Career Clinic: CIO burn out

Is it wise to take a career break from the top job?


You see so many CIOs burn out - the average tenure is around two years. Is it possible to take a break from the top post and to go back in at that level, or is it a question of returning to that level only as a contractor in the shape of interim manager? In other words - when can IT professionals safely take career breaks?

Ben Booth is global chief technology officer at market research agency, Ipsos-MORI and has over 20 years experience in IT management roles. His previous posts include CIO at MORI and head of technology at the publishing house, Reed Chemical Group. Ben is a Fellow of the British Computer Society and of the Royal Society of Arts, a Liveryman of the Information Technologists Company and vice chairman of the BCS Effective Leadership in IT (ELITE) Group.

Alistair Russell is development director at CIO Connect, working with CIOs on their leadership and professional development. Prior to joining CIO Connect, Alistair was director of programmes for executive development at Durham Business School leading programmes for Halifax Bank of Scotland, Barclays, United Utilities and the Department for Education and Skills. Alistair is a qualified member of the Institute of Management Consultants and as a Chartered Mechanical Engineer.

Denise Plumpton joined the Highways Agency in January 2005 as director of information and a member of the executive board of the agency. Denise has a particular interest in helping organisations through periods of change and is on the strategy board of the Corporate IT Forum.

Ben Booth says:

The first think I would say is that although the life of a CIO is tough, the average tenure is nearer four than two years. Having said that, if you feel the need for a career break and don't want to move to another similar job there are various options.

The obvious move for the successful CIO is into interim management, which in many ways is taking on a similar role but with a shorter timescale and even more pressure to deliver. Others have moved to consultancy, and there is the oft thought about but rarely achieved route to the chief executive's chair. All these can provide very satisfying careers.

The one thing to bear in mind is that the road away from the corporate environment is usually a one-way street. A CIO who spends time in general management will be a much stronger candidate if they choose to return to IT. The CIO who turns to self-employed consultancy and then develops a portfolio career can have a very interesting and rewarding life, but it will be almost impossible to return to the CIO role.

There are many different options, but bear in mind that if you step off the treadmill it may be hard to get back on, and only you can judge of this is a good thing!

Alistair Russell says

A number of questions here! Starting with the last one, depending on your perspective on risk and your overall view on life, it is always safe or it is never safe to take a career break. There are always risks and it’s a question of managing them to achieve your own career vision. There are established norms of behaviour that you reflect in your question, suggesting that it’s not the sort of thing one does in a top-flight CIO role – I think that’s probably true. But if I were you I’d do it when you want to - although think it through and manage those risks.

So, it is rare, but possible to take a break at the top level. There are recent examples of those that have taken breaks and returned at the top CIO level. And there are also those that I know who have operated at the CIO level who now really enjoy and deliver great value as CIOs as serial 'fixers' in interim CIO roles.

Finally, I disagree with your observation about burn-out. Yes, CIO tenures are around two to three years, but that’s no more or less than other senior exec roles.

Denise Plumpton says

The real challenge of the career break is the need to keep your knowledge up to date while you’re away. This means knowing what’s emerging in technology, how these advances can help business, what is current thinking in terms of resourcing, off-shoring, organisational structures and so on.

This will mean that on your return to the market you will then stand a better chance of finding a new post quickly. This all applies whether the role you’re looking for is permanent, interim or contract. And it applies at any time in your career.

I think there is a general feeling that it’s easier to get into the interim or contract market at senior levels. In some respects it could be so, in that employers are not making a long term commitment; but more importantly, remember that the employing organisations want the best person for the job, whatever its tenure. And if it’s an interim role, you have to be able to hit the ground running much more quickly than would be expected from a permanent role.

There never seems to be an ideal time for a break, so it’s more about how long the break is and what you do with your time during the break that prospective employers will be interested in.

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