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Who’s Growing CIOs?

November 1, 1998
by Maureen Willenbring Schriner
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There may be plenty of candidates for the job of CIO. But finding the CIO candidate that fits the organization, has the right mix of communications, business and technical skills and the political savvy to be successful is more difficult.

Statistics on CIO turnover rates are not as important as why CIOs leave, according to Betsy Hersher of Hersher Associates, a Chicago healthcare IT recruiting firm. "CIO turnover has a lot to do with senior executive turnover, corporate changes and mergers," Hersher says. A CIO wants challenge, growth and complexity. The salary and size of the organization are secondary to that.

When a job for CIO opens up, the average healthcare organization takes about three to six months to fill that position. While healthcare organizations need to make sure they are offering a competitive salary and creative compensation packages, it’s more important that they find the right person for the corporate culture, Hersher says.

As the role of CIO evolves, the choices for top IT talent in healthcare are becoming more diverse. People with a variety of backgrounds and experiences are moving into the ranks of senior IT management. Among these choices, who would most likely be a senior IT manager?

  1. a nurse with an MBA degree?
  2. a finance vice president with little technical experience?
  3. someone with no college degree who has IT experience in manufacturing and banking?
  4. a medical records director?
  5. a history major with a master’s degree in health informatics?

The answer is all of the above. The surprising aspect of the people in these careers is that technical know-how is not at the top of the list for skills they consider essential for their work. The common thread of all these senior IT managers is at sometime during their career, they have all been IT consultants to healthcare organizations and they have all had a mentor who was willing to teach them what it takes to advance their IT management careers.

"Healthcare organizations are looking for CIOs with some technical background, who have communication and leadership skills and a real understanding of the business," says Hersher.

And there are plenty of people in the marketplace who have the right kind of experience to be a healthcare CIO, and plenty of places to train, mentor or recruit CIOs.

The challenge of recruiting the right candidate for CIO begins not by looking for the right person, but by clearly defining the responsibilities and expectations for the role of chief information officer. "I thought this problem would go away, but it’s not going away," Hersher says. "Organizations still really don’t understand what a CIO does. They can’t quite get a grasp on why the CIO is on the executive team." If the CIO position has a good job description, finding the person to fill that post is much easier, Hersher adds.

There is a great diversity of people with differing experience, education levels and IT philosophy. It all depends on what the healthcare organization is looking for.

Cultivating your own CIO
It is possible for healthcare organizations to grow their own CIO candidates, to foster the training and experience among current employees so they can become CIOs. But that task of mentoring to create CIO material gets moved down the priority list in organizations dealing with mergers, new IT demands, budget cuts and a shortage of IT employees across the board.

Thelma Kay Weiss, head of the healthcare IT recruiting firm TKW HIS Search and Recruitment, says internal candidates should be a first option for a healthcare organization searching for a new CIO. "I always make sure that they have looked internally because usually that’s the least painful way to go," Weiss says.

At the same time, healthcare organizations should not pick an insider just for expediency’s sake, Weiss adds. "Make a really good decision that will work not just for right this minute but for the long term." IT is an expensive investment and the CIO needs to be in a strong enough position to move forward with major IT projects, she says.

It is rare for programmers or other lower-level IT employees to work their way up the ladder to become a CIO because they need broader experience, particularly in communication skills, Weiss says.

Weiss advises people interested in a career path that leads to a CIO appointment, to go into consulting. "A successful consultant can manage the project and manage the people at client sites." Consulting firms are not only fertile ground for recruiting top IT talent, they are also becoming a stronger alternative to an in-house CIO.

One reason healthcare organizations are turning more frequently to consultants to carry out all or part of the CIO role is the job is too big for one individual to handle, says healthcare IT recruiter Lion Goodman, president of The Goodman Group in San Rafael, Calif. "The industry is changing so rapidly that it’s difficult for anyone to keep up with what is happening."

The high turnover rate among CIOs is likely motivated by unreasonable demands, Goodman says. "Even if a CIO wanted to learn to focus on business issues, he or she doesn’t have the time, or doesn’t have the money, which is why consulting firms are growing in power and stature."

A consulting firm has supplemented the CIO’s role at St. Luke’s Episcopal Health System, a Houston-based medical center. Kay Carr has been CIO at St. Luke’s for three years. She is a certified public accountant and worked her way up the finance side, first as director of financial planning, then controller and vice president of finance at St. Luke’s. Her introduction to IT was as an outspoken critic on the team creating a five-year plan for IT investments.