How CIOs can last longer than 4.3 years

Staying at a company longer than four years is something of a professional victory for CIOs. Here CIOs discuss the different paths to longevity — and success.

How CIOs can last longer than 4.3 years
Thinkstock

The opportunities and challenges associated with digital transformations dictate that there has never been a better time to be a CIO. Acutely aware of technology's importance in driving business differentiation, more CEOs are empowering CIOs with the resources to conduct sweeping business changes designed to boost customer engagement and grow revenues.

Yet the CIO role remains a perpetual revolving door, with IT leaders lasting at a company just 4.3 years on average, according to Korn Ferry. Conversely, the firm found that CFOs last an average of 5.1 years, while CEOs last 8 years.

CEOs may lure CIOs with the promise of digital transformation, but IT leaders often spend the first one to two years of their tenure making other operational changes and ignore the strategic aspects of the job — often at their own peril, says Khalid Kark, managing director of Deloitte's CIO advisory practice. CIOs who fail to juggle stabilizing IT with managing vital business relationships and meeting with customers fail to gain credibility with the business. Sometimes, it's a company's resistance to change that sends CIOs scrambling for an exit.

CIOs who last five years or longer are good at playing "the long game,” Kark says. They spend a year or two stabilizing IT and forging business relationships before embarking on efforts to move the business strategy forward. Credibility acquired fixing IT and influencing the business paves the path for CIOs' real raison d'être: the digital transformation.

CIOs offered their insights into how IT leaders can expand their role beyond fixers to trusted business partners, affording themselves staying power.

Mike Macrie, CIO of Land O’Lakes

Macrie, in his fifth year as CIO of Land O’Lakes, agreed with Kark that managing relationships through the significant tax technology changes place on the business is the key to CIO longevity. Those who don’t effectively manage change wear out their welcome. “We push so much change on the organization that naturally all relationships become taxed because of that,” Macrie says.

To that end, Macrie has lately spent more time on reducing costs to offset some of the headwinds Land O’Lakes faces in commodity markets. He’s exploring robotic process automation to automate manual tasks, such as processing financial transactions.

“Listening to the needs of my peers and bosses and continually nursing those relationships is critically important,” Macrie says. “The biggest investment you can make is the time in those executive relationships and that you're continually aligned with the corporate mission.”

Samuel Chesterman, CIO of IPG Mediabrands

Chesterman, who is in his eighth year as CIO of advertising firm IPG Mediabrands, attributes his longevity to gaining credibility with the business early on and adapting to changes. Chesterman says it’s crucial for CIOs to quickly come up with a detailed short-term and long-term assessment of their IT needs and pursue “quick wins” that will endear them to the business.

For instance, Chesterman quickly decided to move the business to the cloud and adopt agile software development because it would help the company become more nimble and adaptive, while saving millions of dollars associated with buying, racking and maintaining physical infrastructure and staging applications for development. This move put him in the good graces of the business, which suddenly found IT more responsive to change.

But Chesterman says that CIOs should steel themselves for change. Chesterman, who has had four bosses during his tenure, welcomes the opportunity to learn something from a new leader. “An individual’s ability to adapt to changes in a company correlate to how long they’re going to stay there,” Chesterman says.

Cynthia Stoddard, CIO of Adobe

Stoddard believes in getting acquainted with every layer of the business, from her C-suite peers down to the individual contributor level. Shortly after joining the software maker in 2016, Stoddard embarked on a 90-day “listening tour,” which took her from Adobe’s headquarters in San Jose, Calif., to Lehigh, Utah, across the Atlantic to London and on to India. She met with leaders of IT, engineering, sales, sales operations and other business lines.

Her goals? To listen to employees, learn about what they need, and be transparent about her IT department. “Even in an organization where IT isn't broken, people don't understand what it is, what it does, and where the money goes,” Stoddard says. “I like to open that up.” Only then did she begin to craft her IT organization, which included imbuing teams to have “cloud-like characteristics” that prioritize services employees can procure without IT’s intervention.

For example, Stoddard directed her team to build machine learning algorithms to diagnose and fix data processing jobs. Adobe also entrusted business users to work directly with SaaS (software as a service) vendors to procure new services.

Frederic Veron, CIO of safety and soundness, Deutsche Bank

Veron is 10 months into his tenure at Deustche Bank, where his chief remit is IT production. Veron says that CIOs gain credibility by ensuring the workplace services, including email and computers, run as expected. This helps them become trusted partners with the business.

“If you’re still struggling with system stability after two years, you’re not going to go much further,” Veron says. “Fixing that will allow a CIO to then partner with the business and be more innovative. If you don't have [system stability], you cannot get to [innovation]."

For Veron, the innovation stage includes influencing the organization to embrace agile, design thinking and customer experience when they think about software. In his prior role as CIO of Fannie Mae, Veron helped bring agile to the business. It was a struggle at first, as the business didn’t understand agile. But when the business adopted lean methodologies, it opened the door for the business and IT to work together.

“They became leaner and they got [agile] and we aligned naturally,” Veron says. “We were talking the same language and going after the same thing.”

Don Anderson, CIO of Federal Reserve Bank of Boston

Anderson, who became CIO in 2015 after spending 12 years focusing on the bank’s cybersecurity, says the key for CIOs is to always keep IT fresh and make sure that “you're a step ahead, and that you're aligned with the business and understand what their opportunities are and that you're able to help them drive.”

Talking tech around business peers is a no-no, Anderson says, adding that he doesn’t say things like cloud, or Amazon Web Services outside IT. “We keep people focused on the vision and try to keep it in business context,” Anderson says.

To that end, Anderson is exploring how to use machine learning to help the Fed’s economists access “more data than was ever possible” with which to feed their modeling algorithms, and is looking into how the Fed, which manages $13 trillion in assets, may use blockchain technology for resiliency.

The bottom line: Stoddard says there is no CIO playbook for success because every business is different.

“Every organization is different, and they have different problems and issues depending on where they are in their product and growth cycles, so the approach should be different,” Stoddard says.

Copyright © 2018 IDG Communications, Inc.

Security vs. innovation: IT's trickiest balancing act