Why Are So Many CIOs Looking for New Jobs?

A top technology executive at a construction company says, “I’m staying put, but my eyes are open.” Nothing is making him leave, he says on condition of anonymity, but “I’ve exhausted most of my opportunities here.”

A disgruntled healthcare CIO recently went through a corporate reorganization that put others in charge of projects he wanted to lead, and now he feels it’s time to go. It’s not the economy, he says off-the-record; he’d look anyway because “I’m too old to go into mental retirement.”

Dave Kamath recently switched jobs after serving as the CIO at a fertilizer manufacturer that had undergone five years of cutting costs and divesting business units. Kamath says he saw that his role would be reduced if the company was sold or merged, so he took a CIO position at IDEX Corp., a manufacturer in Northbrook, Ill. His old company later announced a merger with Cargill Inc.’s crop nutrition unit.

Fully 37 percent of top IT executives who responded to this year’s survey on the role of the CIO indicated they will look for a new job if the economy improves. That has serious implications both for companies and IT professionals: Since only 30 percent of these executives said their companies have an adequate succession plan in place, it suggests that many U.S. firms may soon be scrambling to find a new IT executive. And that means IT projects now under way may be disrupted or terminated when new CIOs come on board.

Who’s looking and why? Our analysis uncovered certain clusters of CIOs who are most likely to be job-hunting. Forty-eight percent of CIOs at companies that aren’t hitting their strategic goals hope to bail out. Fifty-one percent of CIOs at manufacturing firms say they are looking—one symptom of the troubles in that sector. And (no surprise here) 65 percent of CIOs who feel their work is unappreciated want to make their mark elsewhere.

It’s not only CIOs who might lose their jobs who are looking; other motivations are at play. Forty-three percent of CIOs who came to their current job from a consulting position have their thumbs out. “Guys who live the life of a consultant tend to get more bored going to the same place every day,” says Mark Polansky, managing director of the IT practice for North America at executive recruiting firm Korn/Ferry International.

Another motivation is a consequence of the push by companies to reduce costs. When we looked at CIOs who had come to their current jobs from another IT position, we found that if cutting IT costs is one of their top priorities, there is a 48 percent chance that finding a new job is one too. Here, the impact of a sluggish economy collides with personal motivation: Budget cutting, layoffs and outsourcing have led to a powerful sense of dissatisfaction and frustration among CIOs who love to build systems and businesses.

Tony Hughes, senior vice president and CIO of CNL Financial Group Inc., in Orlando, Fla., isn’t planning to leave; after all, his company’s assets under management have been growing 30 percent a year for the past five years. But he knows CIOs who are frustrated with all the fiscal constraints. “For a lot of people, the CIO position has been so hard in the last two or three years that it’s lost a lot of its glamour,” Hughes says.

“It’s not about money,” says META Group Inc. Executive Vice President Howard Rubin. “People who are good and want to do more will want to leap, people who are frustrated with being an IT bean counter.” Polansky agrees with Rubin, except for the first four words: “What I hear is: ‘I’m sick and tired of no raise. I’m sick and tired of no bonus.'”

Will these restless CIOs find what they are looking for? Most of the ten CIOs we spoke with confirmed that recruiters have started to call again in the past three to six months. In fact, one former business unit CIO we spoke to, David Koenig, decided to leave Citigroup and look for a job closer to his Boston home, rather than relocate his family to New York to take another position with Citigroup, once his assignment with the Travelers Life & Annuity unit in Hartford, Conn., ended. That’s a risk he’s not sure he would have taken a year ago. “People are willing to talk. It’s definitely different.”

It may be different, but don’t expect a hiring frenzy. “Companies are seeking the best of the best, the top 5 percent as opposed to the top 30 percent,” says Jory Marino, managing partner of the global CIO practice of recruiter Heidrick & Struggles International Inc.

So CIOs may wish to consider the advice of Stephen Pickett, the Society for Information Management’s vice president for enterprise programs and vice president and CIO of transportation services firm Penske Corp., in Bloomfield Hills, Mich.: Stay put and improve your skills. “The good news is there will be jobs; the bad news is it won’t get better. CIOs will continue to run into cost constraints in any job. Unless CIOs learn how to be productive when budgets are cut, they will find the same problem all over again.”

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