What's My Next Act After CIO?

min read

Key Takeaways

  • When CIOs decide to move on and tackle new endeavors, they need an "engaging occupation" — personal or professional — to attain happiness and satisfaction after leaving their primary work.
  • IT professionals have many skills they can call on when shifting their attention to new interests, whether post-retirement volunteering or in a second career.
  • In addition to finding their passion in work or life, IT leaders should remain flexible in case of unexpected opportunities that offer rewarding new paths.

In recent years, the EDUCAUSE CIO Constituent Group has witnessed many long-time leaders signing off as they move on to new endeavors. They are part of a national trend, with one-fifth of CIOs expected to retire in the next five years and half within the next 10 years.1 "New endeavors" doesn't necessarily mean post-retirement activities, although it can; IT professionals and other leaders in the academy have many skills they can transfer to other interests if they wish.2

The decision to make a change could be triggered by something that causes a quantum shift in one's world view. For example, those questing after achievement might turn their focus toward more altruistic or spiritual pursuits later in their careers or lives. Conversely, those primarily oriented toward family and relationships could develop a desire for accomplishments that enhance their personal growth and self-esteem.3 Research shows that those who continue to have an "engaging occupation" — personal or professional — are the happiest group after leaving their primary work.4

What Options Exist?

At the 2015 EDUCAUSE Annual Conference, some 40 attendees gathered to discuss how they could potentially leverage their IT skills into new endeavors. The session focused primarily, but not exclusively, on finding second careers after retiring from IT management. Some attendees were initially reticent to engage in the discussion, or even be seen in the session, for fear of being perceived as lame ducks once back in the office.

In contrast, a few attendees reported that their institutions have programs for those looking to dial down their responsibilities. Purdue University has a Voluntary Early Partial Retirement Program (VEPR) [http://www.purdue.edu/business/Executive_Memoranda/C/c-32a.html] that allows staff and faculty to work half-time while the university continues making full contributions to their retirement fund. Cornell University has phased retirement programs for faculty and staff that allow them to begin drawing on their retirement annuities while working half-time. At both institutions, participants in the programs commit to fully retiring within a set number of years. It is important to consider all the implications such programs might have for health insurance and other benefit programs before deciding to join.

The session attendees expressed particular interest in personnel firms that specialize in placing executives in encore careers. AGB Search was mentioned as one example of a company that provides cabinet-level staff to the higher education market from a pool of recently retired or late-term candidates. Such firms typically operate discreetly, however, and it could require a bit of sleuthing to find them.

When moving beyond your current career, the first consideration is whether to stay with a traditional occupation or to instead focus on family, friends, and personal interests. The needs of loved ones, especially regarding health matters, could be significant factors in this decision. Social relationships outside of work tend to be qualitatively different from working relationships, however. For example, having lunch with a good friend or family member once a week might not feel as satisfying as working daily with peers on shared projects and goals.5


If you elect to pursue a regular occupation, the motivation could be financial and/or altruistic. If the latter, consider the many opportunities involving civic, religious, and nonprofit organizations. A key piece of advice: engage with them as soon as possible rather than waiting until after retirement. Peter Drucker wrote, "If one does not begin to volunteer before one is 40 or so, one will not volunteer past 60."6 For its part, a social organization that already knows you, even in a small way, will be more comfortable hiring you or asking you to serve in a leadership role such as serving on the board of directors. You can begin on this path by becoming a client, student, or entry-level volunteer with the organization.

Two services address the "matchmaking" challenges of bringing together boards of directors having vacancies with experienced professionals looking for opportunities: The American Association of Retired People (AARP) and ReServe.

Some retired employees might want to continue offering their experience and expertise to either their former institution or another organization on a volunteer basis. One caveat — there could be a fine line between "giving back" and occupying a position that could be filled by someone in their twenties who needs employment.

For those looking to contribute to society in a less structured way, the Internet provides numerous opportunities to share your wisdom and expertise as a public intellectual through both formal and informal venues.7 One example is Readings, designed for those who want to publish in a peer-reviewed, online journal that is intended to be read by both scholars and the general public.

Paid Positions

Those looking for paid positions should decide whether they want something temporary or ongoing. Short-term gigs in IT leadership probably focus either on steadying the course (relatively easy) or shaking up the organization (potentially quite difficult). Resources for finding paid work include personal networking, professional organizations, local incubators, and interim placement services.8 The Society for Information Management has a Members in Transition affinity group that includes those interested in helping people find new positions.

Participants at the annual EDUCAUSE conference observed that an IT leader could become a life coach as a way of leveraging a lifetime of experience in developing and managing people. Various organizations, including higher education institutions, provide professional life coaching certification.

Transition and Succession

Institutions can benefit both themselves and their senior employees by creating an environment that facilitates transition and succession. Techniques include:

  • Allowing those who have left to keep their institutional e-mail address for continuity purposes (The EDUCAUSE CIO Constituent Group remains open to ongoing participation by members who have retired from their institutions.)
  • Conferring an "emeritus" or similar title on retired employees
  • Periodically reengaging with employees who have left the organization, e.g., an annual meeting for retirees
  • Helping long-term employees determine whether "a couple more years" will improve their financial situation to a significant degree
  • Letting employees who are ready to wind down their careers take full- or part-time sabbaticals
  • Offering phased retirement programs, incentives, or bonuses
  • Investigating real or perceived ageism on the part of other staff members

The biggest challenge for us stereotypically introverted IT professionals interested in moving into new phases of our lives or careers is stepping out of our comfort zone and beginning to network with new people.9 It is important to have an open and diverse network rather than a closed network. Through networking, opportunities are identified and potential colleagues become confident that the relative newcomer will contribute to and not embarrass the organization. Many men in particular should realize that this process may be difficult, and do whatever they can to affirm their self-confidence.

It helps to be flexible because events could take an unexpected turn. Having a plan always helps, of course, and remaining open to new opportunities makes new endeavors even more exciting and rewarding.

Finding Your Passion

When friends realize you are considering some sort of a career change, they often ask, "What are you passionate about?" This well-intentioned question can be difficult to answer because busy IT professionals are often fully occupied with the daily tactical and strategic struggles endemic to their positions and may have submerged or set aside other interests and endeavors.

Therefore, you should not hesitate to use external resources to help surface possible answers to the passion question. Engaging with such resources is typically not threatening and usually proves to be both enlightening and fun. Consider a few possibilities:


  1. "Ingraining Succession Planning in Higher Education IT," IT Forum, Research and Insights, Education Advisory Board; full content restricted to members.
  2. Elizabeth Keenan, "Ph.D.s Do Have Transferable Skills, Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3," Chronicle of Higher Education Vitae, July 17, August 10, and October 9, 2015; and David F. Carr, "Retired CIOs: 5 Rewarding Second Acts," Information Week, November 21, 2014.
  3. William R. Miller and Janet C'de Baca, Quantum Change: When Epiphanies and Sudden Insights Transform Ordinary Lives (New York: Guilford Press, 2001).
  4. Hans Jonsson, Staffan Josephsson, and Gary Kielhofner, "Narratives and Experience in an Occupational Transition: A Longitudinal Study of the Retirement Process," American Journal of Occupational Therapy, Vol. 55, No. 4 (July/August 2001): 424–432; and "How to Stay Active and Engaged after Retiring from Higher Education," EAB Daily Briefing, March 4, 2015.
  5. Peter F. Drucker, "Managing Oneself," Harvard Business Review, January 2005.
  6. Ibid.
  7. Katie Rose Guest Pryal, "Freelance Academics as Public Intellectuals," Chronicle of Higher Education Vitae, August 14, 2015.
  8. Personal communication, Jack Santos, Research VP, Gartner, 2015.
  9. Michael Simmons, The No. 1 Predictor of Career Success According to Network Science, forbes.com, January 15, 2015.

David Stack is interim associate vice president and CIO, University of Wisconsin System.

© 2016 David Stack. This EDUCAUSE Review article is licensed under Creative Commons BY-NC-ND 4.0 International.