The CIO Dynamic: Should I Stay or Should I Go?

By John Soat, TechWeb, published April 26, 2011

Just as signs of spring finally are revealing themselves, so are signs of an economic recovery. These economic “green shoots” include the promise of increased hiring.  While IT job growth is still slow, a significant percentage of CIOs indicate in recent surveys that they anticipate hiring additional IT staff sometime in the next several months. This means IT pros have a little more wiggle room in their careers than they have had in the past few years.

Unfortunately for CIOs, their career potential has plenty of wiggle room—and not necessarily in a good way. While the old joke about CIO standing for “Career Is Over” is a well-worn cliché, the fact is that the length of stay of individuals in the CIO position has not increased a great deal over the last several years. Research data puts the average CIO tenure between four and five years, only slightly longer than it was five years ago.

Of course, job migration is a two-way street. CIOs can chose to leave their position for various reasons, such as a change of scenery, to trade up, or to retire. Or they can be asked to leave. In terms of the current trend, conventional wisdom points to the latter prevailing more often than the former.

To help understand the present-day dynamics of the CIO position, here are some insights from one veteran CIO who recently made a high-profile job move. (And who requested anonymity.)

Q: What are the important factors shaping the CIO position these days?

A: The background is that the understanding of IT by boards and CEOs has continually gotten better. Their view of how important IT as a competitive weapon has also grown.

Q: What does this mean in terms of a CIO’s success or failure?

A: The CIO job is harder. The demands have gone up and the failure rate or marginalization rate of CIOs has skyrocketed. CIOs get fired more often and get marginalized sooner. It is a bad thing but most often CIOs are in the penalty box for a year before being ushered out.

Q: Why is the CIO job so much harder these days?

A: The demands of the job have morphed. The CIO must be a businessperson with real business chops. He/she must be a deep technologist and a real IT CIO. Beyond that the CIO must be able to play in the marketing, PR, strategy, product development, and M&A areas. Ironically, this is a set of bars most business-line leaders don’t have to clear.

Q: How does that translate in terms of the job market for CIOs?

A: This makes it a hard market for the typical CIO and a hard market for recruiters. On the other hand, it makes it a great market for folks with the atypical track record and skills that fit this decade’s profile. I had thee solid and one soft offer to choose from.

Q: Is it tough to come in from the outside and lead such an important business function? Did you experience resentment from other IT executives—at least one of them perhaps anticipating a promotion—or even from other business leaders?

A: I sit on the operating committee of the firm so I was recruited as part of the business leadership team—as a GM of sorts, not just as the CIO. So the exec team is very welcoming. Lots of folks are vested in me succeeding. The hard part that requires focus is integrating into the culture and making sure you bring your own brand and remain true to your beliefs and approaches while figuring which parts of the culture can be molded and which ones for now are set in concrete.


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