How to survive a business regime change

How long does the average CIO stay on the job? Not very long. According to a Gartner Inc. survey of 1,527 CIOs, their average tenure in 2009 was four years and four months, a figure that has changed relatively little over the past several years, according to Mark McDonald, group vice president of Gartner Executive Programs. "It's been between four years and three months and four years and nine months," he says.

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How long does the average CIO stay on the job? Not very long. According to a Gartner survey of 1,527 CIOs, their average tenure in 2009 was four years and four months, a figure that has changed relatively little over the past several years, according to Mark McDonald, group vice president of Gartner Executive Programs. "It's been between four years and three months and four years and nine months," he says.

An annual Society for Information Management survey of SIM members and of companies in Europe and Asia paints a similar picture, with the average tenure lengthening from 3.6 years in a 2006 SIM study to 5.1 years today. The median tenure is between four and five years, with 57% of respondents reporting that their companies' top IT executives had been in their jobs four years or less.

Short reigns

How long has your CIO (or senior IT executive) held his position?

  • Less than 1 year: 15%
  • 1-2 years: 24%
  • 3-4 years: 18%
  • 5-7 years: 15%
  • More than 7 years: 28%

Source: Society for Information Management survey of CIOs, CTOs and senior IT executives at more than 400 US, European, Asian and Latin American companies, October 2010

"There are many reasons CIOs leave their jobs," McDonald notes. "One fairly reasonable one is retirement. For many people, CIO is their apex job. That might account for about 25% of departing CIOs. Another third of them choose to get a job elsewhere, and probably a third lose their job, most often because of a change in leadership at the top of the organisation, or else because of a failed project. The remainder move on to some other role within the organisation, on the business side or in some other area."

One thing is clear: If you spend your career in corporate IT, you will likely live through more than one CIO regime change. In fact, in a 30-year tech career, you can expect to adjust to a new CIO at least six times.

Yet despite the frequency of new CIO arrivals, many in IT handle these transitions badly. Whether they bad mouth the previous CIO, create elaborate presentations about their own importance or demand more funding, lower level techies and midlevel managers alike make a wide array of errors when a new CIO arrives.

Here are some of the most common, and most costly, missteps.

Misstep 1: Defending the status quo

"Don't ever say the words, 'That's not how we do it around here,'" McDonald warns.

It may be human nature to resist change, but it's foolish to expect that a new CIO won't shake things up. If top management was displeased with the previous CIO's performance, it's likely that the new CIO has a mandate to revamp or rethink IT in fundamental ways. But even if the old CIO left on good terms, a new CIO will want to make his or her mark.

And that's a good thing, says Ken LeBlanc, vice president, business unit CIO and SaaS operations at RSA, the security division of EMC. "Any time there's a change, whether it's a new leader or something else, there's a great opportunity to pause and reconfirm that your priorities are right to stay current with changing expectations," he says.

Sometimes that change of priorities means new opportunities. LeBlanc had spent four years as chief of staff to EMC's previous CIO when a new CIO arrived. LeBlanc wanted more involvement with business operations, so when the opportunity arose, he transitioned to his current role as a business unit CIO.

In some cases, a new CIO may make dramatic changes to your role, or cancel a project you've been working on, making accepting change particularly difficult.

"People do get emotionally invested in projects, sometimes to the detriment of the overall organisation," says Dan Gingras, a partner in the IT practice at executive search firm Tatum. "That's one of the biggest problems we see in IT today."

He recommends doing some research rather than digging in your heels. "Try and understand the motivation for killing your project," Gingras says. "Find out if it was because of the budget or a change in direction. Or it may be something that you can't be privy to, and then you have to take a leap of faith."

He also recommends some soul-searching. "You have to be introspective about the reasons your project was killed," Gingras suggests. "Was it something you should have foreseen? If so, you may need to be more aware of the bigger circumstances around your job."

Misstep 2: Not learning the new CIO's priorities

If your IT department is like many others, the news that a new CIO is about to arrive will prompt staffers to frantically search the Internet, watch presentations on YouTube, query colleagues and read IT industry publications in an effort to learn whatever they can about the newcomer.

"It's hard for a CIO to be anonymous," McDonald says. "They will have some presence in the Internet sphere, which should give you a sense of how the new person talks and what's important to him or her."

Make a special effort to find out what's important to the newcomer, he advises. In fact, when you meet the new CIO, the first thing you should do is ask about his priorities. "Say something like, 'I'd like to understand why you came here and what upper management expects from you,'" he says. "You may get an answer like, 'They hired me to consolidate IT operations.'"

Whatever that mission is, make it your mission. "Ask the new boss what you can do to help him or her be successful," Gingras says.

Similarly, it's wise to give careful thought to the new CIO's priorities before requesting extra funding or other resources. "Too many people come into a new CIO's office and say, 'I'm sure glad you're on board, because we couldn't get anything done with the previous CIO. Here's what we're doing, and if we just had additional resources, we could deliver much more,'" notes Steve Watson, managing director for the Dallas office of search firm Stanton Chase International.

It's likely that the CIO is facing pressure to cut IT costs, Watson points out, so you're better off looking for creative ways to reduce your expenses. "That's a mindset that rising stars ought to have," he says.

Misstep 3: Offering too much information

Unless a new CIO was promoted from within your organisation, he or she will know little about your IT projects or teams. So you'll need to provide a report about your duties, and that's where many IT managers go into overdrive.

"Everyone else will snow the new CIO with 20-to-30-slide presentations and organisational charts, trying to justify their existence," McDonald says. "But if you lay out a lot of slides, that makes you seem big, which equals expensive." He recommends a briefing that's no more than 10 minutes long. "CIOs appreciate anyone who recognises that they don't have a lot of time," he says.

Another good approach is to ask the CIO what information is wanted, and in what form. "You can say, 'Please explain to me what your communication style is, and here's what mine is,'" says Ken Maddock, vice president of clinical engineering and telecommunications services at Baylor Health Care System.

At the same time, be sure to let the new CIO know about any obstacles you're facing. "People have a tendency to try to hide problems," Maddock says. "They think they have time before the new CIO learns that something is going on, and that they can get it fixed. Then, when it does come up, it looks even worse."

Being very open about problems is the strategy Maddock pursued when a new CIO arrived at Baylor. The department had faced some uncertainty and had suffered some staff reductions, and many of his co-workers either laid low or planned their departures. But Maddock's policy of honesty paid off. He was previously director of bio-medical engineering but was brought into a departmental leadership council and was eventually promoted to his current position by the new CIO.

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