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IT executive jobs average 6.3 years, a testament to both IT and the business

In a sign that the IT role is maturing, the tenure of IT executive jobs was an average six years in 2009, a dramatic difference from past downturns.

It might be lonely at the top of the IT executive job ladder, but the perch appears relatively stable. The average tenure for senior IT executive jobs is now 6.3 years, according to TechTarget Inc.'s annual salary and careers survey.

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The longevity of people in the top echelon during the worst recession in more than 50 years is a stark change from rough economic patches in past decades when the typical lifespan of a CIO was 18 months, suggesting that the CIO role is maturing.

The relative stability of IT executive jobs also differs from the tech bust of 2001-2002, when IT departments often were prime targets for cuts. And that suggests that businesses are looking to IT leadership for help and that CIOs have honed their financial management skills, according to employment experts.

Years on the job for those top IT executives surveyed -- a group comprising C-level IT executives and IT vice presidents -- exceeded the average tenure for midlevel IT executives (5.68 years) and for IT managers (5.36 years). A remarkable 20% of all IT leaders surveyed have held their current jobs for more than 10 years.

Not surprisingly, the revolving door spun faster in some sectors than others, according to the survey's 873 respondents. The shortest IT executive tenures were in the telecommunications and financial services industries, where average time in the job was 4.7 years and 4.8 years respectively. The only other industry where tenure dipped below five years was IT-related services; average stay was four years and nine months. At the other end of the spectrum is state and local government, where IT leaders stay an average 7.88 years in their jobs. Average tenure also topped seven years in the fields of consulting, education, entertainment and a group labeled as construction, mining and agriculture.

The survey results were from North America. The senior executive group includes CIOs, chief technology officers, chief information security officers, IT vice presidents, senior vice presidents and executive vice presidents across 21 industries.

Corporate headhunters and industry analysts were not terribly surprised by the length of tenure for top IT executives, although some predicted those averages would be lower next year based on the volume of CIOs on the market today, either because of downsizing or from a desire to move on now that the recession appears to be receding.

Gartner analyst Mark McDonald speculated that including chief technology and information security officers in the cohort may have skewed tenure numbers upward, as those positions tend to be more stable. An upcoming Gartner survey still underway is showing that CIOs average tenure in their current positions is about 4.4 years, about the same as 2008, he said.

Accidental CIOs, "one-trick ponies," now relics

Still, McDonald and others noted that the trend for CIO tenure is indisputably upward in recent years. It dramatically improved over the 1990s when business pundits translated the title as "career is over," said Jerry Luftman, research director of the Society for Information Management's (SIM) annual CIO survey. The 2009 SIM survey data showed that U.S. CIOs held their jobs an average 4.6 years, up by a few months over 2008 and 2007 and exactly a year longer than the average tenure of 3.6 years in 2006. Overseas, CIOs stay longer: an average 5.5 years on the job in Europe or 6.6 years in China, according to SIM survey results.

Potential obstacles for a long CIO tenure
Whether the trend toward longer tenure persists is debatable. Martha Heller, managing director of the IT Leadership Practice at ZRG, is among those who expect CIO tenure figures to dip next year. "You have a lot of CIOs in the market whose tenures were aborted abruptly because their company ceased operations or their company shrank to the point where it could not justify a CIO anymore," she said.

As the year closes, Heller said she also is hearing from many CIOs eager to move on. "I'm seeing CIOs who are saying, 'I've remained with my company through this whole downturn; now it is time to rebuild and I'm tired,'" she said. "They are ready to take all the energy and lessons learned and bring it to another company."

IT-business enlightenment, while more widespread, is not universal, Heller added. "If CEOs don't understand exactly what CIOs are supposed to do for them, there is a misalignment between the CEO's expectations and CIO's performance. For CEOs looking to shed expensive executives, IT can still be a tempting place to look."

Cultivating the CEO relationship is important, said Gartner Inc.'s Mark McDonald, because some 36% of CIOs report to CEOs, as opposed to the 27% who report to CFOs, according to Gartner's latest data. But that depends on whether the CEO is around. "The people who have the tenure of a fruit fly are the chief marketing officers. The next shortest tenure is the CEO, then the CIO and then the CFO," McDonald said.

"The good news is we're going up. And a large part of it is that we are getting better at knowing what we need to be doing as CIOs," said Luftman, a professor at the Stevens Institute of Technology and strong proponent of business-IT alignment. In the 1980s and 1990s, the leader of IT was highly technical and rarely considered a business partner, he said. "We know that CIOs and the person preparing for that job need to communicate with the business in terms the business understands. The last thing other C-level executives want is a techie in that position. Businesses are looking for leadership and how IT can be leveraged to help the business units."

Gartner's McDonald attributes the longer tenures to IT's increasingly sophisticated financial management practices. "CIOs were able to keep their jobs [in this recession] because they were able to manage their finances better," McDonald said, a big difference from the 2001-2002 time period.

"A lot of CIOs in 2001were one-trick ponies. They could do the growth but they couldn't do the contraction. If you realize that the average IT budget growth between 2002 and 2010 was less than 2%, you see that CIOs had to be good financial managers all along," McDonald said.

But IT executives are not the only ones who have adjusted, Luftman said. IT is a complex discipline. CIOs still have project failures. The fact that IT executive job tenures have remained stable or improved during the current major recession indicates businesses have a growing appreciation for IT's role in improving business processes, cutting costs and so on, Luftman said.

Given that the role and responsibilities of the early CIOs often remained a mystery for many technology-illiterate executives on the business side, it is not surprising CIOs didn't last long, said Martha Heller, managing director of the IT Leadership Practice at ZRG, an executive recruiting firm based in Boston. "Both sides have a better understanding of what the role entails," she said.

"A generation ago, what you had were people who kind of accidentally fell into being CIO. They were working in finance or in operations and then they automated something -- a database or Excel spreadsheet -- and before they knew it, they were the first member of the IT organization," Heller said. "The best of them wound up as their company's first CIO."

Myth busters

Headhunter Shawn Banerji, a member of the information officers practice within the technology sector at Russell Reynolds Associates Inc. in New York, while a bit surprised by the six-plus year average tenures, said the data refutes the persistent myth -- in IT circles, no less -- that the average lifespan of a CIO is 2.5 years.

"The reality is that most companies now understand that CIOs can't be measured until they've been around for at least two years, simply because of the nature of their job," Banerji said. "The technology projects they are spearheading -- the ones that make a difference to the business -- take a certain amount of time to plan, to execute and realize the results. You have to give some credit to the CFOs and CEOs for this, who understand you can't snap your fingers and be in the Emerald City. "

Let us know what you think about the story; email: Linda Tucci, Senior News Writer

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