Computerworld

The Job-Hunting Abyss

When it comes to changing careers, sometimes you have to leap and trust you'll land smoothly. But the process itself can be enervating

One of the most challenging aspects of the CIO's career is finding another job. It's a personal journey upon which I've recently embarked, and the strategy I pursued was a particularly risky one. I left my previous job before finding a new one.

I decided to leave because I felt I had accomplished the goals I set out to accomplish when I started at the company seven years before. At my last presentation of IT's strategic plan, the president of one of the operating groups noted that the divisions between business and IT had been totally erased and the IT organisation was nationally ranked among the top 500 in the country. We had accomplished all this while holding IT spending flat for four years. So why leave? Bottom line, success had bred boredom, and I didn't want to spend the next 12 years or so until my retirement in that state. By nature, I don't enjoy a maintenance role.

While it is logical to assume that one should find a new job before leaving the old one, I quickly discovered that that strategy would have significant financial impact. It would mean walking away from substantial wealth accumulated through stock grants and options that had not fully vested. The golden handcuffs were securely in place and quite effective.

I had a choice to make: I could accept the situation and try desperately to survive for another dozen years till retirement (something I've seen others do but dreaded for myself), or I could do something about it. I decided to discuss the situation with my boss, admittedly a risky strategy.

Fortunately, I worked for a company with a sense of what is morally right. The company presented me with a separation agreement that far exceeded what it was legally bound to do. Every major issue was addressed, including salary and benefit continuation, allowing my stock options to run to term, and a special amount to cover my being seven weeks shy of the full vesting of my retirement benefits. I was blown away, and the only one happier was the tax man (he got a lion's share of the benefits).

Pushing the Noodle

A job search is all about networking, which translates into letting as many people as possible know that you're looking and what specifically you're looking for. For me, that was the easy part. I wanted a CIO position with a major company where I would have the opportunity to make a strategic contribution and ply the trade I love. I told my story to everyone I know, including the local CIO forum, acquaintances in trade associations, contacts at executive recruiters (better if you know the individual), friends, family and now you.

What they don't tell you is that the process is like pushing a noodle uphill. As a CIO, my daily schedule might have included six to eight meetings, dozens of phone calls and even more e-mails. It typically started at 8:15 in the morning and ended around 6 in the evening. A typical day of job searching might entail several phone calls, several substantive e-mails (plus lots of junk mail to sort through), and on a good day an interview. I get to my office at the outplacement firm around 9am, and I have basically done what I can do by noon. I've grown to hate the slowness of the process.

In addition to being slow, searching is an emotional roller coaster. Through a colleague in a trade association, I learned of a CIO opening at a company in my industry - publishing. I then discovered that my future son-in-law's father is a close friend of several senior executives at the company. Within days I received a call from the executive recruiter telling me that my name had bubbled up to the top of their list of prospective candidates. At that point I was on a high. The position sounded like the perfect fit.

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The executive recruiter interviewed me, and a meeting was set up with the company's chief operating officer, who would be making the hiring decision. The interview was going well, and at one point I had the COO up walking around the room, brainstorming about an idea on how to apply IT differently to her business. But when the COO found out that I had left my job in order to search for a new one, the mood changed. She didn't like the fact that I had left a job.

To address the problem, the recruiter initiated reference checks. I had been provided with a letter of reference from my former employer and had very strong references from other jobs. But when contacted by the recruiter, my former employer was willing to confirm only the position I had held and the dates of my employment. That is a new trend for many companies, and I understand it's an effort to protect themselves from being sued by employees who are not happy with the reference they received. Since it's a major stumbling block in the search process, I recommend that you address the issue of references before leaving your current position. Anyway, the recruiter called on a Friday morning and told me she would be talking with her client the following Monday morning to "determine her predisposition on proceeding with my candidacy". Sounded ominous.

At this point I was in the depths of despair. The perfect job, a great fit, and all would be for naught. The process, however, taught me another valuable lesson. Never give up. I called the head of human resources at my former employer and requested again that they relent.

Later that day I got the call back that my former boss would be allowed to talk with the recruiter the following morning. I was jubilant the next day when I received a call from the recruiter saying that I had been given an outstanding reference from my former boss. She had already phoned the head of human resources of the hiring company to say that the cloud over my candidacy had been lifted, and she would be meeting with her client Monday morning.

I wish I could say there was a happy ending to this ordeal, but in the end the COO had fallen in love with another candidate, and I was a strong second. Being a strong second in a one-horse race is not much of a victory, although I gained a friend, the executive recruiter, who appreciated my efforts. So the search goes on.

Waiting for Godot

I'm now in the doldrums. The initial wave of opportunities has not materialised, and the second wave won't mature for several more months. But while the process is tedious, frustrating and totally outside your control, it's also liberating. While I would not recommend leaving before having another position lined up, I feel that you have to evaluate that on a case-by-case basis. In my case, a separation agreement made sense. But every day that goes by I do feel wasted because I'm not in a position to contribute to an organisation. I continue to have faith that the right job is out there, but who it will be and when it will come remain unknown.

In the meantime, I have to admit: I'm having a great time brushing up on my favourite pastime, golf.

William Crowell was CIO of Meredith Corporation, the publisher of Better Homes and Gardens, Ladies Home Journal and other lifestyle magazines, for seven years before leaving in January. If you have a lead on a great CIO job, e-mail him at william_crowell@hotmail.com