CARLSBAD, Calif. -- After years of steady increases, job tenure for CIOs at midmarket firms is shrinking, just as the CIO role is expanding.
According to a new survey from CIO Decisions magazine, 66% percent of midmarket CIOs have held their jobs for less than five years, compared with 50% a year ago. The gap is even wider among IT executives with other titles: 70% of vice presidents of IT have been on the job for five years or less, compared with 30% last year, the survey found. Median tenure is four years.
Whether the shorter tenures bode well for CIOs is up for debate, especially given the current marketplace, said Anne McCrory, the magazine's editor in chief.
"The positive interpretation is that these executives are very charged up. They are good IT leaders. They come in with an agenda and a vision, accomplish that in three or four years and then, if the environment doesn't stay as dynamic, they get bored and take their skills elsewhere," McCrory said.
CIO Decisions, a sister publication to SearchCIO.com, focuses on companies with $50 million to $1 billion in revenue. Job tenure is expected to be a hot-button issue at the magazine's annual conference here, where some 200 IT executives have convened to explore leadership and technology at midmarket organizations.
The dark side
Less time in the job, of course, could carry a different message. The other side of the coin is familiar to anyone who lived through the dot-com boom and bust, McCrory said. "It may be that projects are going south or companies are contracting to the extent they eliminate the CIO position, as happened two weeks ago to one of the CIOs at our conference. Or they may shelve projects."
McCrory cited a recent case study in her magazine of a company that slammed the brakes on a large enterprise resource planning/supply chain overhaul and ended up putting the project on hold for five years. "So if you were brought in to lead that, and now you're not going to do it, even if you're not let go, you might say, 'Gee what the heck am I doing here?'"
She said she believes the torrid merger and acquisition market is also a factor in shorter tenures. "Usually only one IT chieftain wins in that scenario."
Certainly, Andre Mendes falls into the thrill-seeking camp of CIOs on the move. Mendes left his CIO job at the Public Broadcasting Service this year to become CIO of the Special Olympics.
"I have gone from a U.S.-only scope to a global scope, from a broadcaster to a sports organization and from a department that had just finished one of the biggest technology migrations ever completed to one where the process is just beginning," said Mendes, a keynote speaker at CIO Decisions Conference. "In short, everything has changed."
Indeed, several of this year's conference speakers put a face to the tenure data. Cliff Bell, who is speaking on CIO career paths, moved from the CIO role at software product provider Phoenix Technologies Ltd. to a job that combines IT and business at Infogain Corp., an IT services company in Los Gatos, Calif. Veteran IT executive James Woolwine left Majestic Insurance Co. in San Francisco to "take on two entrepreneurial careers," he said in an email. Woolwine is working as an independent contractor for a large, multibillion-dollar international firm as its project management office executive, and he's teamed up with three partners in an import-export business. Said Woolwine: "It's all very exciting."
The proverbial crossfire
Research consultancy Gartner Inc. has not picked up on shorter tenures for midmarket CIOs, said analyst Robert Anderson, but he is not surprised by the shift. IT executives at midmarket companies are in a fluid, if not precarious, place, Anderson said. As the economy has recovered, CIOs are caught between the CEO's demand for growth and the CFO's demand for fiduciary accountability and watching the dollars.
"The CIOs who tend to get it have learned how to balance both of those pressures," said Anderson, who covers small and medium-sized business at the Stamford, Conn.-based firm. Those who don't may well find themselves pushed out.
Still, Anderson said he's inclined to look on the bright side of the job tenure data. Compared with seven years ago, when companies still reeling from ill-considered technology investments were firing CIOs left and right, IT is back in the business's good graces, indeed leading the charge in some cases in changing how companies operate.
"We see midmarket CIOs asserting their way of governance, so that money is spent correctly -- so the left hand and the right hand are complementing each other, rather than racing down separate paths," Anderson said.
In addition, CEOs are using the "language of compliance associated with mandates like SOX to improve not just regulatory accountability but to foster transparency and control throughout the organization," Anderson said.
This kind of transformation requires a higher level of aggression from a CIO -- a "real type A with high energy" -- than expected from the "old time" CIO whose main responsibility is maintaining IT operations, Anderson said.
"There's a lot riding on IT" at midsized organizations, he said. "The real question is do these CIOs have what it takes?"
High-impact CIOs are able to articulate the business value of IT to colleagues. Just as important, they possess a deep understanding of a "very fast-moving technology environment," Anderson said. They can sort out which advancements will work or not work at their organizations, so they rarely find themselves at the helm of projects going south.
Another reason for shorter job tenures, Anderson conjectured, is the old boundaries between IT and the business are blurring. As technology becomes embedded in operations and growth strategies, business people and IT people are rotating in and out of what have been separate domains.
It's not unusual anymore for up-and-comers on the business side to elect to do a stint in IT "to further their careers," Anderson said. Gartner is also seeing more scenarios where "CIOs are doing such a damn good job from a business standpoint, they get promoted into a line-of-business position."
Moti Vyas, who oversees IT at Viejas Enterprises, a casino and shopping center in Alpine, Calif., puts it another way: "CIOs come in different flavors," said Vyas, who trained in astrophysics before switching to computers. He sees the prior experience as a big advantage.
"If CIOs stick to the same industry, they become domain experts, no doubt about it," Vyas said. But IT is one of the few domains where high-level executives can move from one sector to another, bringing the best practices from their prior experience. "If you go from one industry to another then you really are a change agent, and you need to be change agents, otherwise you cannot function in this industry."
Let us know what you think about the story; email: Linda Tucci, Senior News Writer