Beating the Odds for Average CIO Tenure

I'm fast approaching my third anniversary in my job.

Should I be looking for a career change?

If I want to hold to the average tenure for IT leaders (CIOs and senior directors), then I have approximately 13 months to get myself settled in a new organization.

I've been wondering about this lately.

I'm not considering leaving my current position, but I wonder why there seems to be a trend for the CIO to constantly be the "new guy (or gal)" on the team.

According to Gartner Research in this Computerworld article, the median tenure for the CIO is 4.1 years.  Which is actually up from a few years previous.  There is a lot of evidence available to show this is a very real trend, but rather than bore you with proving it, let's think for a bit about why it happens.

Here is my theory.  Feel free to poke holes in it, and I reserve the right to change it.  But for now this is making sense to me.  Based on innumerable conversations with IT leaders, I see a certain trend in the IT leader's typical tenure cycle.

Please note that this is a composite profile.  If you happened to meet with me recently and see yourself in this profile, it's because you are typical.  I didn't specifically pick on you.

Year 1 - The Honeymoon phase.  You are brand new. You've been brought in to rectify everything that is wrong, or to be the catalyst for the next wave of innovation. You are making connections in the organization. The operative word is optimism.

Year 2 - The Planning / Building phase. You've created your strategic goals and direction.  You've laid out a path of action, you've reorganized your team, and if you are typical, you've received support to proceed.  That ancient infrastructure is finally being refreshed.  Things are happening! The operative word is excitement! (This is the stage that we LOVE!!!)

Year 3 - The Reality Check phase. It would seem that many of the hopes and expectations of the changes you suggested are not being met. Projects were delayed, budgets were cut, key people left, vendors went out of business... There are a whole litany of things that contributed to the problem. It's not that your initiatives failed, but they certainly didn't shine either.  Every meeting is an exercise in justifying why IT needs to be involved, in trying to secure needed resources, or trying to prevent departments from end-running you and setting up shadow IT departments, or sending their stuff to the cloud without consulting you. You feel you have no 'voice' at the executive table. The operative word here is soul sucking (OK, that's two words, but it describes it very well).

Year 4 - The Seeking Other Options phase. Let's face it. Getting up in the morning to come into work and deal with situations that de-energize is not exactly what we signed up for. We thrive on being the expert who can bring solutions to the table. We love working with current infrastructure and great people. We love having a voice in the organization - but after three years, it would appear that we are never going to get it... so one day... you Google (or Bing) 'Executive Search Firms'...  The operative word here is disengaged.

It doesn't have to be this way.

Here's the core to my theory.

In the beginning, you have been brought in as the star player.  You are given the resources you need for your IT projects. You are the new kid on the block. Expectations are high.

There is an old saying that "Familiarity breeds contempt."  In this case it is not contempt, but familiarity that is your problem.  Your IT projects while very necessary, are evaluated against personnel needs, leaky roofs, market expansion, etc., etc., etc.  After all, you were given a chance, but your results didn't exactly deliver on the promises. So while you don't have to worry about getting fired, you aren't exactly the star player any more.

What you hit in your third year is something I call 'Organizational Inertia'.  If you've ever tried to push a heavy object you will know it takes much more energy to start the object moving than keeping it moving.

You could also call this 'resistance'... which is what we begin to encounter when our star power starts to dim.

It's what you do when you encounter this resistance that will determine your path in year four.

In my experience, the CIOs that beat the 4.1 year median are the ones that do IT differently. They build and staff a service organization, not an IT department, that is focussed on contributing to the success of its constituency.  They are people who engage other executives, and not wait for an invitation. They are people who know their industry almost as well as the CEO.  They are people that focus on core issues that add value and differentiation rather than spend their energy on issues and systems that while necessary, do not help the organization become a leader in their sector. (See my post - The Most Important Post on Strategy You'll Ever Read )

I am convinced that we need to break this cycle.  If we as IT leaders develop the core skills needed to do IT differently, then we can certainly change this trend.

Creating IT excellence in an organization takes a long term view.  You can't do it in four year cycles.

So if you are an IT Recruiter reading this post, consider me off the market.  I've got lots of (exciting) work to do.

Related Posts:
A "Perfect" Disruptive Storm
Rocks in the River
Nasty but Necessary
Resistant to Change, or Saturated?
Your Team Messed Up. Now What?
10 Crucial Survival Skills for the 21st Century CIO (10 part series)
How to Avoid Becoming IT Road Kill


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