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IT project failures not the only reason CIOs get fired

What’s going to get you fired from your CIO job? I was reminded this week of all the ways CIOs risk termination, from failed IT projects to jobs that outgrow them, during a “town meeting” (aka moderated conference call) on IT project failures. Featured speaker Chris Curran, a consultant and chief technology officer at DiamondConsultants, told the story of one CIO who was fired because he couldn’t get his arms around the Web 2.0 technologies and vendors that represented the organization’s next big technology initiative. “It doesn’t mean that CIO isn’t a good CIO,” Curran explained. “It just means they weren’t a good CIO in that situation.”

Indeed, Curran ascribed the current running time of CIO tenure, of 4 to 4 ½ years, to the length of business lifecycles — the time that lapses between a company’s last major strategy and its new one (my definition). The logic is that the person who was right to lead IT in the last business cycle isn’t the one to take it to the new next level, so that person moves on (at his own behest or not).

A few years ago, our first major CIO salary and careers study showed roughly that same length of tenure, even accounting for a certain group of CIOs who had been at their jobs for 20 or 30 years (Curran also mentioned this). Our analysis, which roughly complements Curran’s, was that four years or so was how long it took a certain set of “transformational” CIOs — those brought in to lead major change – to establish what needed to change and then change it. When that job was done, it was time for them to move on and for an operational CIO to take over.

The concept of a transformational CIO — among other CIO archetypes — isn’t new, but it does call to mind the likelihood that once the economic recovery begins in earnest, we are likely to see a lot of movement. Those CIOs who have used the downtime of the recession to re-evaluate the business, examine business processes, develop a strategic plan for IT investment that awaits an economic trigger, are like tigers waiting to pounce on enacting those changes — they’ll stay put. Those at less dynamic businesses, though, are like a sprinter on the blocks for a new opportunity. They’ll get the job that might be yours today, because your management doesn’t see you as up to the task to embrace whatever’s next.

Which brings us back to getting fired. As Curran said, many CIOs who get fired aren’t bad CIOs — they’re just not right for the situation at hand. And with technology and business inexorably changing, that merits continual review, particularly as the next business cycle comes upon us.

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Hi! This is all very well at a descriptive level. Is there some real analysis that can along with this? Why is a CIO who is good enough to transform an organization not able to adapt to the changed environment? Any thoughts? -Sunder
Actually Sunder, the issue is not that he or she cannot adapt to the new environment, but that once the transformation is complete and more of a maintenance phase begins, the project no longer engages this type of executive. So that person is better served personally and professionally to seek out the next challenge. This in turn provides an opportunity for a leader who thrives in an environment that values operational excellence. Much has been written on this topic, but one more analytical writeup is here: Hope that helps.
In my tenure of 20+ years in IT, I have observed different CIOs getting fired for various reasons: one is as you have stated above – the CIO could not cope up with the ‘change’ although when he joined the organization was an excellent performer initially. Finished the targets initially set for him by the organization but could not carry on with the ‘change’ in the organization thereby not understanding the ‘new’ expectations from the organization. Another CIO got sacked for performing ‘malpractices’ in IT purchases. I remember only these two sackings. As Excellently written above by you, ‘change’ and ‘coping up with the change’ should always be on CIO’s card. As my CEO once told me – ‘In an industry as a CIO you can not sit on your Laurels. Past achievements are good but more important is ‘achieving continuously’. ~jaideep
This article does a great job of laying out the facts and describing the challenges faced by CIO's. But is the problem really that the CIO is not the right person to bring change or is it that they are hampered by inflexible enterprise systems that make it almost impossible to satisfy the CEO's demands? I would like to recommend the following white paper for a description of how CIO's can address this challenge and eliminate the most common causes (continued from previous comment):