Secrets to CIO Longevity

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.

Lewis Temares, who served as CIO for the University of Miami for 25 years until he retired in 2011, says it's important for IT executives to get out of the office. "I wanted to know everything that was going on in the world that I couldn't know myself," says Temares, noting that he frequently attended industry and vendor conferences and allowed his staffers to take advantage of almost any educational opportunity they expressed an interest in.

"You can go to a conference and learn from 70% of the people there, especially if they're in other industries," Temares says. "They didn't get to where they are because they're morons."

In addition, it's important to maintain ties with other CIOs, says Stephen Pickett, who has served as CIO at Bloomfield Hills, Mich.-based Penske since June 1997. "You need a peer group to learn about new technology, methods, new leadership skills," he says. "You need people you can talk to if you run into a problem you've never seen before."

Pickett remembers trying to get a disaster recovery project approved and conferring with colleagues in Germany, who helped him define the parameters of both the problem and the solution. "It's tougher to get big projects approved in Germany than anywhere else because of bureaucracy," he says. "After I talked to them, I was able to [talk about disaster recovery] without scaring people to death."

3. Communication Skills

Staying in the same position for a long time requires trust, and trust is built through communication.

"Your co-workers have to know that what you're saying is truthful," says Temares. "If a project is late, don't hide it. If you make a commitment to deliver, you have to live up to it. If you can't, you have to keep people informed. You have to have what I call 'no surprises' management. Once you build the trust, a lot of things happen for you. Even if things go wrong, they know you gave it your best effort."

Earning the trust of your colleagues can pay off in a variety of ways, perhaps most notably by helping you accrue influence -- and power. For example, Pickett says that, after spending 12 years as CIO, "there aren't a lot of constraints to what I do and how I do it. If I see a problem, I go attack it. The key is to communicate so that management knows what I'm doing." (Of course, that kind of communication goes both ways, he acknowledges: "If I enter into an area they're uncomfortable with, they let me know.")

Effective communication involves dealing with everyone the same way, says Pickett. "Managing down and up is important," he says. "You should treat employees no differently than you treat your manager. You should have the same open-door policy and opportunities for dialogue."

Temares agrees that communication should fan out in multiple directions. "I used to host a quarterly breakfast for my IT staff, where I would ask them if there were any rumors they needed confirmed or denied," he says. "I'd also eat in the cafeteria and ask people if they had any problems, because you want to head those off when they're still minor irritations. You can always handle a molehill if you get to it before it's a mountain."

The overarching theme should be recognizable by now: The CIO most likely to thrive over time is one who communicates across departments. That kind of collaboration pays off for both the business and IT.

"When you're focusing solely on infrastructure," says Citrix's Martine, "you're only working with the IT team -- that's a core responsibility. But when you start tying solutions to business value, that's when you can really make a difference. You work with people that may not know technology as well as you, but they can articulate the business problems better."

CIOs who don't listen and collaborate will likely find themselves on the fast track out the door, warns Matt Brousseau, who wears two distinct hats at recruiting firm Instant Technology: He's both director of recruiting and acting director of IT. "It's the people who never want to listen who end up stagnating," he warns. "People who think they know everything can do a lot of damage. To maintain an organization and make sure that you're providing the appropriate solutions, you have to take the ideas of the people who report to you. You can't implement all of them, but your job is 50% thought leadership and 50% collaboration with your team."

Baldwin is a Silicon Valley-based freelance writer and frequent contributor to Computerworld.

Read more about management in Computerworld's Management Topic Center.

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