CIOs aren't CIOs for long

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If you want a job with a guaranteed time frame, consider politics before IT management, surveys and folklore show

A U.S. president, especially after a re-election, will likely stay in the same job longer than most CIOs do, new survey data suggests. A CIO who keeps his job for four to five years is at least on par with peers in the longevity department, if not outperforming them. That is what the latest surveys say, but you don't need a survey for a view on the career trajectory of IT leadership.

In the mid-1990s, Frank Petersmark, who eventually would become the CIO of Amerisure Mutual Insurance, was told that the job of CIO works on a five-year cycle.

The first year as CIO is the honeymoon. The second year is about strategy and planning, and the third year is about implementing. In the fourth year they (the higher-ups) figure out that the execution isn't going that well, and in the fifth year, you start looking for your next job, Petersmark recalled.

He doesn't subscribe to the five-year limit, having held his job at Amerisure for 13 years until leaving at the end of last year. But Petersmark's CIO tenure has out distanced the most optimistic of surveys.

Janco Associates, a management consulting firm that conducts regular salary surveys, reports that the median job tenure for a CIO is now four years and one month. In 2008, Janco said it was four years and seven months. The group's salary survey is based on data from 270 companies in North America, South America and Europe. Gartner pegs the average CIO tenure at less than five years.

Janco's CEO, Victor Janulaitis, blames the decline in tenure on the recession and corporate decisions to seek IT changes and new leadership. But he also says the retirement of baby boomers is contributing as well.

The Society for Information Management (SIM) said in a survey it presented late last year that the average tenure for a CIO or senior IT leader in the U.S. was five years and one month, compared with the 2009 average of four years and six months.

Jerry Luftman, a distinguished professor of information systems at Stevens Institute of Technology who also conducts the survey for SIM, says tenure is increasing because CIOs are doing better in establishing their roles as business managers. The turnover rate has also been impacted by the recession, with boomers holding off on retirement until their finances recover.

Regardless of whether CIO tenure is lengthening or shortening, it is still pegged around the four-to-five-year mark and is in line with Petersmark's story. Petersmark, who began his career as a midnight-shift computer operator, would learn that the job of CIO "is much less about technology and much more about contributing to the success of the business." Understanding this "probably kept me in the game for a longer time," he added.

The story about the five-year cycle is "an easy attitude to lock into" and one that "can almost be self-fulfilling," Petersmark said. His approach is to look at the situation critically and ask why things happen that lead to short tenure. The biggest one is, "at some level or another, they don't deliver," he said. Petersmark left his latest job to begin a new career at X by 2, a software architecture consultancy. The company created a new job title for him, CIO advocate.

Seth Harris, executive vice president of executive search firm Cook Associates, notes another change in CIO hiring: the amount of time that companies are taking to hire their top IT executives. "The searches are taking longer because the client understands the strategic value of the CIO more so than at any other time," Harris said. "CEOs have higher expectations of CIOs in terms of their knowledge of the business and being able to solve business problems through the use of technology."

Blake Coleman, a technology recruiter at FGP International, says there is demand for strong IT management talent, and he believes this demand is higher than the supply. If a company is happy with its IT leadership, Coleman's advice is to keep them happy and challenged so they don't leave. It is "important to retain the right talent," he said.

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