Scheduled downtime: Why taking a break could give you a big career boost

Using the gap between jobs to rethink and re-energise could give you a bigger boost in the long term.
Written by Mark Samuels, Contributor

What's the best path for CIOs leaving their current position?

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CIO roles are often two-to-three-year stints. So when they come to an end, what should come next?

While some execs are happy to leap straight into another CIO job, others use the completion of a CIO posting as an opportunity to leave industry, to take a break, to undertake further education or to gain experience in a new area.

So what should tech chiefs think about when planning their futures?

1. Consider a significant change in direction

Ian Cohen left his role as CIO at insurance firm JLT Group at the end of 2014. Rather than sit back and consider his options, Cohen -- who had previously held IT leadership positions at Associated Newspapers and the FT -- decided to go in a different direction.

Cohen now works as a digital advisor, helping blue-chip firms and startups to make the most of leading-edge technology. The new role represents a radical shift from working for a finance firm in the City of London. Yet Cohen has relished the opportunity.

"Anyone leaving a CIO role shouldn't see time out as an opportunity to take a rest," he says. "I left the insurance sector and went straight into advisory work with real disruptors in Shoreditch, London. You must use any time out from the CIO role as a chance to explore different avenues."

If you are lucky, says Cohen, you will love the new things you try. You might even choose to wave goodbye to full-time CIO roles on a permanent basis.

That can be great news for someone who finds a niche, but it can be bad news for firms that lose an experienced IT chief.

Cohen says businesses can prevent such losses by giving valued senior staff the opportunity to experiment, while still on the payroll. "Companies should be bold enough to encourage their leaders to take time out, to experiment and to play and learn," he says. "In the end, everyone wins."

2. Dedicate time to learning and development

Former Working Links CIO Omid Shiraji says the opportunity to take a break and recharge your batteries can be invaluable for IT leaders. "Being a CIO is a pretty relentless role," he says. Before the role at Working Links, Shiraji held senior IT leadership positions at City University in London.

Shiraji says removing yourself from the daily grind, and having opportunities to spend time with family and friends, allows an individual to develop a new perspective on the things that are important in life. "Taking time out means you become a more rounded person and are able to evaluate your aims and objectives," he says.

CIOs can also use time out to assess the state of the industry. Shiraji says an understanding of trends is a crucial element of the CIO role. Yet many IT leaders do not have enough opportunities on a day-to-day basis to dedicate time to research and reading.

Shiraji himself completed a master's degree in information leadership at Cass Business School during his time working at City University. "It's great to dive into something and not have to worry about when the email server is going to fall over," he says.

3. Learn from the management practices of great leaders

The IT leadership role comes with a significant amount of responsibility, particularly in the modern and fast-changing digital age. Interim CIO Christian McMahon, who is managing director at transformation specialist three25, says taking a break after a tough CIO assignment can often be the right thing to do and should not be frowned upon.

"It should not be looked upon as weak," he says. "A period of reflection allows a CIO to reenergise and clear their mind ready for the next assignment. I'm sure this would be an attractive proposition for an employer ready to hire, as it means the candidate is refreshed and ready to deliver, rather than someone who has just stepped out of a big role without any downtime."

McMahon, who has held CIO roles at analyst Ovum and liquidity specialist GoIndustry, says the IT leadership role can be mentally draining, especially if you are responsible for a large scale transformation project or the timely delivery of a complex set of strategic programmes. Like Shiraji, he believes time away from the coalface can be used to refresh skill sets or gain experience in other areas.

As an example, McMahon points to the prevalence for 'time out' in senior sports management roles. He notes how the approach has become popular with football managers at all levels. These leaders use time away from the game to visit other clubs and countries in order to learn new coaching techniques and tactics.

"It would be great if we had this camaraderie as a cultured network of CIOs," says McMahon. "I believe taking time out would be a smart move for savvy CIOs. These individuals would be mentally ready and energised for their next role, and they would benefit from an enhanced armoury of new skills and experiences."

4. Find space on a daily basis to reflect and refresh

Brad Dowden was appointed CIO at infrastructure specialist Airswift in February, his first full-time IT leadership position in 18 months. After leaving his CIO role at recruitment specialist Adecco, Dowden completed a range of interim transformational projects for big firms, including Odeon and UCI Cinemas.

"You need to recharge your batteries," he says. "You can get stuck in the weeds and not able to see as clearly. Then, you don't add value. You can use time out to re-evaluate your priorities and to get your energy values back up. When you return to work, you can then add more benefits for your new clients."

Dowden took a break early in his career after implementing systems in the UK to help deal with Y2K concerns at the turn of the millennium. He went back to his native South Africa, before returning again to the UK to work. Just as he has benefited from taking time out, Dowden says working across a range of sectors, including recruitment, finance, entertainment and transport, has also helped.

"You want to learn new things, no matter how experienced you think you are," says Dowden. "It's also important to take time out on a daily basis. Make sure you create a structure that allows you to have thinking time. Always think about the bigger picture and create a strong work/life balance."

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