Surviving CIO Regime Change

The average CIO stays on the job around four years. So chances are you'll live through at least one changeover. Here's how to make sure it doesn't derail your career.

How long does the average CIO stay on the job? Not very long. According to a Gartner Inc. survey of 1,527 CIOs, their average tenure in 2009 was four years and four months, a figure that has changed relatively little over the past several years, according to Mark McDonald, group vice president of Gartner Executive Programs. "It's been between four years and three months and four years and nine months," he says.

An annual Society for Information Management survey of SIM members and of companies in Europe and Asia paints a similar picture, with the average tenure lengthening from 3.6 years in a 2006 SIM study to 5.1 years today. The median tenure is between four and five years, with 57% of respondents reporting that their companies' top IT executives had been in their jobs four years or less.

"There are many reasons CIOs leave their jobs," McDonald notes. "One fairly reasonable one is retirement. For many people, CIO is their apex job. That might account for about 25% of departing CIOs. Another third of them choose to get a job elsewhere, and probably a third lose their job, most often because of a change in leadership at the top of the organization, or else because of a failed project. The remainder move on to some other role within the organization, on the business side or in some other area."

One thing is clear: If you spend your career in corporate IT, you will likely live through more than one CIO regime change. In fact, in a 30-year tech career, you can expect to adjust to a new CIO at least six times. Yet despite the frequency of new CIO arrivals, many in IT handle these transitions badly. Whether they bad-mouth the previous CIO, create elaborate presentations about their own importance or demand more funding, lower-level techies and midlevel managers alike make a wide array of errors when a new CIO arrives.

Here are some of the most common -- and most costly -- missteps.

Misstep 1: Defending the Status Quo

"Don't ever say the words, 'That's not how we do it around here,'" McDonald warns.

It may be human nature to resist change, but it's foolish to expect that a new CIO won't shake things up. If top management was displeased with the previous CIO's performance, it's likely that the new CIO has a mandate to revamp or rethink IT in fundamental ways. But even if the old CIO left on good terms, a new CIO will want to make his or her mark.

And that's a good thing, says Ken LeBlanc, vice president, business unit CIO and SaaS operations at RSA, the security division of EMC. "Any time there's a change, whether it's a new leader or something else, there's a great opportunity to pause and reconfirm that your priorities are right to stay current with changing expectations," he says.

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