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Exit Signs: When to Bring an End to Your CIO Tenure

How do you know when it's time to move on from your current job? Hear from five CIOs who've left the building.

A merger, a new boss, an end to the challenge. Here's how six CIOs knew when it was time to move on.

During performance reviews, most CIOs think of what they've done -- or failed to do -- for their companies. But they often forget to consider the other half of the equation. That is, what has the company done for them lately?

Ron Maillette performs this self-inspection every year around the time of his birthday in August. He began at Coca-Cola Co., where he served for seven years as CIO of the restaurant and hospitality division, which sold fountain drinks. By the time he left in 2002, the division's annual revenue was closing in on $4 billion. His question to himself: "For the amount of energy I'm investing, am I getting a return that makes me feel like I want to keep doing it?"

For many years, the answer was a resounding yes. In fact, during his last three years at the beverage giant, his satisfaction peaked; he'd put a lot of effort into implementing an enterprise resource planning system and automating the salesforce.

Then everything changed.

Coca-Cola decided to integrate his division and centralize its IT infrastructure into the corporate system. Maillette disagreed with the rationale. Worse, he couldn't bear the idea of unraveling three years of work. "I took a look at what we had created, and quite frankly, I didn't want to be part of dismantling it," he says. "When you spend that much time and energy building something that was the strategic direction, ... I just didn't feel that I had a lot more energy to put it in a 90-degree turn."

At age 57, Maillette was eligible for early retirement. So he took it and formed a consultancy with a friend. Since then, he's changed jobs twice more.

Four and Done

CIO turnover isn't as frenetic as it once was, but it's still fairly frequent. According to recent data from Forrester Research Inc.'s CIO Group, the average CIO's tenure is 4.6 years; and another Forrester survey last year estimates it at 3.9 years. Many CIOs start mulling their next move around the time of their third or fourth anniversary and then spend the next few months securing a new position, analysts and recruiters agree. "If you're in there for five or more years" without considering a move, "you're breaking the metrics," says Gerry McNamara, a senior partner who specializes in recruiting CIOs for Heidrick & Struggles, an executive search firm based in Chicago.

That's not to say that every CIO has to contemplate a change so often. Making a career at one company is fine, as long as both the company and the CIO believe they are getting the most out of the relationship. But if a CIO becomes dissatisfied, it's important for him to leave fast; no one wins if he sticks around. A discontent CIO is less likely to perform well, which can damage his company and his career. When an unhappy CIO says to himself, "'Maybe I'll hang onto it longer,' that's when it starts to deteriorate," says Mark Lutchen, head of the IT effectiveness practice for PricewaterhouseCoopers, an accounting and consulting firm based in New York.

Generally speaking, there are two types of CIOs, and each gets dissatisfied with his current role for a different reason. The first are "transformational" CIOs, those who like to engineer massive change and "get bored after the changes have occurred," Lutchen says. "The time for them to go is when they recognize that they've done their piece, which fits their skills, and need to move on to the next transformation."

Lutchen is familiar with this scenario. That's what happened to him in the mid-1990s when he was CIO of accounting firm Price Waterhouse. When the firm agreed to merge with competitor Coopers & Lybrand, Lutchen was charged with merging the IT systems of both behemoths. And he was under a tight deadline: The new company needed to operate on the same system by day one of the merger.

To prepare, Lutchen led a team of 2,500 IT workers. They integrated technology used by 150,000 employees in 150 countries. Upon completion, Lutchen felt exhilarated. "The heavy-lifting part was over," he says. Then he wanted something just as challenging and exciting, so he moved to a role where he could work with clients as a "relationship partner," a more senior position than his pre-CIO role of senior practice partner.

The second type of CIO is a "maintainer," says Lutchen. This person likes to run or fine-tune systems that are already in place and to avoid change whenever possible. A maintainer is sometimes too slow to make major IT changes in a dynamic business environment where a company may shift its strategy. Lutchen says he has consulted for companies trying to figure out how to get these maintenance-oriented CIOs ready to make needed changes. Sometimes they will never be ready, he says, so they get pushed out.

Ideally, a CIO has a good reputation with fellow executives and has finished major projects before he starts prospecting for another gig. But the reality is, most CIOs don't start looking until they are discontent. The feeling can grow slowly, but more often it's the result of a sudden business change, like a slashed budget, a new executive team or a new boss who seems like an ogre. "He doesn't like the ties I wear," McNamara says he has heard from an unhappy CIO.

To get a better sense of how CIOs know it's time to move on, we talked to several with an array of experiences. Some bailed out after their companies suddenly changed course. Others came to realize over time that the job they initially loved had become less interesting or merely tolerable. Here are their stories.

John Moore
The Worst of Times

In his 10-year IT career, John Moore, now CIO at Tween Brands Inc. of New Albany, Ohio, has left two senior IT jobs after sudden strategy shifts. He saw the first one coming -- a result of the long-awaited dot-com bust. The second was a total surprise.

Moore worked for Dell Inc. in the early 2000s as CIO of the Americas and then as vice president of global architecture and systems engineering. Back then, he knew that even a soft bump in the economy would cause major changes at Dell. When he joined, the company was on a hiring spree, bringing on several hundred employees a week. As Moore recalls, the mantra then was "Join now, and we'll figure out what to do with you once you get here."

Moore was part of major initiatives. Among other responsibilities, he helped develop offshore software development centers in Brazil and India. Then the tech market imploded, and Dell's growth lurched to a stop along with the rest of the sector. "Quite honestly, there wasn't enough work for everyone to do," he says.

No soul-searching was needed. Moore jumped ship and joined consumer electronics giant Best Buy Co. Inc. as senior vice president of the enterprise systems group. (Based in Minneapolis, Best Buy logs almost $32 billion in annual revenue.)

While Moore could see the end of his days at Dell, it was harder for him to predict the event that led him to leave Best Buy. When he joined in 2002, his new boss, the CIO, had just been given the additional role of overseeing the supply chain. Over the next 18 months, the boss increasingly focused on that part of his job and eventually was promoted to head the supply chain function. In turn, Moore was supposed to take his place as CIO. "We were marching down that path," Moore recalls.

But a new senior executive at Best Buy suddenly recommended a radical change: outsourcing several functions, including IT. The board agreed. Of 820 IT workers, most were offered jobs with consulting firm Accenture Ltd., a few dozen had the opportunity to remain with Best Buy and the 126 remaining were dismissed. (Sixty of the dismissed workers later joined a class-action lawsuit, alleging age discrimination; that suit is pending in United States District Court, District of Minnesota.)

Moore felt obligated to stay long enough to "get people settled" in their new roles. He could have continued as CIO of an outsourced team. Long term, though, "I wasn't really interested in managing people at Accenture," he says. Best Buy signed its contract with Accenture in July of 2004; Moore left two months later for his current job at Tween Brands Inc. (formerly Too Inc.), an $820-million-a-year girl's clothing retailer.

At Tween, Moore is in charge of building systems from scratch instead of fixing or maintaining old ones. "From a systems standpoint, we're starting over with a clean slate. I'm not going to spend my life fixing legacy messes. We're starting with a clean slate to support the growth of the company," he says.

Mykolas Rambus
Moving Up

After four years as CIO at W.P. Carey & Co., a real estate management and investment firm based in New York, Mykolas Rambus had carved out a comfortable position: good relationships in place and major projects under his belt. Why move on? Like Maillette, he performed a self-analysis every year. It centered on a single question: Was he still learning enough to continue moving toward his goal of becoming chief executive of a midsized company?

Rambus started the job in 2002 in his early 20s, fresh from a two-year stint as the founding chief executive of Lobby7, a speech application software company that has since been acquired by Nuance Communications Inc. of Burlington, Mass.

At Carey, one of the first things Rambus did was write down what he wanted to accomplish as CIO. During the next three years, he would speed up the capture of new deal information, establish new processes for managing projects and vendors, and improve the internal help desk's customer service approval ratings.

This year, at the age of 28, he reviewed his list and concluded he was no longer progressing on the steep learning curve toward his professional goals, and he realized that he missed his entrepreneurial days.

"I was running out of big mountains to climb," he says.

Rambus and his employer considered a few options, including different roles. Yet in the end, Rambus decided that he should return to a more entrepreneurial setting. He resigned to start a consulting firm, Kahle Partners in Washington, D.C., which aims to help CIOs and their direct reports tackle difficult projects.

Rambus recommends that CIOs be straightforward with their bosses if they find themselves craving more than what is on their plate. "I was fortunately in a position where I had done good things," he says, so he could tell his boss, "Here's what I'm looking to try to accomplish. Here are the types of roles that I'd like to find. I'm not sure these roles exist at W.P. Carey, and according to my research, maybe they don't. But tell me what you're thinking."

Joyce Young
It's the Relationships

Joyce Young, who has been a CIO for 13 years at three companies and is currently the vice president and CIO of Electro-Motive Diesel Inc. of LaGrange, Ill., says she never started looking for a new job just because of an IT strategy change. And she has lived through quite a few of them: bigger budgets, smaller budgets, outsourcing and insourcing. "Budgets come and go," she says.

What inspires Young to stay or go is her relationship with her boss and peers. "When you have the relationship with the people and you want to work together, the money will be found" for important projects, she says. But "when it gets to, 'Gee, I really don't like working for these people' or 'They don't like me for whatever reason,'" then it's time to start looking.

It can take years for a CIO to earn the respect and trust of top management. And unfortunately, it can disappear almost overnight. Young should know. At a previous job with a company she declines to name, she had established a good working relationship with her boss and fellow executives. Then her company was acquired by a company in another state. Suddenly, her teammates quit. Young was given a bonus to stay for at least a year. She accepted, figuring that she could build relationships with the new management team.

There was only one problem: Her new chief and colleagues were all based at the acquiring company's headquarters. They even lived near one another. She flew to their offices once a week for meetings and talked with them constantly over the phone, but that wasn't enough to make her feel like she belonged.

When it came time to discuss business that concerned IT, the other top executives often met without her. She learned about most of the missed meetings through administrative assistants, whom she had made a point of getting to know. "I don't think it was always intentional," Young says. Then she adds, "I don't want it to seem like a big conspiracy. It was probably completely unintentional. They had all worked together for a long time. Here I am the new person, and I'm not right down the hall from them. A lot of it was out of sight, out of mind."

After several missed meetings, Young complained and received profuse apologies in return. "But then they would do it again and again," she says. She knew she could probably improve the situation by relocating, but family obligations kept her from moving. After Young's promised year expired, she began accepting recruiters' phone calls.

In Young's view, all else is fixable. "Can you get more budget? Yes. Can you get a bigger office? Yes. But to go and try and fix how you're viewed, that is really tough to change," she says. "I just got so tired after awhile."

Chason Alexander
Empty Promises

Chason Alexander endured a similar experience at one of her previous jobs, which she also declines to name. At that company, Alexander had worked her way up to CIO, a job she agreed to take if she could report to the CEO rather than the CFO. Her goal was to participate in the company as a senior executive who helps set strategy.

Alexander transformed the IT department and the company's use of technology. She reduced the department's head count by 60%, led IT through major database upgrades and Sarbanes-Oxley (SOX) compliance work, and implemented a worldwide Voice over Internet Protocol system. "I had a wonderful time doing all this," she says. "When you get all this and it's running like a machine, it's running well, you want to do more."

Her chief executive had been willing to consider her for roles beyond IT -- then he retired. His successor did not share that idea. Realizing that she probably wouldn't be allowed to help transform more of the business, Alexander resigned.

She is now a business development executive for ProCM, a Los Gatos, Calif., vendor that makes software tools to automate SOX compliance. She hopes ultimately to move to a midsized company where she can have a major influence, eventually as chief operating officer.

Ron Maillette
Look Before You Leap

Maillette used a different strategy to make his exit from his last job as CIO of Pacer International, a $1.9-billion transportation logistics firm based in Concord, Calif. Last fall, as Maillette grew dissatisfied with his job, he received a call from a former boss at Coke. The boss had moved on to become a sales executive for NuCo2 Inc., a $115-million Stuart, Fla., company that provides bulk carbon dioxide products to restaurants and hotels. He wanted some free advice from Maillette.

As a favor to his former boss, Maillette agreed to take a few vacation days and help out. The meeting gave both parties a chance to see each other in action. For his part, Maillette liked the company's IT strategy and how the group listened to his input. In January 2006, he signed on as the company's senior vice president of IT.

Having made several moves in his career so far, Maillette offers this advice for those who are considering moving on. "Clearly, there has to be a little discontent" for a CIO to consider leaving, he says, but one shouldn't do so without a firm landing spot. "There have got to be more things that are attractive about the new opportunity than not attractive about the current situation," he says. "The idea is not leaving, but rather going to something."

Joan Indiana Rigdon was a contributing writer for CIO Decisions. To comment on this story, email [email protected].

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