Are you top of the pile?

Although there may be a general downturn in the IT jobs market, there are more senior posts being advertised. Julia Vowler asks...

Although there may be a general downturn in the IT jobs market, there are more senior posts being advertised. Julia Vowler asks four IT headhunters what qualities business leaders are looking for.

Last month's Computer Weekly/SSP salary survey showed that the one section of the IT profession bucking the general downtrend was the most senior one. The survey reported a 19% increase in advertised IT directors' jobs in the last quarter, and a 15% rise in their advertised salaries.

But how can you guarantee snapping up one of these jobs? Four headhunters give their views of the current state of the market for heads of IT and what firms are looking for.

Justin Gilbert, Odgers, Ray and Berndston

"Last year saw a significant contraction, but it picked up around October. However, chief information officer roles have changed," says Gilbert. "The demand now is for more hybrid CIOs - the role is evolving. Now they have to be not just heads of IT. Yes, they have to be able to run IT, but our briefs are to find someone who can do procurement, contract and change management too.

"Clients want one person to do two-and-a-half jobs - a 'man for all seasons'. At the very top you cannot just be an IT guy."

They are still only being paid for one job, however. "CIO salaries are steady, they have not dropped at the top level." Posts with £500,000 a year salaries may not be cropping up any more. However, "People will always pay top dollar for really good people," he says.

Although many heads of IT have proved risk-averse and have been sitting it out during the recession, Gilbert does see signs of increased activity at CIO level. "At the beginning of the year a significant number of people came out of the woodwork. They do not say they are looking for a job, but they are receptive to being given a nod."

Then there are the IT directors that Gilbert terms "paratroopers" - the CIOs who go in like a whirlwind for three years, "make it happen and then want to move on to the next challenge. They want to add more strings to their bow, and get new experiences - say outsourcing, or a merger and acquisition."

Nick Marsh, Harvey Nash

"There are companies hiring, and people are moving, but salaries have flattened. We are not seeing an increase," says Marsh. "Even in new recruitment salaries are being pegged."

But the good news is that they are not falling for IT directors - as they have elsewhere - some corporate departments have suffered 15% salary downturns at senior level.

Caution is keeping feet under familiar desks. "People are not jumping ship, but we can unseat good people if there is good reason [for them to move]."

But clients want dynamic IT leaders who can explain to company boards how their work is helping the business.

"We are asked to find people who can make an impact on business - they want more from their CIOs. They have to be seen to be adding real value, giving back a pound and a penny for every pound they spend."

But IT leaders want more too, if they are going to be put on the spot. "They want financial support from the finance director if they are going to have to give more information about costs."

Some IT leaders are becoming so concerned about getting the business to recognise the value they deliver they are hiring corporate communications people help them to sell the value of the IT department to business, says Marsh.

Alan Simpson, Best International

The job market for IT directors is tough, says Simpson. Yet for the elite CIOs - with a lot of understanding of their own specialist sector and ideally between 40 and 45 with an MBA under their belt there is demand. This is because they are a rare breed.

Clients want IT directors who "come in with a different perspective on business performance", hesays. "There appear to be plenty of such people but when you look there is a finite pool who are commercially oriented with business acumen, so clients will pay a premium for them. They are the candidates everyone is after."

But, he says, "They are more difficult to lever out because of the instability of the market. For them it is a question of 'better the devil you know', so they are more resistant to moving unless the package is spectacular."

Depending on the job remit, packages for such top-CIOs "can float to over £200,000 a year, and if there is 'global' in the title they can go beyond".

Even so, "They need to be enticed out - found and lifted." To do that, they must be offered a lure. "They want autonomy - they do not want the finance director holding the purse strings - and they want a challenge. They are not interested in maintenance."

Cathy Holley, Ellis Holley Maxwell

"The CIO market is stagnant," says Holley. "There is no significant activity at the top level of CIO."

Those few positions being fielded are easily attracting 500 to 600 responses, and include former CIOs used to drawing down £400,000 salaries going for £100,000 a year posts, just because they are unemployed, she says.

Holley cautions strongly against moving out of employment unnecessarily - however tempting a severance package can be, or however bored a CIO feels.

She has become used to having incumbent IT leaders, whom she is visiting to discuss their department's recruitment needs, throwing in a last question - "and is there anything you are working on?" This is code for "they are getting itchy feet".

"A lot of CIOs move every three years, but got caught by the recession on the point of moving, and have now been in a post for five years and really want to move on," she says.

Holley believes they should stay put. "It is a zillion times easier to get a job when you have one - if you are sitting at home headhunters won't know where to find you. Don't give up your job - you won't just walk into a new one. The market is dire and there are a lot of extremely good people around."

For those applying for jobs, it is not enough to submit standard CVs, she says. A well-written CV customised for each application is essential. "You need to be spot on or you will join the other 599 CVs," she says. "You've got to pass the 'so-what' test on your achievements."

Bullet points of technical achievements rather than business value creation is what clients want in a CIO. They want to see something more than competence, or even excellence, says Holley.

"They want a spark, a bit of passion. They don't want 'a safe pair of hands'. No one wants to hire someone dull."

What headhunters' clients want

  • One person to do two-and-a-half jobs 
  • People who can make an impact on business. CIOs have to be seen to be adding real value 
  • IT directors with a different perspective on business performance 
  • They want a spark, a bit of passion. They don't want "a safe pair of hands". No one wants to hire someone dull.

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