by Thomas Wailgum

The Truth About CIO Tenure

Dec 09, 2009
CareersEnterprise ApplicationsIT Leadership

CIOs may not last as long as CEOs in their organizations, but today their tenures are longer than ever, not too mention longer than a few other executives.

Conventional wisdom has long held that CIOs should never say “Wait until next year,” because that year often doesn’t come for them. Everyone knows that CIO stands for Chief Information Officer, but in the early 1990s, it stood for something disparaging—”Career Is Over”—due to their purported brief tenures (two to three years, we were told).

But in a 2008 blog post on this topic, former CIO Editor-in-Chief Abbie Lundberg pointed to 1996 research that revealed that CIOs’ average tenure was actually quite respectable back then (nearly five years). It also indicated that they were not the executives getting fired most often. In fact, HR execs earned the most pink slips, while many CIOs left on their own terms to take other jobs.

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CIOs’ reputations took a hit after the dotcom implosion and market downturn in the early 2000s. Their slip in stature forced them to become more strategic, more valued and more savvy businesspeople as the decade played out, and subsequently, they regained respect and a seat at the table. CIOs watched their tenure stabilize during the latter part of the 2000s: For instance, CIO’s average tenure grew from four and a half years in 2004 to five years by 2007, according to CIO‘s “State of the CIO” research.

Today, it’s rare to see that negative sentiment bubble up again, but when it does, it smacks of ignorance.

Consider a recent comment from Jonathan Yarmis about CIO tenure: “Is it any wonder why the average tenure of a CIO is so brief?” Yarmis, a technology research fellow at Ovum, invoked CIOs’ short-lived tenures in the context of a blog on the future of IT research firms. Although it appears he wasn’t explicitly trying to make CIOs look inadequate when he made his statement, his comment didn’t exactly help the CIO cause, either. It merely perpetuates the stereotype that CIOs are ineffectual executives who don’t last more than a few years in their organizations.

What’s more, Yarmis’s comment shows that he’s simply not up to speed on tenure rates for CIOs. According to the “State of the CIO” 2009 data, the average tenure for CIOs in their current position is 5.3 years—11 months longer than it was the previous year.

CIOs vs. the C-Suite

Now, let’s compare that number, 5.3 years, to employment data for other top executives, and see how CIOs stack up. (Note: Data is from 2008.)

CEOs—CIOs pale in comparison to the head honchos. According to a Booz & Company study of CEO turnover at the 2,500 largest publicly traded companies, CEO tenure in North America recently rose to 7.9 years.

CFOs—When compared with their bean-counter brethren, CIOs are faring better. Two data sources ( and executive search firm Russell Reynolds Associates) peg CFO’s average tenure at 4.5 years.

CMOs—Those in charge of marketing departments seem to be on the hot seat today: Data from executive recruiter Spencer Stuart found that the average tenure for CMOs was a shocking 2.3 years.

Chiefs of HR—A survey of HR execs, reported in Human Resource Executive Online, put average tenure for the top HR exec at slightly less than 6.5 years.

COOs—Data on average COO tenure for 2008 was not available. However, research from executive search firm Crist Associates (pdf) showed that, in 2009, the decline of the COO role had reached a low point: Just 42 percent of Fortune 500 and S&P 500 companies had a COO, the lowest percentage in 15 years.

Using this sampling of data, we see that CIOs in 2009 are faring remarkably well in terms of career management and longevity.

Career Moves in 2010

One might be wondering what effect, if any, the global economic recession has had on executive tenure. According to Russell Reynolds’ analysis, the recession has had a curious, two-fold effect on executive turnover: “CEO and, consequently, CFO turnover has slowed in 2009 driven partly by the lack of M&A activity but also because Boards have chosen to stay with a tried and tested CEO through the downturn.”

Those same trends could have also affected CIOs in 2009, especially those who have cozied up to their CFOs and CEOs.

As for 2010, CIOs have a lot on their proverbial plates: Figuring out the future of business applications, preventing costly IT disasters, doing more with less, and on and on it goes.

If the economy does rebound next year, there could be a higher rate of turnover among CIOs—but just like in 1996, many of these IT leaders will be vacating their posts not because they were fired, but because they will be pursuing new career challenges and job opportunities elsewhere.

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