After completing a digital transformation as the CIO of American Cancer Society, Jay Ferro left for ISP EarthLink in 2016 as CIO and chief product officer, overseeing both IT and the company’s enterprise product strategy. Ferro began working with then CEO Joe Eazor on a turnaround strategy in which he helped build enterprise products.
But later that year EarthLink merged with Windstream, and Ferro was offered a role at the combined company that no longer included purview over product. He declined the role and is now CIO of TransPerfect. “The direction of the organization just wasn’t what I was interested in,” Ferro tells CIO.com.
On average, CIOs exit companies every 4 years. As with Ferro, a CIO’s departure is often spurred by broad changes in corporate strategy or role. CIOs also exit because they can’t shake free the budget they require or they find their strategy de-emphasized. And sometimes CIOs leave because they don’t mesh with the corporate culture, or fail to get their jobs done.
As businesses move more swiftly in the digital era, the CIO carousel is likely to spin faster for those who fail to execute digital transformations. There is no empirical evidence that this is the case — yet. Most enterprises are still formulating their digital strategies, so it may be too early for CIOs to fail. But with the stakes so high, it’s bound to happen.
“I have seen a fair amount of churn, but not necessarily more,” says Chris Patrick, global CIO practice leader at Egon Zehnder. “The job is getting tougher, it’s getting more complex, and it requires not only tech skills but business acumen and leadership capabilities.”
Translation: It’s never been a better or more challenging time to be a CIO. Here are seven reasons CIOs exit leadership roles — or get shown the door.
The challenges of a 2-in-1 role
Some companies are separating digital from enterprise IT by hiring chief digital officers. Others are entrusting both digital and enterprise IT management to their CIO. Such two-in-one roles are high risk, high reward, with failure guaranteeing an early exit and success paving the way for better opportunities.
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Patrick says CIOs are increasingly asked to maintain internal IT and drive digital product and service innovation, putting many of them in a difficult position. “Many come from a traditional enterprise IT background, and now they’re being asked to deliver on products and programs that are not necessarily their experience base or where they’ve operated for the bulk of their career,” Patrick says.
Misaligned expectations on the pace of change
Some CIOs find their weaknesses exposed against accelerated timelines, in which CEOs attuned to the rise of agile software development expect results in 6 to 8 weeks rather than 6 to 12 months. Saddled with unrealistic expectations, these CIOs may fail and get shown the door. “Whether justified or not, often the person who owns the technology roadmap and strategy bears the brunt of it,” Patrick says.
Bureaucratic resistance to change
The inability to overcome resistance to change is another chief reason CIOs leave, says Matt Aiello, a partner at Heidrick & Struggles. Aiello says that one client who was hired to orchestrate a digital transformation exited a CIO role because it was so bureaucratic that he could not usher in rapid change. “They’re saying they want to drive like a Tesla Model S but really they’re acting more like a skateboard,” Aiello says. “They have lead feet in an agile age.”
CIOs also part ways with companies over misalignment on what a digital transformation means. Some view transformation as a play to connect with customers and generate revenue, while others view it as a way to cut costs and improve operational efficiencies. A CIO who prefers the former but is told to orchestrate the latter will look for new opportunities, Aiello says.
“You need to develop good listening skills in the course of an interview, and certainly, the first 60 days so you know what you’re getting into,” Aiello says. Executives’ inability to align on a roadmap is a top reason why digital transformation strategies fail.
Bait and switch — or becoming the victim of one’s own success
Sometimes CIOs are promised the opportunity to drive digital change, only to see it yanked away — a bait-and-switch tactic.
One Korn Ferry client hired as a CIO for a hospitality company overhauled creaky, failing IT systems for what he was led to believe would support a digital transformation, says Gerry McNamara, global managing director of the recruiter’s information officers practice. McNamara says that the CIO, who reported to the COO, got the systems stable and reliable, and he hired well. But once the operational foundation was laid the CEO hired a CDO to drive the digital agenda, reporting directly to the CEO. The CIO quit; he didn’t want to watch the company build digital products using his budget, people and infrastructure.
For some CIOs, the end may not come soon enough, says Patrick. “Clients say they want someone to be there for 10 years,” Patrick says. “Frankly, I don’t know that you’d want someone there for 10 years.” The problem, he says, is that the IT organization can stagnate with the same leadership, particularly if that leader has not groomed successors. An enduring CIO also won’t build high-performing team, as those who view their career development as stalled or blocked will move on.
Job hopping — or a lack of follow through
Conversely, CIOs who only last 12 to 24 months don’t do themselves any favors because it makes them seem like job hoppers who can’t commit or get along with colleagues. Tenures of 4 to 5 years, he says, gives CIOs enough time to usher in change, stabilize and augment the function and move on before the organization grows stale. “The sweet spot is the 4- to 5-year time horizon and that’s where you need to set your sights,” Patrick says.
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