by Abbie Lundberg

Are More CIOs Getting Fired?

Aug 06, 20086 mins
IT Leadership

As long as there have been CIOs, there have been people claiming that IT executives get fired a lot more than any of their C level colleagues. In the early ’90s, some sharp-witted observer quipped that CIO was coming to stand for “Career Is Over.” Conventional wisdom held that the average tenure of a CIO was 2.5 years (it seems that Paul Strassmann may have been the originator of this data point); in fact, as little as a few years ago people were still citing that number, which hadn’t been true since at least the mid-90s – if it ever was true at all. It began to feel like some overworked Rodney Dangerfield skit.

Tired of the stereotyping, we did a survey with HR Executive magazine in 1996 that looked at CIO turnover and compared it to that of executives in finance, HR, sales/marketing and manufacturing/operations. It showed that while IT execs did have a slightly lower tenure (4.9 years for the current position holder, whose tenure was not yet up, and 6.8 years for his or her predecessor), they weren’t getting fired the most; they were leaving voluntarily to take other jobs (HR execs had the dubious distinction of being most often fired).

Today it appears that CIO turnover is increasing again. Meridith Levinson’s Movers & Shakers mailbox is filling up with notices of executive moves. And I had an interesting conversation with Bruce Rogow the other day. Bruce, who’s enjoyed a 40-year career in IT research and consulting, conducts what he calls the CIO Odyssey, traveling around the country to visit with hundreds of CIOs every year. He uses the insight he gains from these visits in research and writing he does for Gartner and Don Tapscott’s New Paradigm (now nGenera), among others; he also facilitates high-level knowledge exchange programs for Rick Swanborg at ICEX.

Bruce said that a few months ago, it was as if the bottom fell out on the people in his network, with some 60 percent of them suddenly no longer at their companies (compared with a more typical 5 – 10 percent turnover in previous years). He figured this was partly demographics; Rogow likes to visit IT execs who have been in their jobs at least 5 years, and the law of averages says that after five years, a lot of CIOs are going to move on. Many were retiring, some were victims of restructuring or mergers. I checked this out with some recruiter friends, who said they were seeing some uptick, but not the kind of spike Rogow was talking about. He said that was because the majority were being replaced internally, so the head hunters wouldn’t necessarily be seeing a dramatic increase in searches.

The most interesting reason some of the CIOs gave for why they were leaving their positions was that the CEO and/or the business direction had changed, and there was a new sets of expectations for IT. Seventeen or 18 that he talked to said they had been doing a great job (one even faxed over his performance review to prove it), and they didn’t see it coming. They were told, simply, that the business needed a different kind of leadership.

So what’s going on? According to Rogow, a lot. He said for the first time in five years, the CIOs he’s been meeting with have more questions for him than answers. They know that the imperative is for growth, and they have CEOs who understand that IT is the best platform for growth. But they don’t know exactly what that means for how they run IT. They want to know: How is this different from what we did in the past? How can we increase IT velocity and dramatically decrease cost at the same time? How can we resegment IT when much of it is based on immediate user demand — and how do you get requirements out of people who don’t necessarily know what they need? How do you ensure security, agility, reliability? If the new approach is chunking, how much do you bite off?

How fast are people moving to the cloud, SaaS, a public IT infrastructure? Is this viable for large corporations — are people really doing it? What are the ramifications for making the transition (e.g., getting out of outsourcing agreements); for security; for intellectual property?

I asked Rogow if he thought CIOs were missing the boat. His response made me realize I was using the wrong metaphor. It’s not so much about missing something that might leave without you; it’s more like being on the shore knowing there’s a tsunami coming. CIOs are aware it’s coming, but according to Rogow, they’re responding to that awareness in different ways. He presented three scenarios.

1. Some CIOs are trying to do business as usual. All these issues are coming at them, and they’re swatting at them like flies. They’re tweaking. They think they can tweak their way into the future, but they’re wrong. These guys are vulnerable.

2. Others are taking a real objective look at what’s coming in the next three to five years — and they’re coming back saying “holy s***.” This is not “different circus, same clowns,” he said; it’s a different circus with different clowns — different skill sets and different user communities with radically different points of reference and expectations. This group of CIOs is working hard to figure it out.

3. The third response is reactive. New CIOs come in thinking that whatever the last person was doing wasn’t right. They know they were brought in to do things differently. Some are good, Rogow says, but some are doing the most ridiculous things — they come out of the business with no real grounding in IT, get rid of the enterprise architecture group and decide that users should be able to use whatever they want without understanding cause and effect or the consequences of their decisions. This group is the one most likely to really screw things up.

Do you agree with Rogow’s assessment? Do you see yourself in one of his three scenarios? What are you doing about it?