Former CIOs Face Tough Job Market
Of all the challenges faced by senior insurance technology executives during tough economic times, finding a new job may be the greatest. During good times, a capable CIO may agonize over a variety of offers. Now, however, proven technology officers may have to work hard to even find suitable open positions.
"The market for new CIO opportunities has been brutal," concedes Mike Boltz, former CIO of Aviva USA (West Des Moines, Iowa). Boltz left the company voluntarily for personal reasons in Nov. 2008. "Many companies are not immediately replacing CIOs who have left and are in a keeping-the-lights-on mode regarding IT focus."
Not only are there fewer job offers, Boltz asserts, but they generally come with stingier compensation. "When I discuss my previous CIO comp package with executive recruiters, they all comment on how well I was paid and say that kind of comp will be hard to reproduce."
Nevertheless, Boltz has found himself very much in demand for consulting services. He has been working with a few smaller, niche professional insurance service firms as a subject matter expert and has also been consulting for a major health insurer. "Companies are often not ready to commit to full-time hires but are willing to shell out money for the senior-level thought leadership that an ex-CIO has to offer," Boltz says. "Effective leadership will always be a critical element for success no matter what the market conditions are."
Boltz is doing the right thing by keeping his hand in, according to Craig Stephenson, global of executive search firm Korn/Ferry's (New York) technology and operations practice for financial services. "Since finding a senior IT role could take time to secure, seekers need to remain current," he says. "They can do this in a variety of ways, including consulting, speaking engagements, visibility at conferences and authoring thought-leadership articles."
While some sectors have been hit harder, the insurance industry has suffered along with other industries globally in terms of loss of senior-level insurance IT jobs, Stephenson reports. "We are seeing a fair amount of dislocation of senior executives," he says. "At the same time, many companies are taking advantage of that to upgrade their staff."
"Utility Players" In Demand
Stephenson says demand is higher for "utility players" who are good general managers with broader skill sets and a proven record of effectiveness at the intersection of technology and operations, cost-containment and efficiency. "The individuals who have done well have worked in a very proactive manner with the business, in a very visible way," he says. "They can demonstrate that they had solid relationships with line-of-business heads and drove meaningful ROI."
As important as what insurers are looking for is how they are looking, suggests Jaime Sguerra, former CTO of Guardian Life and MetLife vice president. Sguerra is currently working with New York-based Gemini Systems to help insurers with portal creation, content management, SOA and enterprise search, among other capabilities.
In his recent searching activities, Sguerra has found that carriers are drawing from a larger pool of recruits, are offering less compensation and are more demanding with regard to candidates' ability to demonstrate particular capabilities. Insurers are also relying less on executive recruiters and utilizing their own networks to find talent. Sguerra has seen the same job presented in different ways at multiple sources. He recommends using both traditional job search channels as well as Internet-based social networks but advises candidates to avoid intermediaries. "Make sure that you're dealing with the entity that is managing the selection process, whether that is the carrier itself or a retained recruiter," he cautions. "That will improve your chances of getting an interview."
As fewer C-level technology positions open and more candidates apply, consulting may be a better option for the time being, says a veteran P&C CIO in the New York area whose current contract will expire before the end of the year. Consulting firms are getting at least as much work today, he asserts, but the engagements may be different. "Both smaller and larger consultant firms are being asked to do client projects that will not require long-term staffing commitments," he says. "That makes sense, since those clients may have important IT projects but are holding off on adding permanent staff for the time being."
The "Try & Buy" Option
The source is optimistic about consulting opportunities because they often present a "try-and-buy" engagement that can lead to a full-time position. "I think it's important to maintain a flexible outlook on these and other IT management opportunities as the CIO/CTO market, along with the rest of our industry, gets back on its feet."
The "try and buy" option recently caught one former life insurance CIO by surprise. Having left the carrier to work as a consultant, the former CIO has been lured back into the carrier environment. He expresses some anxiety that his consultant employer will think he sought the insurer position but insists he received an offer he could not refuse. "Carriers bring on consultants to fill a need they have; if you act like the person they want permanently, you'll often get the job offer," he comments. "In the three months after leaving my carrier job I turned down two offers that weren't a good fit."
The executive attributes demand for his talents in part to relentless networking. His current position came through a connection he made while still a CIO, and while a consultant, every engagement was an opportunity to demonstrate his potential contribution to an organization. Through consulting, he says, "you can offer a solution to a problem and in the process people get to know you. It may not lead to something then and there, but if you do it enough times, it's likely to lead to something somewhere."
Bob Wilkes, currently senior vice president and chief delivery officer, AAA Northern California, Nevada & Utah (San Francisco), shares the view that planting seeds will yield fruit. Wilkes is planning to retire from his current position and seek something that doesn't require commuting regularly between Northern and Southern California. Wilkes calculates that it will take about six months to find a new position where he can use his nearly four decades of experience in building high-performing teams. Wilkes is in no hurry. "I'm looking forward to having some time for my family and myself," he remarks. "Also at my stage it's not about title, position or status, it's more about the opportunity and the challenge."
That said, Wilkes reports that he is always networking, asking people to keep their eyes and ears open. In doing so, he says he applies a bit of sales wisdom to his activities: "Never ask for the sale—ask for the referral."