by Meridith Levinson

How to Identify Bad CIOs in Their Natural Habitat

Feb 22, 200813 mins
IT Leadership

Bad CIOs are a blight on the IT profession and on the organizations that employ them. The following list of behaviors common among bad CIOs will prevent you from hiring them into your organizations. If they're already there, it will give you good reason to eliminate them.

And now, for a special, executive edition of Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom: “CIOs in the Mist.”

Today we’re studying the technologious variety of the species nocens executor, more commonly referred to as the bad CIO. The nocens executor remains a mystery to many observers. He lacks distinguishing physical characteristics, and, chameleonlike, he quickly adapts to new surroundings. This makes him difficult for certain headhunters, hiring managers, CEOs, CFOs and boards of directors to identify.

The elusive nocens executor—or bad CIO—stealthily migrates from habitat to habitat. He lays waste to business and information ecosystems. He destroys tribe morale, pillages budgets and imperils shareholder value. His destructive actions can go undetected for many months, often long after he’s left his last conquest.

Nevertheless, the experienced observer can spot a bad CIO as easily as he can smell the pungent aroma of hippopotamus dung. Often, the staff that works for the nocens executor is even more adept at detecting his waste. Observers of bad CIOs at all levels of business ecosystems have identified a long list of behaviors common among bad CIOs that recruiters, hiring managers, executives and IT staff can use both during and after the trapping (i.e. recruitment) process to determine what species of CIO they’re dealing with. If they manage to discover the bad CIO before making the fateful hiring decision, the delicate ecosystem can be saved. But if they don’t, the staff under him can use this information to determine whether they want to blow the whistle on the charlatan or simply find a new job working for a bene executor, or “good CIO.”

How to Recognize Bad CIOs.

There are a number of behaviors observers can zero in on before hiring a bad CIO.

They migrate quickly from habitat to habitat.

A sign that a CIO is of the nocens executor species is a pattern of rapid job transitions on his résumé, according to Shawn Banerji, a recruiter with Russell Reynolds Associates in NYC and an experienced observer of the species.

“When you see people leaving in 18 months, 24 months, south of three years, you have to scratch your head and wonder if they were in their jobs long enough to be successful given how long it takes to execute and see results in IT,” says Banerji. Quick turnover in jobs could indicate a lack of performance, that the individual is not able to deliver, he says.

Banerji recommends that individuals hiring the CIO should ask why the CIO has not lasted long in his positions, look for a solid answer and then vet what the CIO has said with his references. If the CIO cites statistics that say that the average tenure for CIOs is two to three years to back up his turnover, don’t buy his justification, says Banerji. Research from the 2008 “State of the CIO” survey shows that the average tenure for IT executives is four years and four months.

Selective amnesia

If the CIO appears disoriented and can’t remember to whom he reported in previous positions, that may mean the candidate doesn’t want you to ever get in touch with his boss, says Banerji. The CIO may not have actually accomplished what he says he accomplished, or he might have locked horns with his previous boss, adds the recruiter. Regardless, the CIO doesn’t want you to know about it. Again, dig for references who can validate or refute what the CIO says during the interview.

Excessive preening

Overexposure in the media and at industry events may be another sign of a bad CIO, say some observers, but admittedly, it’s not the clearest indicator. Plenty of well-respected CIOs are well-represented in trade publications and at conferences and trade shows. If you do find a candidate for a CIO position whose face is always in magazines, you should wonder when he has time to do his day job and whether he’s more a creation of a marketing communications machine rather than their own hard work and success. Solid reference checking will uncover the truth.

A pugilistic stance

A bad CIO has a tendency to lock horns with whoever is interviewing him because he perceives the interviewer as the adversary. The bad CIO may also take extreme measures to convince the hiring manager that he’s the right candidate. Rick Ness, president of Embanet , a company that develops online education and enrollment programs, has experienced both behaviors.

A candidate for a CIO job with his company went directly to Ness after the search firm Ness had retained to fill the CIO spot eliminated this candidate as a finalist for the position. “He thought he had been eliminated for political reasons, and he tried to use political influence to get me to consider him,” says Ness of the disgruntled candidate. “He tried to undermine the credibility of the search firm without knowing that I’d worked with this firm for years.”

Worse, says Ness, the candidate began insinuating that he could put Embanet in touch with people who would help the business and that not hiring him would be detrimental to the company. “That was a rather naive, unsophisticated mistake he made, and it was the wrong tack to take,” says Ness.

They’re only concerned with the size of their domain.

Another red flag is if, during the interview, the CIO carries on about the size of the budgets and IT departments he’s managed at the expense of discussing results, says Banerji. It may mean that the CIO didn’t actually do anything.

If a candidate does talk up the $40 million budget and 300-person IT department he led, Banerji says you need to find out how much of that responsibility was direct, indirect or contract. You don’t want to hire someone who says he was responsible for a 300-person IT shop but find out two-thirds of that includes outsourced staff managed by the outsourcing firm, he adds. If your company’s IT department consists of 300 full-time employees, the candidate on hand may not be able to manage the shop.

Sketchy evolution.

Good CIOs can easily share the details of their accomplishments. Bad CIOs can’t. If a CIO can’t provide specific examples of the work he’s done, either he hasn’t really done the work, or the role that the candidate is describing is not as substantive as he’s trying to portray, says Banerji.

Dropping names.

You know a CIO is just a name-dropper when he mentions a half dozen or more people in an hour, and when, after you tell him you’re going to contact those people for references, he says something like, “I don’t know where Bill is these days, and I’m not sure Sally would remember me,” says Banerji. What good are the names if you can’t contact them?

Bad references.

Sam Gordon, director of Harvey Nash Executive Search’s CIO practice, says he wonders about a CIO’s performance when supplied references make excuses for the CIO’s behavior. That can indicate that a CIO isn’t all he says he’s cracked up to be.

“If the reference doesn’t enthusiastically endorse the candidate when you ask if they’d feel comfortable hiring the person again, chances are, they’re very unlikely to want to hire them,” he says.

Gordon recommends talking to at least four references. If only one equivocates, that’s not too much cause for concern.

Behaviors observers should note when the CIO has settled in his new habitat.

They eat their young.

Lots of CIOs hire IT professionals who’ve worked for them in the past when they start a new job. Most CIOs, hiring managers and headhunters don’t view this as a sign of a bad CIO, especially if the team the CIO brings in has been successful in the past. It becomes a problem when 1) the CIO makes room for his old teammates by firing existing staff for no good reason, 2) it’s a manifestation of nepotism and cronyism and 3) they’re just bringing in their yes-men and yes-women.

John Miano, an IT consultant, says another problem with a new CIO hiring old coworkers is that it creates two “castes” inside the IT organization—those who are the CIO’s chosen ones and those who are not—and thus a lot of friction. “It also creates a core group of people whose loyalty is to the CIO and not to the organization,” he noted via e-mail.

Young and old flee the CIO’s flock.

Unusually high levels of staff turnover in the IT department after the new CIO has joined can indicate that the staff hasn’t bought into him, says Harvey Nash’s Gordon, and by extension that the new CIO is no good.

“When a bad CIO comes in, the good people start leaving,” says Miano, adding that those people begin spreading the word about the bad CIO. “There are companies who cannot hire top quality IT people because of their [CIO’s] reputation. Few companies seem to appreciate how their CIO affects their hiring ability.”

They use the same hunting and gathering strategies regardless of their environment.

Bad CIOs are like Sasquatch: When they enter an organization, they’re compelled to stamp their big feet on everything. That means applying the same tactics and technologies from their IT management playbook that they’ve used at every previous company, regardless of whether those strategies and technologies are right for the new organization.

“When you hear something along the lines of, ‘Our strategy is Oracle’ or ‘Our strategy is SOA,’ you have a problem CIO,” writes Miano.


It’s easy for a bad CIO to hoodwink his boss and conceal his messes if he’s particularly politically savvy. “Because IT remains an enigma to a lot of executives and because of the complexity of multibillion dollar businesses, the CFO, CEO or whomever the CIO reports to doesn’t know if what the CIO is doing should take three weeks or three months and cost $10,000 or $10 million,” says Banerji. Consequently, he adds, the boss may not realize there’s a problem until long after the nocens executor is gone. “A CIO who manages up well could perpetuate a situation of mystery around his performance for a long time,” says Banerji.

Excessive hibernation.

A CIO who spends more time in his office than he does engaging with IT staff, business executives and external customers is a shining example of a bad CIO.


Employing scare tactics and jargon to justify IT spending is a sure sign of a bad CIO.

John Bojonny, an applications manager based in Phoenix, Ariz., has witnessed more than one CIO invoke the security boogeyman to get money for projects—often more money than necessary. He’s heard CIOs tell boards complete fallacies, full of jargon, such as, “Anyone can break in and steal our records. To provide the best security on our technology systems and to prevent denial-of-service attacks on our servers, it’s going to cost a lot of money to do assessments and put in firewalls.” Bojonny says the CIOs use the jargon to confuse and intimidate decision makers and to tire them into giving the CIO money. Of course, the decision makers are just as culpable as the CIO for not questioning the requests.

Miano suspects that the higher-ups are too intimidated to ask the fearsome technologious variety of the nocens executor what he means. “They just assume that since the person speaks in a way they cannot understand, he must know what he is talking about,” he says. “The use of technobabble is the common defining feature I have seen in bad CIOs.”

They play favorites with vendors.

Bojonny has also seen CIOs allocate generous contracts to prized vendors. On one occasion, a CIO gave a contract for a disaster recovery plan to a consultant. “The company paid a lot of money for it, and a year later, the plan was never delivered,” he says. “The consultant did studies and analysis but never did anything else, and no one ever questioned it.”

Other signs readers at’s Advice and Opinion section have noted: Be skeptical if a CIO has previously worked for the vendor they recommend. And watch out if an IT executive asks his managers to perform detailed evaluations of expensive hardware and software repeatedly until the managers choose the vendors that the CIO wants.

They act like a wolf in sheep’s clothing.

A member of the Software Quality Assurance Forums who goes by the name DSquared writes that bad CIOs don’t take seriously the recommendations or concerns of their IT departments. They pretend to listen to their IT staffs only to do what they want.

When DSquared’s company wanted to purchase new accounting software, the IT department was asked to weigh in on the business’s decision to purchase a particular package for which it had already been pitched. The IT staff came up with several questions they thought the business should ask the vendor before buying the software, such as, Is it industry standard or proprietary? How do we migrate data from the old application to the new one? and What is the total cost of the new software, including installation, support and training? The CIO agreed that the business should get answers to these questions and report back to the IT group. The next thing DSquared knew, the CIO recommended that the company purchase the software even though there was never a follow-up meeting.

More signs of bad CIOs

  • They overpromise and underdeliver.
  • They can’t sum up their IT strategy into an elevator speech, nor can they articulate the company’s vision.
  • They don’t take ownership of critical issues, nor do they demonstrate accountability for problems, but they’re quick to take credit for successes.
  • They can’t motivate their staff and don’t pay attention to building teams inside the IT group. They can’t attract and retain IT staff.
  • Instead of working on projects that make meaningful contributions to the company’s bottom line, they focus either on projects that will look good on their résumés or on sucking up to executives by giving them Blackberrys and new laptops with wireless Internet connections.
  • They overemphasize project management to the point where 90 percent of the timeline for projects is given over to planning and only 10 percent to implementation.
  • They view project management as a waste of time.
  • They can’t prioritize projects.
  • They give staff responsibility for projects but no authority, direction or support. When the individual and the project fail, they publicly berate the individual.
  • They espouse a different management practice every month.

Source: CIO Reporting.

–M. Levinson

They show their teeth and their claws. Unpredictable mood swings easily distinguish the nocens executor from good CIOs. “If you find yourself making sure no one else will be around before breaking any bad news to the exec because they’ll have an embarrassing meltdown and verbally abuse any staffer within earshot (including the bearer of bad news), this is a sure sign of a bad CIO/CEO,” writes a reader. They don’t finish what they start.

“If you find yourself working on projects that seem to take the Death March more often than not, chances are you’ve got someone steering the ship who doesn’t have the foggiest idea where they’re going,” writes Brent Paine on the Software Quality Assurance Forums. “If you find that people are giving outlandish time estimates [for projects] and taking advantage of the complete ignorance of their chief, then chances are the guy is a dolt.”

There’s no excuse for tolerating the technologious variety of the nocens executor. With this ample list of distinguishing behaviors, no one should be duped by the crafty nocens executor.