CIOs keep their jobs longer than you think

Still, it's a riskier world for them now

CIOs are generally considered to be a short-lived species.

Not as a class; no one seems to think they're becoming extinct.

The number of stories and references to CIOs lasting only a couple of years on the job, on average, is astonishing, however.

The reality is that CIO jobs have been relatively stable, during the last decade or so, especially compared to other senior corporate officers.

A 2010 survey from the Society of Information Managers pegged the average tenure at 4.6 years, and described it as high from a historical perspective.

A late 2010 survey from Gartner pegged average tenure at 4.4 years, about the same as 2008.

A December, 2010 story in CIO put the average tenure at 5 years 2 months.

All those surveys showed average tenure was relatively stable during the past few years.

One anomaly: Researchers at Stevens Institute of Technology pegged current tenure at 5.1 years, way up from 3.6 years in 2006.

Except, a CIOInsight survey published in 2006 found the average CIO tenure was 5.7 years, not 3.6. It was overseen by a guy I have worked with and know for sure is not sloppy about methodology or data, despite a study whose result nearly doubled that found by crew of Ph.D. candidates who did the Stevens Institute study.

Allan Alter, who did the CIOInsight study, led his piece with the "urban legend" about CIOs lasting only an average of 18 months in the job.

Compared to CMOs, who last an average of 2.3 years and CFOs (4.5 years), CIOs do fairly well, though not as well as CEOs (7.9 years) or heads of HR (6.5 years).

As far as former CIO editor in chief Abbie Lundberg could tell, it had always been thus. Going back as far as 1996, the average tenure for an already-departed CIO was 6.8 years, and the not-yet-completed tenure of the current officeholder was 4.9 years.

That's not to say a CIO's job is easy. It's complicated, and getting more so.

Rather than just having to make the email move, CIOs have to introduce discussions of ethics, privacy, compliance with legal regulations, finance, economics, business models.

They have to figure out how to build infrastructures that are 100 percent reliable and completely flexible, less expensive and better able to contribute intellectually and operationally to the specialized skills of each department or business unit.

They have to be much more well-rounded, more capable, more flexible executives than they were a decade ago.

Lundberg found that most CIOs who got the axe were not fired for incompetence. They were ushered out because the CEO decided the company needed to change direction, and having a different Scotty in the engine room was a critical way to accomplish it.

Most didn't see it coming.

That sounds a lot like the warnings business and tech analysts are issuing right now to CIOs, except that the mix of skills, goals and shifting responsibilities is more intense than it was in 2008 or 2006 or 1996.

CIOs aren't getting fired any earlier, on average, than they were a decade or two ago, apparently.

Individual CIOs are involved in far more things than they used to be, giving them more opportunities to get fired than ever before. Most of them still probably won't ever know when it's about to happen.

Kevin Fogarty writes about enterprise IT for ITworld. Follow him on Twitter @KevinFogarty.

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