Longer CIO Tenure: What Does It Mean?

Share it on Twitter  
Share it on Facebook  
Share it on Linked in  

One of the most commonly cited metrics for any executive position is average tenure. As I wrote in December, citing numbers from CIO.com, SearchCIO.com and the Society for Information Management, the average tenure for CIOs appears to be rising.


What does this trend mean, and how long will it last? I've found a couple of interesting opinions over the past week or so.


Forrester Research analyst Sharyn Leaver's theory is that the recessionary environment that has persisted pretty steadily since 9/11 left many CIOs less inclined to take risks. (Not too long ago, I wrote a post about how CIOs need to improve their risk-management skills, in particular by developing a greater tolerance for risk.) During the latest economic slump, CIOs "stayed busy doing what they unfortunately are known for -- helping with enterprise cost cutting," writes Leaver. She says:

More reactive, more cost conscious, and less innovative CIOs are less likely to take risks and less likely to be fired for risk-taking.

She thinks that'll change, as CIOs are "eagerly waking up to tackle innovation and new investments in 2010." (Are they? The jury appears to still be out. Earlier today I wrote about Gartner's contention that CEOs will retain a "recession-era mentality" for the next five years and will expect IT investments to save the company money. I realize "saving money" and "innovation" don't necessarily have to be at loggerheads, but the message seems to be there's a continued emphasis on cost cutting for now.) And adds Leaver, more "ex-consultant hot shots" and business executives are being recruited to the CIO ranks, which will likely result in more upheaval -- and briefer tenures.


More pessimistically, IT consultant and Directionally Correct blogger Russ Aebig calls the increase in CIO tenure a "mirage" because odds of long-term success are stacked against the CIO role. He cites some of the role's key challenges, including CIOs who end up spending much of their time on operational issues despite ostensibly being hired to fill a more strategic role, business leaders who see technology as separate from the rest of the business and an organizational emphasis on short-term returns rather than long-term tech investments.


CIO Dashboard blogger Chris Curran, whose smart insights I cite regularly in this space, believes CIOs tend to stay with the same organization as long as their skill sets mesh well with the organization's overall developmental goals. Curran says there are three types of CIOs:

  • Strategists, known for their innovative, often disruptive thinking.
  • Transformers, who are comfortable directing large portfolios of projects, both strategic and tactical.
  • Value Managers, who tend to focus on optimizing processes and platforms to improve IT efficiency and effectiveness.


There's an obvious overlap between these CIO types and what Curran sees as the three stages of an organization's developmental life cycle:

  • Evaluation -assessing business design in light of competitive pressures, cost challenges or M&A opportunities.
  • Change-planning and implementation of a new business design.
  • Stabilization-operating the new business design and measuring its actual versus desired impact.


Strategists tend to perform best during the evaluation phase. The stock of transformers rises during the change phase. Value managers shine during the stabilization phase.


Do CIOs leave when their skills no longer match up well with current organizational goals? That depends, writes Curran. Some CIOs leverage their good relationships and a strong IT team to handle the changing organizational needs. Others can't meet the new needs and end up leaving or being asked to leave. And some CIOs are bored by the new requirements and decide to leave, though they may stick it out longer than those who simply can't satisfy current needs.