Getting the right fit

“Take This Job and Shove It,” Johnny Paycheck sang in 1977. He was expressing the frustration of being trapped in a really bad job and offering a rather caustic solution to the situation.

Most CIOs have the “opportunity” to change jobs more than once in their careers. Let’s assume you’re a transitioning CIO and have a choice of several new positions. Pay, benefits and perks are all about the same. How do you avoid Paycheck’s job from hell? First, evaluate the job, the company, the corporate structure, the political climate and your potential boss. Second, evaluate yourself to see if there’s a good match in each of those areas.

The job

– Will you be happy in the job? This is the most critical aspect of evaluating a new job, a new boss and a new company. There isn’t enough money, status or security in any job to overcome a miserable situation. The job needs to satisfy your emotional and professional needs. It needs to match up with your present skills and provide growth opportunities that are in line with your ambitions. It needs to mesh with your preferred lifestyle and family commitments. Some companies honour work/life balance, and some expect you to work 12 hours a day, seven days a week. Some have moderate travel expectations, and some will get you to Million Miler status quickly.

Make sure you know the company’s culture and expectations, and make sure they match yours. Otherwise, something’s going to give. It may be the job, your marriage or your health, but it will be more painful than turning down the job in the first place.

– Can you do the job? I’ve seen people who interviewed so beautifully they could woo any hiring manager, even with only a so-so match to the job’s requirements. But they usually don’t last long. The shortfall in skills catches up with them, and they’re out. For CIOs, a lack of political skills is actually more of a problem than a lack of technical skills.

Be honest in assessing your fit to the job requirements. You may snow people for a while, but it’s you who will end up in the cold.

– What’s the future of this job? The CIO’s role doesn’t stay the same for long. Besides knowing the expectations for the position today, get an idea what you’ll be asked to do two, three and even five years out. Make sure this job trajectory matches your career plans.

– How do you find out? Seize control of the interview agenda. Ask to speak to people who would be your in-house customers, peers and subordinates. Ask them what they’ll expect from you in terms of deliverables, schedules and cost.

The hardest thing for me to do is the self-assessment, so I rely on my spouse and on a few very trusted associates to be honest with me. Develop your own set of trusted advisers to help you determine your fit for the position.

The corporate structure

– Know how the company operates. A company’s operating model has a surprisingly big effect on the CIO’s role. A holding company with strong business units gives a CIO lots of accountability with little authority. In this case, persuasive ability is an absolute must, while operational skills are less important. On the other hand, operating companies with strong centralized control place huge value on CIOs who have excellent execution skills and detailed knowledge of every facet of the IT domain.

Global companies require a CIO with multinational experience, cultural sensitivity and a cast-iron butt to survive a punishing travel schedule. Foreign-owned companies expect you to operate in their style (and knowing the native language may be an unspoken-but-critical success factor).

At family-owned businesses, you’ll find that certain career paths are reserved for family members and that you’re expected to tolerate the idiot nephew screwing up the network group.

– Learn where IT sits in the company hierarchy and why. If IT reports way down in the organizational structure — and you’re expected to accomplish great change — run like hell. If IT reports to the CEO, be sure you can hold your own in a boardroom setting and be prepared for blood-sport politics.

– How do you find out? A quick look at the annual report will reveal the corporate structure, ownership and geographic dispersion. Figure out where the CIO sits on the organizational chart. And use the Internet to find articles and speeches by key executives and even IT staff members to learn more about the company’s operational style.

The political climate

Gauging the job’s political climate is difficult, but it’s the second most important thing to get right. The easiest IT job can be made impossible by the wrong political environment.

I watched an excellent CIO get torpedoed this way. He was hired by the CEO to consolidate shared IT functions in a company with multiple business units. Assured that he had the full backing of the business units, he took the job and charged ahead with a very reasonable plan.

What the CIO didn’t know was that the CEO didn’t have the backing of the business unit presidents or the backbone to stand up to them when they rebelled against losing their IT turf. The CEO backed down, and you can guess what happened to the CIO.

I saw another exceptionally talented CIO get into a job well within his leadership abilities but way over his head politically. Denied the political “air cover” his boss had promised, the CIO went down in flames.

– How do you find out? Look your potential boss straight in the eye and ask if there’s solid support for the role you’ll be asked to play. Have the business unit presidents bought in? If he flinches, blinks or hedges, suspect that things aren’t right. Meet two or three business unit presidents and ask how they feel about the CIO position and their commitments to what you’ll be asked to do. Find some people who have left the company and talk with them. Best of all, talk with the previous CIO.

The new boss

Picking a boss ranks just under picking a spouse in terms of impact on your life. (It’s not the same level of intimacy, but you’ll probably spend more waking hours with the boss.)

Know what’s important to you in a professional relationship. My list isn’t long:

– I need to respect my boss, and I want respect in return.

– High business and personal ethics are mandatory.

– Consideration of the fact that I have a personal life is a requirement.

– I want my boss to be competent. If he’s not, I can’t hope to be successful.

– I hope to like my boss, but not liking him isn’t a stopper if the other criteria are satisfied.

You need your own list — and don’t compromise. The trick is to find out what it’s like to work for this person. What’s his style, and does it mesh with yours? Does the boss have the clout to accomplish the vision? What’s his trajectory in the company: rising, coasting or falling? (His trajectory will influence your clout.) What’s his track record in previous companies? Does he understand IT? If he can barely turn on his computer without help desk support, he’s unlikely to be much of a supporter in the boardroom when things get tough.

– How do you find out? Interview your potential boss as he is interviewing you. Ask about his workstyle and seek examples. Probe for how he’d deal with ethically dicey situations. Ask about “the vision thing” and work/life balance. Figure out his expectations for you in the first 30, 60 and 90 days. The answer will tell you a lot about his understanding of IT.

Find people who have worked for him in past jobs; they can be a wealth of information. Google him to dig up his track record. Think of this as a reference check. A potential employer will do one on you, and it’s fair to do your own on him.

This is a lot of work, and it’s very different from the usual strategy of r

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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