribute to the delivery of company strategy. In what roles (other than CIO) could I use this experience and these skills?
Since information technology is embedded in most business processes, the combination of technology knowledge and general management experience could have opened the door to other leadership roles in the business, perhaps in the nascent role of Chief Process Officer.
Another alternative that I considered was to become an independent consultant and strategic IT adviser to top company executives and information systems leaders. Supplemented, perhaps, by some voluntary work in enhancing professional skills for an IT industry group.
Then there was also the possibility to provide executive coaching to IT managers to improve their effectiveness, particularly in interpersonal relationships. Technical people have a long history of being poor communicators. If there’s a broad sweeping generalisation, it’s that they talk down to people and that they are easily frustrated by those pesky users. An experienced CIO turned coach could serve as a trusted partner in improving communication skills and drawing out the other skills so necessary to being a successful CIO.
Another interesting opportunity I explored was to work with technology companies as a “CIO in residence” to screen and guide the development and market testing of technology products. CIOs want to understand from their peers what solutions are most compelling and when these solutions are enterprise ready.
I’m sure I would have found any of these options challenging and fulfilling. I am lucky enough today to have a role with Gartner that allows me to work with CIOs and technology companies as an adviser, coach and mentor. (And I also get to write articles for CIO!)
Whatever choices you make, the most important advice that I can give you is to do something – answer the question of “why” you need to change and take action. As the English novelist George Eliot once said: “It’s never too late to be what you might have been”.
Mary Ann Maxwell is group managing vice-president, executive programs, Gartner.
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