CEOs are taking the new-venture route

August 11, 2008, 8:24 PM UTC

When I give talks on the best CEOs and their career strategies, I pass on this advice: Think of your career not as a ladder but as a jungle gym. Particularly in today’s tumultuous and unpredictable environment, who knows where the best opportunities will lie a year from now–or even next week? If you navigate your career as if you’re on a jungle gym, you use your peripheral vision and you can swing to opportunities that are lateral or even downward–which may be wise if you’re aiming to broaden your experience base and enhance your resume.

This idea resonated on Friday when I was having lunch with Jim Citrin, the hotshot headhunter who recruits media and technology CEOs for Spencer Stuart. I’ve known Citrin for at least a decade, as he’s done top-level searches for Fortune 500 companies like Motorola , Viacom and Yahoo as well as written a steady stream of career strategy books. (The standout: You’re in Charge–Now What?, which he wrote with his longtime mentor, Spencer Stuart’s Tom Neff.) After catching up on a slew of CEOs in motion and companies in trouble, I asked Citrin if there’s anything odd or surprising about the high-level job market lately. He paused for a few seconds and said: “Yeah, even though there’s doom and gloom in the overall economy, there’s so much vibrancy in the area of new ventures.”

By new ventures, Citrin means startups, spinoffs and combinations of existing companies. So far this year he’s recruited CBS Sports vet Tony Petitti to be CEO of the MLB Network (the 24-hour baseball channel due to launch next January 1) and Mauro Montanero, a senior Nokia exec, to be chief of Jamba, which is a mobile-entertainment joint venture between Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. and Verisign. Citrin also lured David Verklin, who ran media-buying giant Aegis Group, to be the CEO of Canoe Ventures, which is a conglomeration of six cable companies including Comcast and Time Warner Cable that’s all about developing advanced ad-targeting technology to better compete with Google.

“Every one of these businesses is a fundamentally new venture,” Citrin noted. So these searches he’s doing are for positions you wouldn’t have known about just a few months ago. Right now he’s hunting for a president of Bloomberg’s new multimedia division and for someone to head a spinoff of RealNetwork’s casual-games business. Also on his to-do list: Find a CEO for OWN, Oprah Winfrey’s cable-TV network due to launch next year. OWN is Oprah’s joint venture with Discovery Communications.

Citrin’s parting advice to CEO wannabes: “Just as companies are looking for new ways to exploit their assets to generate growth, if you’re a senior executive, look for new ways to apply your experiences.”

P.S. Former Viacom CEO Tom Freston, under the radar ever since he unceremoniously got the boot from chairman Sumner Redstone two year ago, is working as a consultant on OWN, the Oprah Winfrey Network. As for Susan Lyne possibly becoming OWN’s CEO–rumors I helped spread–it’s not going to happen. Oprah is basing OWN in Los Angeles. Lyne, who quit her CEO post at Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia two months ago, lives in New York. Watch for her to do her next big thing close to home.