CIO Role Survey April 2006: Achievement is the Issue, Not Survival

By Allan Alter  |  Posted 04-06-2006

CIO Role Survey April 2006: Achievement is the Issue, Not Survival

This month's research on the role of the CIO starts off with good news: CIOs are keeping their jobs longer than ever. The average CIO has now been on the job for 5.7 years, fully a year longer than when CIO Insight started tracking CIO tenure, in 2002.

Yet, although there is plenty of evidence (from our magazine and from sources such as Gartner Inc.) that CIOs have evolved into a hardy breed of executives, the belief that the average CIO lasts just 18 months won't go away. Recently, CIOview Corp., a software company in Maynard, Mass., sent us an invitation to download a white paper titled Extending the Lifecycle of a CIO. "The average CIO lifecycle is only 18 months," the e-mail said.

Where did the urban legend of the 18-month CIO come from? The notion that CIOs have an 18-month lifespan appears to have its source in the early 1990s, when the CIO position was still new, and the first generation of CIOs struggled as their previous role of technology manager expanded into something far more visible and strategic.

Critiques of CIO effectiveness, such as the Feb. 26, 1990, BusinessWeek article, "CIO Is Starting to Stand for 'Career is Over,' " popped up regularly in the IT, business and scholarly press. These articles claimed that CIOs had an unusually short tenure, and the writers often relied on executive recruiters to provide job turnover data—although the methodologies used by these recruiters weren't necessarily rigorous.

Over the years, journalists have occasionally tried to dispel the myth of high CIO turnover rates with hard data. Yet the 18-month figure seemed to take on a life of its own, repeated by vendors and consultants who found the number a handy marketing hook: Buy our product or service, or else you too are doomed to last just a year and a half.

And while some CIOs were skeptical about the low number, many seemed quite willing to believe it. At the height of the dot-com boom and the Year 2000 crunch, Meta Group actually came up with hard data to back up the 18-month figure.

But the reason for that period of short tenures-the lucrative new opportunities for CIOs as a result of those trends-remained overlooked, and the popular image of the endangered CIO was only reinforced.

The notion that most CIOs can't hang on to their jobs for two years obscures just how well CIOs are faring. CIOs may be lasting longer on the job than other CXOs: Studies by SpencerStuart, an executive recruiting firm based in New York City, place the average tenure of all Fortune 1000 CFOs at just 4.3 years and declining, and that of chief marketing officers at all 100 of the "100 top-branded companies" at a mere 23 months. S&P 500 CEOs last 7 years.

(These are rigorous studies: SpencerStuart used public data to track executive changes at all companies in these categories.)

CIOs from technical backgrounds, who were lambasted in the early 1990s, now survive a relatively long time on the job: 5.6 years, according to our own survey.

The bottom line, notes Mark McDonald, a group vice president of Gartner Inc.'s executive programs: "You only stick around by delivering results. CIOs have demonstrated they are good business managers.


CIOs are earning more and keeping their positions longer.

It's a tough job, but CIOs must be doing something right: Their tenure is increasing and their average salary is up 10 percent over 2005 due to increases at small and midsize companies. With CIOs staying put and IT's growing importance, SMBs are willing to pay more. Like last year, CIOs who are IT-business hybrids have been on the job longer and are paid more than CIOs from IT backgrounds.


Getting more value out of information is a top priority.

Last year's survey found that architecture and infrastructure were top priorities for CIOs, a trend that continues even though architecture moved from fifth to 11th place in our list of top CIO responsibilities.

What's driving that, apparently, is not just the need to improve business processes, but the desire to make better use of information-the third-highest business priority in this year's survey.

That's also made data quality an important technical issue. Reducing costs continues to be a lower priority than it was two years ago, consistent with the optimism CIOs expressed about the economy in last month's spending survey.

Alignment remains No. 1, but it's falling: a sign that IT has gotten better at staying in sync with business needs?

CIOs like their work, but that's not stopping them from looking for a new job.

Interesting work, higher pay, job stability: No wonder, just as in last year's survey, about seven out of eight CIOs enjoy their high-visibility, high-stress jobs. Yet even more CIOs say they are looking for a new job than a year ago, due most likely to the opportunity to boost salaries.

But while they look, they should be aware that their lieutenants are also out shopping for a new job.