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How to survive 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.

By Minda Zetlin
March 7, 2011 06:00 AM ET

Computerworld - 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.

Case Study

Baylor Health Care System: 'Disrespect me a little.'

When David Muntz took over as CIO of Baylor Health System four years ago, existing IT staffers greeted him with a certain amount of suspicion. You can't really blame them -- their department had been through a fair amount of upheaval. A long-term CIO had left abruptly about a year earlier, and before Muntz arrived, the department was run by an interim CIO provided by a consulting firm.

At the same time, Muntz says, "There were a lot of reductions in workforce. The IT department was reduced by about 80 full-time equivalents out of 450."

Others left voluntarily. "The few remaining people took a wait-and-see attitude," recalls Ken Maddock, vice president of clinical engineering and telecommunication services. "I'm not sure we were as welcoming as we should have been."

Maddock's strategy was simple: He believes in speaking truth to power. "I don't have a lot of fear about sharing information, but there were other people who did. They were even longer-term than I was, had seen a lot of change, and were very paranoid."

But Muntz soon made it clear he wanted all IT employees to speak their minds. "I tell every new employee that they need to have a little disrespect for me, and for the title," he says. "It seems counterintuitive, but if you will not tell me what I need to hear -- not what I want to hear -- neither one of us will be successful."

Minda Zetlin

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