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CIO tenure numbers that surprise

Tenure for CIOs is improving. More money to spend on IT and a growing appreciation of technology's role in business success might account for the lengthier stays.

No more packing your bags at 18 months. Recent studies show the average tenure for CIOs is now hovering around four years -- an eternity compared with the abbreviated tours of duty in 2000 and 2001.

Why the shift? Increased spending on technology is probably a factor, but so is a growing appreciation of IT's importance to business success, according to analysts. And don't rule out the effects of aging, even among the most ambitious. As baby boomers near retirement, job hopping becomes less appealing.

"The workforce is aging, and CIOs are no exceptions. As they get closer to retirement, stability begins to look a lot more appealing than moving from job to job," said Laurie Orlov, research director for Forrester Research Inc.'s IT management practice.

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A recent report from Forrester shows that CIOs at large companies are staying on the job an average 3.6 years, with nearly a third reporting they had logged more than five years in their current positions. That's in sharp contrast to the revolving door of recent years, when some studies pegged the average stay at 18 months to 24 months. The Forrester poll, taken in June, was based on responses from 140 CIOs.

Meanwhile, a report published by Gartner Inc. last winter put the average tenure even higher, at 4.3 years, based on a survey of 1,400 CIOs. In an interview on the data, Gartner analyst Mark McDonald told that the longer tenures were due in large part to the stabilizing of the technology field. The revolving door syndrome started in the dot-com craze and continued through the bust. In the flush years, CIOs changed jobs on promises of bigger pay and bigger budgets. Many of those who were good at spending money, however, discovered they lacked the temperament or the skills to navigate the lean years that followed, McDonald said. Those that survived lean times are now determined to see their IT initiatives through, now that times are not as tough.

That rings true for executive recruiter Martha Heller, managing director of the IT leadership practice at Z Resource Group, an executive search firm in Westborough, Mass. She said most of the 150 CIOs she has dealt with over the course of the past year have been in their jobs between four and five years. But she takes issue that the greater longevity represents a dramatic change.

"I think the whole 18-month thing was a myth. I don't think that the tenure for CIOs was ever that short. I do think there is some lengthening, of around six to 12 months, but not any kind of doubling of tenure, as is sometimes reported," Heller said.

She does believe the trend to longer tenure is here to stay, though, as the CIO position matures and accrues business responsibilities. "It's very gradual, but you are seeing CIOs taking on dual hats -- senior vice president of IT and operations, senior vice president of IT and supply chain management, or like Jeff Chasney, of CKE Restaurants, CIO and executive vice president of strategic planning -- and it's strategic planning not just for IT but the entire corporation."

Forrester's Orlov believes it's probably still too early to say whether the longer tenures signify the glass is half-empty or half-full for the profession.

"The optimistic view is that CIOs are getting more skilled at what they do, so that businesses feel they are getting more out of IT," she said.

The bottom line for CIOs is an infrastructure that performs, Orlov said. When business customers interact with IT systems, they expect them to work, much like they count on hearing a dial tone when they pick up the phone. CIOs get that now. "As they drive IT infrastructures to higher and higher degrees of reliability, they are not being fired," she said.

And the downside? "Another reason for longer job tenure is that there's nowhere else to go," Orlov said. Smart CIOs increasingly know how to cultivate the business side of their job, and those who do find ways to move on. "Those that don't are finding they are stuck in IT," she said, citing another just-published poll from her group showing that the majority of CEOs (65%) still view their senior IT executives more as "technology professionals" rather than business managers.

One thing seems true. Having more money to spend makes the job a whole lot nicer. Instead of having to relentlessly focus on cost-cutting, the CIOs who Forrester polled report they are shifting their attention to projects that drive top-line growth. An eye-opening 74% of CIOs at enterprise-level companies ranked "using IT to enhance revenue growth" as either a high or the highest priority, compared with 34% who put cutting costs first. And while money may not buy job satisfaction, it helps. Nearly 74% of the CIOs polled told Forrester they were "mostly" or "highly satisfied" with their positions.

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