IT careers: Should you be an SVP?

Stephanie Wilkinson

"When I went into engineering, I made it a goal of mine to hang out with non-engineers and to learn from everyone I could on the business side," Holley says. "People looked at me cross-eyed. I recognized that I wanted to run an overarching information systems organization, and that that was really a business leader's job. It was pretty 'out there' at the time. Plus I was a woman."

Holley progressed from a job in the steel industry to one in high tech consulting, then went on to a nine-year stint at Waste Management Inc. From there, she became the CIO for USG Corp., the giant construction materials company, becoming its first corporate CIO and first woman to be an officer of the company. In her last four positions, she's held dual titles that included EVP, SVP and Group SVP.

Besides building a broad base of learning and a diversity of experience, Holley advises that those interested in a dual role find a mentor. "You want someone who is on a different ladder, not someone who is one or two rungs above you on the same ladder," she says. For her, that was the head of sales at Waste Management, a man she met in the middle of her career. "We were opposites but we both stretched the other out of our comfort zones."

Getting the title you want
In a hot market, titles can be negotiated more freely than in the past, says Suzanne Fairlie, president of ProSearch, an executive search firm based in Philadelphia. She recalls a recent placement she facilitated for a mid-sized multistate company. The candidate under consideration, who would be reporting to the CFO, was offered a job as VP of IT. The candidate wanted the position, but wasn't satisfied with the offer, holding out for CIO to be added to his title. "The job was the same," Fairlie says. "But having the dual title made all the difference to this person."

Modis' Ripaldi sees companies becoming more amenable to such title negotiations. "We're in the midst of a talent war," Ripaldi says. "With the booming market and people landing multiple job offers, you'll see companies getting more flexible with titles."

But companies that don't institute clear rules for titles can end up with trouble on their hands, Ripaldi adds. "Without a disciplined approach, employees can get distracted, and that leads to low productivity and low morale," he said. Like karate belts, job titles should follow a clear (if not necessarily color-coded) progression that's "well thought out and clearly communicated," he says.

Ripaldi notes that older, more staid professions like finance and manufacturing tend toward more rigid job title structures. Newer industries, including tech-based organizations, often have more fluid titles — at times forgoing titles altogether. However, as industries progress, titles tend to "grow up" he says — people like and need to know where they stand in relation to one another.

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