Essential CIO guide for turning to consultancy

A career in consulting may seem attractive to IT leaders who have been made redundant or are looking for a new challenge, but there are many factors to consider before taking the plunge.

A career in consulting may seem attractive to IT leaders who have been made redundant or are looking for a new challenge, but there are many factors to consider before taking the plunge.

Despite the financial benefits - recruitment firm Robert Walters says daily contract rates for a chief information officer could reach £1,100, and an IT consultant at a London-based firm who requested anonymity says he can earn up to £3,000 a day - the consultant's life is not for everyone.

Full-time vs consultancy

CIO at airport operator BAA Philip Langsdale is an example of a senior IT professional who decided to leave a successful career in consulting, with clients including P&O Ferries and John Lewis Partnership, to take on a full-time role.

"I like the accountability of being a CIO. It is a much more interesting job than just helping someone with a problem and then moving on," said Langsdale.

"You get much more of a sense of mission and purpose and you are much more engaged with the organisation you are working with," he added.

While the BAA IT chief has enough on his plate with a massive IT transformation underway and a possible job move is not in his medium-term plans, Langsdale says he has built enough trusted relationships during his time in consulting, so it would not be difficult to return to advisory life if he wanted to.

Commercial director at hospitality firm Mitchells & Butlers Robin Young also decided to take on a full time role after a few interim and consultancy assignments in IT. The latest was chief operating officer at part-nationalised bank Bradford & Bingley, where he hired the firm's current head of IT and change, Tony Bentham.

According to Young, firms hire consultants when they need immediate change, which can be a difficult predicament for CIOs. Since consultants are often hired by chief executives or other senior management, staff will often stop resisting change, bureaucracy is pushed out the way and consultants can get a lot more done.

"You can make a lot more money as a consultant than you would as an 'embedded' employee, even though you get some peripheral benefits such as health and life insurance when you are in a full-time role," said Young.

"However, there are some advantages to being in a permanent leadership role: you feel much more as a part of the team and when you are a consultant, you are the outsider," he added.

According to Young, when it comes to getting assignments it is a lot easier to be part of a larger consultancy with an established network. Contact-building takes longer for a senior IT professional operating by themselves.

When working on an independent basis, being cautious about business associates is paramount, says Young, who still owns an IT consultancy firm despite his role at M&B.

"You have to be extremely careful about the people you work with - whereas in a firm with hundreds of consultants someone can just leave and clients will gradually forget about it, if you are in a smaller business it only takes one person to totally ruin your reputation," he says.

Building a personal brand

After leaving his role of European CIO at the Wachovia Bank, Ian Alderton decided to launch a career as an independent consultant focused on change and IT transformation projects.

According to Alderton, the practice of trying to sell consultancy services based on a previous full-time senior position in IT works for a limited period of time, but the magic does not last forever.

"You need to be famous for something and carve out a niche for yourself, develop and nurture your network, raise your profile and be seen as a thought leader," said Alderton.

"As an independent consultant, you have to be very flexible, agile and business-minded. Only then will you be able to understand your client's problems from an IT perspective and present yourself as a solution," he said.

The interim management space has matured significantly over the past few years, said Alderton, attracting professionals from different sectors who hit a certain level of seniority and are looking to develop their skills horizontally by acting as troubleshooters and focusing on execution.

Some senior technology professionals may prefer to join a consultancy instead of building their own business. An example is Darryl Salmons, former CIO at the Financial Services Authority, who joined advisory outfit Ineum Consulting last month.

Following a stint in consulting in the late 1980s, Salmons looked at the few permanent senior IT roles he has undertaken as "big consultancy jobs." He added that ever since he started at the FSA, his intention was to eventually move back into the advisory space, as opposed to building a long-term career at the watchdog.

"The CIO job is not that different to a consulting role anyway - you lead large change programmes, you have stakeholders to satisfy and also have to sell your business plans to the board," said Salmons.

Salmons says his track record and experience as an accomplished CIO means he can advise clients with the confidence of one who knows their issues. He adds that his choice to join an established firm, instead of working independently, is mainly due to more resources to work on multiple assignments, as well as a contact network.

"The variety of projects you work on is definitely one of the big attractions of consultancy, but a downside is that you may not be able to deliver the things you recommended - that is something CIOs who are looking into consulting and like to see things to the end should consider, as it may be frustrating at times."

Consultant issues to consider

According to Jason Addicott, associate director at the IT practice of recruitment firm Robert Walters, experience gained across multiple clients is always valued when companies seek senior IT staff, but a lot depends on the length and complexity of the projects undertaken as a consultant when joining senior management.

Addicott highlighted a big issue around placing individuals who have been doing consulting work into a permanent job with inflated salary expectations.

"A common concern of a permanent employer is that a consultant (contractor or interim) will be accustomed to the higher daily or hourly rate and the flexibility of contract or interim engagements could mean they may leave a permanent position sooner than hoped," he said.

Another challenge is related to the level of expertise expected from these well-paid consultants, said Addicott.

"If moving from full-time to contract or interim work, training becomes the responsibility of the contractor and not their employer. Businesses will pay a market daily rate for an experienced individual but will not invest in their training The expectation is a contractor joins a project at their level of expertise and rarely climbs the career ladder," he said.

"In joining a consultancy business, often the very senior roles have an account development or a sales aspect which may not suit technology-minded individuals, hampering career growth."

IT leaders planning to go down the advisory path should consider commercial expectations before making any decisions, said CIO headhunter Simon La Fosse.

"[These professionals] should talk to peers who have made that transition first and be aware that they may need to meet demands that are very strongly geared to driving revenue growth, as well as leverage their contact networks, so there should be total clarity of what the expectations are from the start to avoid unpleasant surprises" said La Fosse.

Read more on IT jobs and recruitment