11 signs you need a CIO career coach

Why does a CIO or IT leader need a career coach? What do you gain from this relationship? IT leaders and coaches break down when and why to consider one
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When Steve Kent was promoted to CIO and vice president of IT at Subaru in 2019, the head of HR suggested he find a career coach. It was something the automaker offered to all of its executives to help them master their new positions and grow.

Kent had done his homework about the CIO role.  “I was very much ready for the position, but I don’t think you can ever be 100 percent prepared,” he says. “Having someone to bounce things off of, point out my vulnerabilities, and offer me an unbiased opinion has been very valuable.”

Kent has been working with executive coach and career consultant Ken Sher for two years but wishes he had engaged a career coach earlier. More IT leaders and managers are considering the coach option.

[ Want to assess and improve your EQ? See our related story: Emotional intelligence test: 5 self-evaluation tools for leaders. ]

Why use a CIO career coach?

"The standard career trajectory for an IT leader is dramatically evolving."

“The demands and expectations being placed upon IT leaders continue to grow. Also, the standard career trajectory for an IT leader is dramatically evolving,” says Larry Bonfante, former CIO and founder and CEO of CIO Bench Coach. “It’s no longer a straight line to the CIO position.” With so many career paths in play ­– including moves to consulting, vendor opportunities, business unit roles, data leadership positions, relationship management roles ­– a career coach can be a valuable resource for IT leaders as they navigate their professional journeys.

“To understand why a CIO would need a career coach, we can look at the example provided by professional sports,” says Bob Kantor, who coaches members of the CIO Executive Council. “Why does every elite athlete in the world, regardless of their sport or level of achievement, work with at least one, and often multiple coaches? It’s because they know that in order to maximize their skills and achievement in their highly competitive world, they need a compassionate, knowledgeable professional to help them see and address their blind spots. And we all have blind spots, no matter how skilled and experienced we may be.”

“[A career coach] can help IT leaders and managers figure out this crazy job market and separate themselves from millions of other job seekers,” says Sher. “Their expertise is in IT and their focus is on doing the best job that they can.” In addition, a career coach/leadership consultant can help IT leaders weigh decisions, work through thorny interpersonal or political issues, and – sometimes – simply vent.

When to use a career coach: 11 signs to watch

While Kent is the beneficiary of career coaching as an executive perk, personally engaging a career coach can be an investment with significant returns. Consider these 11 signs that you might need one:

1. Your company offers you one

Take advantage of the opportunity. “In my experience, most coaches are retained by companies to work with the senior leadership team broadly. Being given a coach is one of their executive benefits,” says Phil Shneidermeyer, managing director of CIO Search Group. “The coach can be focused on assisting the executive with expanding their capabilities as they are considered for greater responsibilities. At other times the coach can be in response to an assessment that identified areas for improvement.”

2. You're under increased stress

“There are a lot of pressure points in my job,” says Kent. “Having someone I can talk to openly about everything has been good for me, whether it’s talking about a team member or I need an outside opinion or advice on how the department should be viewed in the company.”

"In confidential coaching conversations, they can think out loud and express any degree of confusion or frustration in a completely safe space."

Notes Kantor, “I sometimes tease my coaching clients that our coaching conversations may be the only place where nothing they say can hurt their careers in any way. That’s because, in confidential coaching conversations, they can think out loud and express any degree of confusion or frustration in a completely safe space. There is nothing else like that for most professionals. One of my clients summed it up this way when they said, ‘One huge value I get from our coaching is that I can hear myself think.’”

3. You're concerned about your organization's future

“People are recognizing that they are working for companies that are not pivoting or shifting due to the challenges from the pandemic and that their company is not one that is going to keep pace,” says Elizabeth Freedman, executive advisor and consultant at executive coaching and assessment firm Bates Communications (recently acquired by global strategy consultancy BTS). “The uncertainty of the future is causing leaders to consider what else is out there. Being at home has created more time for leaders to explore and think about what they want to do next, and they are seeking help to weigh options and expand their thinking.”

4. Your role or your team lacks visibility

Sometimes Sher (whose executive background was in sales and marketing at Johnson & Johnson) will say to Kent: “Hey, you did a good job. Now, what are you doing to promote that?” In working with Sher, Kent has been able to market IT wins more effectively.

5. You feel stuck

Do you have that feeling in your gut that it’s time to make a change?

If you want to move on but don’t know where to go, it can be a good idea to bring in a career advisor. Do you have that feeling in your gut that it’s time to make a change? Are you not sure what’s next? Are you wondering why you’re in the rut you’re in and what to do about it? Do you feel like you’re on autopilot? Are you making a good living but feeling like you’re not living your best life? “These are all emotional indicators that it’s time to seek support,” says Bonfante.

6. You need help with soft skills

“Coaches are particularly helpful as it relates to interpersonal skills: relationship building, influencing to create consensus, and presentation skills,” Schneidermeyer says. If you’re worried that you lack the gravitas to command the board room’s attention, for example, a career coach can help.

[ Read also: 10 TED talks to sharpen your communication skills and Top soft skills for IT leaders and how to master them. ]

7. There don't seem to be enough hours in the day

Most IT leaders are stretched thin. A career coach can help them rebalance and refocus their workloads. “They can help to point out areas that you’ve been overlooking or things you’re not thinking about in course of the day-to-day,” says Kent. “They can give you guidance on where to focus your attention.”

A coach can make small adjustments or suggestions to help the player think differently.

Think of it as the coach altering your game, in the same way a sports coach does for great athletes. “They have someone who can look at things from an outside viewpoint and make small adjustments or suggestions to help the player think differently,” says Josh Christopherson, CEO of Achieve Today, a leadership and skill-building platform. “Business is no different. The minute a leader thinks they don’t need a coach anymore, bad things begin to happen.”

8. Your personal brand is unclear

Can you articulate your personal brand? “A coach can help you think through not only the opportunities available to you, but also help you better understand your unique skills, passions, and what makes you tick,” Bonfante says. “This can ensure that you pursue opportunities that play to your authentic self and enhance your probability of success and satisfaction.”

Once your brand is clear, they can help you market yourself more effectively. When it comes to career growth, IT professionals need to know how to market their experience and skills. “They don’t have to be salespeople,” Sher says, “but they need to know how to sell themselves.”

9. You are in transition

Perhaps you’ve been laid off, left an unsatisfying role, just landed your dream role, or are unsure where to go next. A career coach can help you with your next move. “Sometimes people see a career coach as an additional cost, and it’s not cheap. But it’s an investment,” says Sher. If someone can accelerate your job search and place you a week or two weeks or two months sooner, that’s a clear return. “A career coach can shorten the learning curve and give you an advantage in the search,” Freedman adds.

10. You desire big change

“If the pivot you are trying to make is more significant – changing industries, changing function, making a big leap to a new level,” says Freedman, “a career coach can be beneficial.”

11. You want to prepare for possible bad news

Change can be scary: It’s even better to consult a career coach before things get difficult. “You always need to be managing your career to position yourself for future growth,” Sher says. “If the pandemic taught us anything, it’s that things can change unexpectedly.”

Particularly as the pandemic continues, it’s important to maintain outside perspectives. “It’s easy to fall into a category I’ve seen where a leader finds themselves social isolating rather than just social distancing,” Christopherson says. “It’s critical to find ways to connect with outside influences and keep your mind open.”

[ Get exercises and approaches that make disparate teams stronger. Read the digital transformation ebook: Transformation Takes Practice. ]

Stephanie Overby is an award-winning reporter and editor with more than twenty years of professional journalism experience. For the last decade, her work has focused on the intersection of business and technology. She lives in Boston, Mass.

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