3 secrets to CIO longevity

sequoia by derek kendzor ccbysa3
Credit: Derek Kendzor

Most CIOs stay in their positions only about five years, but others manage to stick around longer. Here's a look at what it takes to remain effective when you hunker down in one place.

Does it ever seem like the position of CIO is just part of a big game of musical chairs? One day, somebody's in, his vision and experience heralded. The next day, he's out, "pursuing other projects." The game is especially insidious because the stakes are high in IT -- system deployments tend to be in place for a long time and, as one recruiter noted, it takes a while to change a ship's course.

Too often, CIOs work to put new strategies in place and then aren't around long enough to see the fruits of their labors. In a November 2013 survey of 484 CIOs and IT executives, the Society for Information Management reported that the average CIO tenure was 5.2 years in 2013, down from 5.96 in 2012, but up from 4.45 in 2011.

So what's life like -- for the individual and the company -- when a CIO stays around for a longer period of time? What does it take to be a long-term CIO? What are the drawbacks? We talked to CIOs whose tenures range from seven to 25 years, and to some of their co-workers, to understand what's behind that kind of stability. The answer seems to lie in three key characteristics.

1. Consistency

Longtime CIOs develop an understanding of the business and gain an innate sense of which technologies will help it move forward. That understanding often leads them to take a consistent approach to the job.

"If someone has been in a position for a long time, they know the business and its leaders inside and out," says Rona Borre, CEO of Chicago-based recruiting firm Instant Technology. "They know how to strategically execute within that environment, and that can be of huge value if they're trying to implement new strategies. It's also more likely that the company values their strategic vision and what they have to offer."

Paul Martine has been with Citrix since November of 1999. He started as senior director of consulting services at the Fort Lauderdale, Fla.-based technology vendor and eventually became CIO and vice president of operations in January 2007. As a result, he understands the company's needs and the language it speaks.

"Because I've been here that long, I've gotten to know what was most important to the business users," he says. "As years go by, that means there's some consistency and efficiencies in our conversations."

His boss, COO and CFO David Henshall, says that consistency brings a clear value to Citrix. "We've grown quickly, like a lot of technology companies. We've acquired 35 companies since Paul has been CIO," he says. "With each of those acquisitions, Paul has become really good at driving everything from integrating systems infrastructure and product integration [to helping us] turn around and sell those new solutions. With that kind of experience, you become more efficient."

Brian Shipman has been CIO at Heritage Auctions since September 2007. Prior to that, he spent eight years in charge of online operations at Dallas-based Heritage, which is the third-largest auction house in the world after Sotheby's and Christie's. Many of the people on Shipman's team have at least that much experience.

"When someone has been around for 10-plus years, their experience is invaluable. They know what they're talking about. They understand it," says Shipman's boss, COO Paul Minshull, pointing to an upcoming IT project in which Heritage is converting one of its old Visual Basic applications to a .Net application. "It'll take an experienced developer half the time to rewrite it as it would someone new. I'd cry if I thought I'd have to replace any of our team who's been here that long."

2. Curiosity

For CIOs to help their companies over a long period of time, they have to be deeply involved with business operations. That requires curiosity. "There's always something to learn," Shipman says. "You can't tell me someone knows everything about their job. If I can ask questions, and ask how I can help and learn, inevitably something rises to the top."

Minshull says that Shipman "has an unending natural curiosity for new ways of thinking, for growing our business." And that's important, he adds, because "whenever we're trying to improve our company, Brian finds new ways to look at things."

Shipman recalls that when he first started attending business meetings "people would say, 'This is a business meeting -- why's the IT guy here?' Now they say, 'This is a business meeting -- where's the IT guy?'"

Curiosity and longevity naturally intertwine, says Minshull. "What keeps someone engaged?" he asks. "It's the ability to always learn new things."

CIOs with a healthy sense of curiosity are often interested in what goes on beyond their own enterprises. That's important in a corporate culture that prizes longevity, where it's less likely that an influx of new blood will stir things up.

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