Eric Sigurdson’s career journey followed the path his heart directed. His love for interacting with people shaped critical decisions in his professional life. This is what led him to pursue his career in the professional services field despite starting his career working for what was at the time the largest technology company in the world, IBM.
He joined Russell Reynolds Associates, a global leadership advisory and search firm, in 1995. Eric Sigurdson spent his first 10 years recruiting executives for hardware, software, and technology services companies before he became the CIO practice leader recruiting technology executives across numerous industries. His leadership extends to overseeing CIO searches for major companies, ranging from a $38 billion airline to a $35 billion global industrial company. Additionally, he has guided CIO+ roles, including global shared services and transformation for a $120 billion technology company and a $40 billion food service company.
This article is special because it not only traces the inspiring career journey of Eric Sigurdson, the CIO/CXO recruiter but also delves into valuable insights that can guide aspiring tech executives on their journey to the C-suite.
Describe your career progression from the start to where you are and what were pivotal decisions, moves you made, circumstances, and other facts that facilitated your growth.
From my early days, I had a passion for music. The fine arts ran deep within my family with a father who was a professional musician and a mother who was a professional ballerina. At an early age, I recognized intriguing parallels between music and mathematics—a subject I found myself drawn to with equal fervor. This led to my entry into the technology space.
After earning my B.S. in Computer Science and Mathematics from the University of Illinois, I joined IBM’s technical sales force in 1984. I wanted to avoid the role of a programmer confined to working behind a desk which led me to join IBM where I was able to help customers use technology solutions to address their business challenges.
My initial seven years were spent in the telecom industry, dedicated to serving one principal client. The subsequent four years shifted my focus to the software business. During this time, I earned my M.B.A. at the University of Chicago, Booth School of Business, while still maintaining my role at IBM.
This period marked significant decision points. The realization that I relished being around people rather than aspiring for management roles became apparent. Future promotional opportunities at IBM demanded embracing broader management responsibilities, a prospect that held little interest for me. Thus, I decided to pivot toward professional services.
Attempting interviews with consulting firms, particularly those in strategy consulting, proved less fruitful. However, a pivotal connection emerged when a close friend from IBM joined Russell Reynolds in Washington, DC. Despite my initial surprise at his career move, destiny had its way, and a year later, I found myself working for the company.
In this transition, I discovered that executive search is a form of consulting, a realization that has significantly shaped my professional journey. It provided a means to advance without getting entangled in large management roles, offering flexibility in work locations. I foresaw that the longer I stayed in the industry, the more valuable I would become.
This realization fueled my decision to join Russell Reynolds Associates.
What challenges have you navigated to align your actions with your best interests and passions, particularly in the tech domain, where roles often lean towards managerial or core developmental aspects?
During my time at IBM, I gained valuable insights into navigating politics and bureaucracy, understanding various management and compensation systems, and motivating individuals through financial incentives. These experiences became a solid foundation for my executive search career. Transitioning from IBM to Russell Reynolds in 1995, I was confident in my abilities, given my outgoing personality and comfort with communication.
However, my initial year at the firm proved challenging. Despite my ease with interpersonal skills, the shift to a consulting role was a learning curve. I had to adapt to managing and serving clients, aspects I had not been formally trained on. Through a series of missteps, I learned to navigate this transition successfully.
What are the key skills and qualifications that aspiring tech executives in the tech industry should focus on developing to enhance their career prospects?
Technology leaders often gain credibility and rewards early in their careers for successfully implementing technology solutions. They undergo training and acquire skills in project management, understanding client requirements, and delivering projects. However, the skills that propel you in the first 5 to 10 years may not be the same ones needed for the next 10 to 15 years as you ascend to middle management and executive leadership. This shift requires less emphasis on technology and more focus on leadership.
Some technology leaders overlook the importance of being business-facing and developing strong business acumen. They may believe that technical knowledge alone is sufficient, neglecting the need to translate technology opportunities into effective business solutions. To aspiring technology leaders, my advice is to ask questions, nurture curiosity, seek opportunities to understand the business and avoid leading with technology for its own sake.
Learning to manage through others is crucial. It involves empowering teams, holding them accountable without micromanaging and embracing leadership philosophies that make effective leaders. As the top technology leader in a multibillion-dollar corporation, you can’t do everything alone. Leading through others and refining these skills are vital for sustained growth, advancement, and assuming broader responsibilities.
What are some key milestones or achievements that tech executives should aim for at various stages of their career to demonstrate their growth and readiness for higher-level roles?
Tech executives must take charge of their own careers rather than relying too heavily on others for management.
For instance, if you’ve primarily focused on the application side of the business in your early career, seeking opportunities to delve into the infrastructure and operations side of IT can provide a valuable, well-rounded experience on the path to becoming a CIO. Recognizing the need for a diverse set of experiences beyond one’s expertise is essential. Avoid overly narrowing your career management approach.
Recently, I interviewed someone aspiring to be an internal candidate for the CIO position at a large university. Despite having spent most of their career in one functional area, serving a specific business function, they acknowledged the necessity of diversifying their experience by switching to another function or sector to be a well-rounded and credible candidate for the role.
How important is it for tech executives to actively seek out mentorship or coaching opportunities to advance their careers? What benefits can they derive from such relationships?
Mentors play a crucial role in guiding individuals as they grow and advance in their careers. These mentors can be found within the company, typically in more senior positions, fostering a relationship based on rapport, honesty, and developmental support. They provide valuable advice, counsel, and strategies.
In addition to internal mentors, it’s advisable to consider having a small group of external advisors who can help evaluate new opportunities and serve as a sounding board. External mentors, familiar with your strengths and honest in their feedback, contribute to overcoming the challenge of self-awareness. Obtaining candid input from people in your network facilitates continuous improvement and is immensely beneficial when contemplating the next steps in your career. Both internal and external mentors are critically important for professional development.
What qualities or attributes should a tech executive actively seek in potential mentors, whether in terms of mentorship or networking in general?
Mentorship is a bit like an organic growth process, and sponsorship, on the other hand, is more like following a set plan. It’s not a cookie-cutter approach; there are entire books dedicated to it. Mentorship involves connecting with someone who not only has the expertise but also the genetic makeup to want to see you succeed genuinely. It’s not always in everyone’s DNA to pass on the torch, but when you find those who genuinely want to contribute to your success, it’s gold.
Reflecting on my time at IBM, I can pinpoint specific individuals who played the role of informal mentors. They imparted critical lessons, from the nitty-gritty of work ethic and meeting deadlines to the finer details like ensuring the numbers on page three align with those on page sixteen in a presentation. It’s these informal mentors who, in their own way, contributed to my genetic makeover for success.
Now, transitioning to my stint at Russell Reynolds, I have a candid confession to make. I realized my business writing skills were, well, not the best. I had fallen into the trap of relying too heavily on email communication, neglecting the more formal aspects of writing formal letters to clients. So, what did I do? I decided to take a 10-week writing class at the University of Chicago, which helped me understand the DNA of good writing — structuring sentences, avoiding excessive prepositional phrases, and the like. Writing, especially in the world of math and science, isn’t always in the spotlight, but recognizing one’s weaknesses and making them at least neutral is an investment worth making.
Are there any specific certifications, advanced degrees, or executive education programs that can significantly enhance the career prospects of tech executives in the tech industry? Which ones would you recommend?
No, I believe technology leaders often have a strong grasp of technology, but what they may lack is a deeper understanding of business. Investing time in obtaining a business degree can be a valuable endeavor. Personally, I’m a big advocate for it, having pursued it on a part-time basis myself. I highly recommend individuals consider a full-time program to immerse themselves and build a robust network fully. Part-time studies may not offer the same opportunities to connect with people on a deeper level.
Regarding certifications, there isn’t a one-size-fits-all recommendation. As you progress in your career, some may consider certifications, especially if they aspire to serve on boards of directors. Organizations like the National Association of Corporate Directors (NACD) provide training for this purpose. However, the relevance of certifications depends on your specific focus area. There isn’t a universally applicable certification that stands out. It’s more about tailoring your efforts to align with your career goals and focus.
How can technology leaders effectively stay updated on the constantly evolving tech landscape and emerging technologies to remain at the forefront of industry developments?
Certainly, being a part of peer organizations where collaboration with other CIOs and CTOs across various industries occurs can provide valuable external perspectives on industry practices. Engaging in specific benchmarking exercises can also enhance insights into best practices.
In the realm of CIOs, there are tailored opportunities for Fortune 200 CIOs to join cohort groups for an annual fee, such as the CIO Strategy Exchange, World 50, and The Research Group which is part of Gartner. Additionally, there are unpaid groups like Inspire CIO, Evanta, and HMG Group which host events across the country, offering connections with other technology executives within the same geographic area. These avenues provide a platform for shared learning and networking within the CIO community.
Can you share any examples of notable tech executives who have successfully transitioned from one role (e.g., CIO) to another (e.g., CEO) within the same organization or industry? What factors contributed to their success?
Certainly, I’ve had numerous impactful recruitment experiences, and one notable example is in 2014 when I recruited Linda JoJo to become the CIO of United Airlines. In just three years, she ascended to the role of Head of Technology and Digital Officer. Fast forward five years, and she assumed the position of EVP, Chief Customer Officer, expanding her mandate to include a broader spectrum while still overseeing technology.
Linda JoJo’s professional journey crossed multiple industries with early experiences in the industrial industry with General Electric and Flowserve, in the utility industry with Energy Future Holdings, and the telecommunications industry with Rogers Communications. This breadth of experience helped to prepare her for the challenges of supporting the technology needs of one of the largest airlines in the world.
Currently, Linda JoJo also serves on the Exelon Board of Directors, which is one of the largest public utilities in the country.
How important is it for tech executives to cultivate a personal brand and establish thought leadership within the industry? What are some effective ways for tech executives to showcase their expertise and gain visibility?
I advise individuals to prioritize delivering success in their current roles—leading technology organizations, managing projects, and providing exceptional service to internal clients. Building a reputation for successful delivery naturally attracts attention from the executive search industry. Those who excessively focus on self-promotion and constantly approach search firms might be neglecting their primary responsibilities within their organizations. It’s essential to strike a balance and concentrate on excelling in your current role. While participating in CIO cohort groups or occasional interviews for publications like CIO TechWorld can enhance networking, genuine recognition often stems from consistent, impactful contributions within your existing environment.
In considering potential candidates, what specific qualities or attributes do you seek, and conversely, what traits would be considered less desirable?
No, I believe effective communication skills are crucial. Successful CIOs should have a proven track record of driving organizational transformations. They must lead both their technology teams and act as strong business partners. The ability to prioritize projects in collaboration with clients and internal stakeholders is essential for optimizing technology investments. However, we aim to avoid CIOs who adopt a customer service mentality, solely aiming to please without engaging in constructive negotiation for prioritizing technology investments based on business needs. Such a passive “order taker” approach often leads to unsatisfactory outcomes.
Lastly, what advice would you give to aspiring tech executives who are looking to accelerate their career progression and make a lasting impact in the tech industry?
Stay conscious of your desire to keep learning and maintain curiosity. Seek mentors who can provide advice on areas where improvement is needed. While focusing on daily tasks and successfully leading your team in projects, keep a positive attitude, recognizing its significance. A positive attitude matters. I hope this guidance proves helpful.
Read Eric Sigurdson’s must-read article here:
CIOs’ Career Guide by CIO Recruiter