CIO Leadership

The One Dynamic CIOs Employ For Longer Tenure

We understand change leadership. We don’t talk as much about turnaround leadership. There is a difference, and it shows in whether you stay and leverage or leave and start again.

Joe Woodruff


May 9, 2024

Photo credit:
Jim Wilson

I reviewed a CIO’s resume and saw that his tenure at each of his three previous jobs was 2.5 years.

Recent surveys show that, on average, CIO tenure is on par with the rest of the C-Suite, between 4-5 years. The exception is the CEO, whose average is 7 years.

There is a reason CEOs average 7 years. Generally speaking, years 4-7 are the high leverage years of a leader. That means that CIOs are leaving in year four just as their influence is on the upswing.

When I see lengths of employment at average or below, I know what has happened. A leader came in, identified what needed fixing and some larger areas that needed developing, quickly became lost in the overwhelm of the work, failed to build a cohesive team, and perhaps accomplished a pet project.

But the satisfaction of the project couldn’t outweigh the burden of the journey. So the project accomplishment is added to the resume, and the leader is looking for their next position.

How do CIOs extend their tenure and influence while ensuring that the grind gets done without grinding them down?

The Art Of The Turnaround

Too many CIOs don’t understand turnaround dynamics. To be clear, this is different from change-leadership. You see me write a lot about change because it’s a sweet spot for CIO Mastermind. We love to help our members bring change to their organization.

Change dynamics can occur in healthy organizations; they happen even while the company is headed in the right direction. Change is not always indicative of problems. 

Turnaround is a different animal. It certainly involves the need to change, but change itself is not the answer alone.

When you picture a bell-curve, healthy organizations introduce change as they peak at the top of the curve and before direction begins to move downward. Dysfunctional organizations don’t “change” until things are headed downhill.

When you come into an organization headed downhill, especially in their IT department, you will not last if your strategy is change-leadership. They don’t just need changes, they need a change of direction.

One of the skills of a candidate is to discern in your interview process if the organization itself is headed downward, or if it’s just that IT is headed downward. If the organization is, and they don’t recognize it, steer clear, or be content with a 2.5 year tenure.

If just IT is headed downward, then you need to set different expectations with the company when they interview you.  You are not just coming in to make changes, you are coming in to do a turnaround. 

Turnaround Twists

Turnarounds mean that you must address;

  • Systemic issues (roots of failure, points of fear)
  • Political issues (undue influencers, excused behaviors, entrenched perspectives)
  • Embedded Dysfunctions (tradition, beliefs, habits)
  • Histories of mismanagement

Again, change must be led in the midst of each, but if you bring change without transforming the environment itself, nothing you do will be sustainable. And you will last 2.5 years (hey, maybe 4). By the way, you see this in sports-coaching a lot as well. 

When I have led turnarounds, I made it clear that I wasn’t coming to just make changes. I was coming to address the core issues that all change requires to be effective. And that takes time. 

Therein is what CIOs of longer tenure understand. They ensure that the organization understands they are hiring a 7-year plan.

Yes, you will address immediate needs and long-term technology vision. More so, you are reversing the downward trajectory by starting a new curve, one that likely will jump on the upswing in 7 years. 

As an effective CIO, you never just take a job. You are accepting a mission. You need to know from the outset if the mission is to take the hill (upswing work) or to stop the slide (turnaround work).

P.S. You can work with me and my team if you are facing a turnaround scenario. We will happily come alongside you for your success.

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