Rubber Ceiling: Top IT execs bounce from one company to another

As difficult as it’s proving for companies to fill their high-tech ranks, it turns out that high-level executives are just as difficult to retain.

Rather than seeking greener pastures (as in cash), however, it seems that executives are hoping that the grass is more fulfilling on the other side of the corporate firewall.

“Money simply doesn’t trump happiness in the workplace. Executives would prefer an environment where they believe their work is significant, and where they can strengthen their professional competencies, [and find] advancement opportunities and challenge,” said Dave Opton, CEO and founder of executive recruiting firm ExecuNet, based in Norwalk, Conn.

Opton said research conducted by his firm showed firm evidence of a “rubber ceiling,” in which executives bounce from one company to another.

According to the firm’s 15th annual Job Market Intelligence report, excitement wanes and dissatisfaction starts to creep in after only 14 months into an executive’s tenure. Thirty-five percent of those surveyed said they felt that disengagement occurred as early as 10 months into a new job.

“The days of long-term employment are a distant memory,” Opton said.

That’s great news for recruiters and job hunters, but more worrisome for employers.

“If executives are only staying at their jobs for roughly 35 months and they are becoming disillusioned after 14, that’s more than a year and a half on average where they start thinking about the grass being greener, and they become open to new opportunities,” Opton said.

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Companies looking to hold onto their prize hires should look to factors aside from pay.

Thirty-nine percent of executives cited “personal growth,” or the lack thereof, as the primary reason for their discontentment with their jobs, with 13.2 percent noting limited advancement opportunities, 12.9 percent citing a lack of challenges and 6.5 percent itching for more managerial responsibilities.

In 20 percent of the cases, the workplace atmosphere was blamed for job ennui, whether due to a cultural mismatch or a bad mix with a boss, and in 19 percent of the cases, the lifestyle was not what the executive had hoped for, especially in terms of stress and a lack of work-life balance.

In only 9 percent of the surveys did executives cite inadequate compensation as the reason for their discontent, however.

Lauryn Franzoni, vice president of Executive Career Management and Networking Services at ExecuNet, said executives have gone from expecting stability to shunning it in a single lifetime.

“If you were to plot out the executive experience, you’d see the progression from stability during the pre-IBM layoff days to instability through the ’90s, and now to mobility, where qualified senior leaders realize that they are masters of their own careers and can choose the opportunities that are the most meaningful to them,” she said.

The 2007 report was based on responses from 2,149 executives and more than 350 search firm and corporate HR recruiters.

Twenty-six percent of respondents held the title of CEO, chief operating officer, partner or chairman, 20 percent were other c-level or senior vice presidents, 28 percent were vice presidents and 26 percent were directors in their organizations. Nearly 60 percent had advanced educational degrees, their average age was 48.5 years and they reported an average annual income (including salary and bonus) of $221,000.

Executives stayed an average of three-and-four-tenths years with the same company in 2007, down from three-and-six-tenths years in 2005. They worked an average of four-and-four-tenths years in the same industry in 2007, down from five years in 2005. Only their average amount of time in a single job—two-and-nine-tenths years in 2007—grew even slightly from 2005, when it was two-and-eight-tenths years.

Average tenure at a company was just longer than three years, according to the report.

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