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What is the state of CIO tenure today?

CIO tenure remains significantly lower than other C-suite positions, and according to experts, it's a result of the age of digital transformation we're currently in.

CIO tenure is one of the shortest stints within the executive suite, hovering around four years on average -- but talent and search experts said the turnover remains high as CIOs have their pick of top positions in this era of digital transformation.

"The tenure is now driven by CIOs saying, 'I want a different job,'" said Martha Heller, CEO of Heller Search Associates, an executive recruiting firm specializing in tech-related positions.

For much of this century, CIOs have generally come in at a younger age and with less experience for a shorter duration of time than nearly all the other C-suite titles. However, experts said the short CIO tenure in the past had been driven by CEOs and other organizational leaders seeking change -- and sometimes scapegoating -- rather than the CIOs themselves seeking more challenges and better opportunities.

According to experts, that has shifted over the past few years. Today, CIOs help develop enterprise strategies and counsel their C-suite peers on tech-driven innovations. Given that scenario, CIOs are finding that they can now command significant influence within an enterprise, which is a big change from a decade or two ago when they still had a reputation as order-takers.

Thus, CIOs are seeking opportunities where they can have that kind of influence and impact over enterprise priorities, as well as where they can direct organizational transformation and digitization -- and they're eager to leave positions that don't enable such opportunities.

Martha HellerMartha Heller

"CIOs want to work for companies that are taking digital transformation seriously," Heller said. "Now, CIOs are saying, 'This is the single most exciting time in my career, and if my company is not going to come to grips with the fact that digital changes everything, then I don't think I want to be CIO here.'"

Others said they see the same trend, noting that demand for experienced, impactful CIOs outstrips supply, with many experienced CIOs being recruited away from their current roles to take on new ones -- a trend that practically guarantees CIO tenures will remain on the low side.

"The [CIO] tenure in technology is traditionally lower because of the competitiveness of the tech market. Even if a company wants to keep the CIO for 10 years, the reality is it can't. There are not enough CIOs," said Ryan Sutton, district president at IT staffing firm Robert Half Technology. He said market dynamics enable CIOs to more easily "upgrade their careers" by moving into CIO roles at bigger companies and/or moving into CIO positions with more responsibilities than the previous one.

Ryan SuttonRyan Sutton

The most recent figures for the average CIO tenure date back two years. The Korn Ferry Institute put the average tenure for CIOs at around four years. Spencer Stuart, in its "The State of the CIO in 2018" report, found the average CIO tenure was closer to five years and had been steady over the prior five years.

Recent CIO appointments show that these statistics are often right on the money. Jim Swanson, for example, joined Johnson & Johnson as CIO in early 2019 after 14 months as CIO and head of digital transformation at Bayer's Crop Science division and nearly five years as CIO at Monsanto.

Clay Johnson left Walmart after nearly three years as CIO to join Yum! Brands in October 2019 as its chief digital and technology officer.

Seth Cohen became PepsiCo's global CIO in November 2019 after 27 months as Global Group CIO at the British multinational consumer goods company RB.

However, the length of the average CIO tenure, which was once shorter than any other C-suite position, is now close to the average of other (although not all) executives.

KPMG International's "2019 Global CEO Outlook" puts the average CEO tenure at five years, for example, while Spencer Stuart puts the average tenure for the chief marketing officer at just 43 months.

Katie Graham ShannonKatie Graham Shannon

Such findings track with what Heidrick & Struggles Global Practice Managing Partner Katie Graham Shannon said she sees in the market today.

In the past, many companies wanted a CIO to come in as a change agent and then move on. Now, she said she sees organizations wanting CIOs to work within the existing culture to move everyone through digital transformation -- a task that requires them to stay on the job longer than those past disruptive change agents.

And CIOs are willing to stay put provided they have a job that enables them to drive digital transformation initiatives and not remain static.

"You can't get that done in a less than three to five years," Graham Shannon said. "There's such a massive shift we're seeing in these organizations, and CIOs are finding that [guiding the organizations through change] is fulfilling and will be fulfilling for a long time -- and it's a much harder job than being a CIO in the past, so they're willing to stay in their positions longer."

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