Career Watch

Q&A: Karen M. Rubenstrunk

Title: Senior client partner

Company: Korn/Ferry International, Tysons Corner, Va.

Having recently decamped from the former Meta Group, where she spent 10 years providing counsel and advice to Fortune 500 CIOs, Karen M. Rubenstrunk is still interested in what's going on at the top of the IT organizational food chain in her new role at executive recruitment firm Korn/Ferry. She spoke with contributing editor Jamie Eckle.

What are companies telling you that they're looking for in senior IT leaders these days? Have the must-have characteristics changed in recent years? The must-haves haven't changed. I have a tendency to be fairly cynical about this idea that the CIO has suddenly become a business leader, needs to be from the business, technology is secondary, etc. The reason I am cynical is that the job description for most CIOs reads fairly close today to what it did two years ago.

Karen M. Rubenstrunk, senior client partner at Korn/Ferry International
Karen M. Rubenstrunk, senior client partner at Korn/Ferry International

What is different, however, is which skills are at the top, which skills are being tested the hardest through the interviewing process, and the percentage of clients actually hiring to the job spec. Clients want a multifaceted executive who has the business acumen to run a business unit whose products and services are technology-based. Communications skills, relationship management skills and financial (read: value) analysis skills have moved to the top of the list. From an interviewing perspective, clients are looking for indications of resiliency, incredibly crisp communications and passion. I believe this is happening for two reasons: 1) The CIO today is much more involved in maximizing the effectiveness of end-to-end integrated business processes. That means that the executive must be able to play cheerleader and chief negotiator across multiple business units. And 2) CEOs are beginning to recognize their own role, and the role of their executive team, in the success of the technology investment.

Any difficulty in finding candidates who have the qualities companies are looking for? Yes, it is a seller's market right now. If you think about it, a great CIO is a great CEO: an executive who is responsible for setting a compelling vision for the future while at the same time assuring that day-to-day operational excellence provides the opportunity to be in business in the future. You're talking about an executive who is an excellent communicator, both strategic and tactical, and, oh by the way, also has deep understanding for the power of technology. So if you look at it, it's as hard to find that perfect CEO as it is to find that perfect CIO. If you access our research on CEO and CIO profiles, you'll see that the profiles of the most successful CEOs and CIOs are quite similar -- a great leader is a great leader.

Now, on a more concrete note, we have had 50 CIO searches open up in one of our verticals alone within the last 24 months. The demand is outstripping supply. As a result, I have noticed a much greater willingness on behalf of CEOs, CFOs and COOs to be coached in how to construct the job so as to attract the right candidate.

What's the level of CIO turnover these days? It's about the same as it has been. Again, having spent 10 years hip-deep in working with CIOs, I had a hard time believing that CIO ever meant "career is over" or that the average tenure of CIOs was 24 months. I believe it is actually more stable than the press reports. However, I also know from professional and personal contacts that many more CIOs are looking to change companies within the next year. I believe there is a growing sense of "been there, did it, ready to move on" as much as there is a growing discontent with the overall influence of the CIO within the executive team.

Karen M. Rubenstrunk on CIO Hiring...

  • The CIO hiring pendulum seems to be swinging back from business to technology. It may be that technology is too complex, and the impact too great, to risk failures because of poor IT negotiation skills or inadequate understanding of technical architecture and integration issues.

...and CIO Wanderlust

  • Many CIOs are actively looking or plan to look for a different job within the year.
  • Despite rising salaries and bonuses, good to great CIOs are still looking. Many of them sense that they've gone as far as their companies can take them.

The Lake Wobegon Effect

Letters of recommendation are standard for job applications, but are they really useful? They are if you know how to read them, says Mike Aamodt, an organizational psychologist at Radford University in Radford, Va.

Naturally, job applicants ask someone for a recommendation only if they think it's going to be positive. Aamodt says that of nearly 6,800 different reference ratings he's studied, 96% placed the candidates above average. "It's like Lake Wobegon, where Garrison Keillor says that all children are above average," says Aamodt.

"Nevertheless," he adds, "reference letters can provide valuable insight about a candidate if read correctly." The key to deciphering the reference letter is to break it down into the key words or traits used to describe the candidate. If an applicant is called "accurate," "detailed" and "careful," that could be a good sign, because those are positive indicators for certain types of jobs. On the other hand, referring to a person as "creative" or saying he "works fast" may send a completely different message.

"If you are trying to build a team," Aamodt suggests, "look for words [or phrases] like 'agreeable' and 'gets along with others.'"

Aamodt presented his findings recently at the annual meeting of the Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology in Los Angeles. -- Mitch Betts

Copyright © 2005 IDG Communications, Inc.

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