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Leadership / Strategy

Why do so many CIOs get fired?

The high turnover of IT leaders reflects their failure to navigate the politics of the C-suite, argues CIO adviser Cathy Holley.

You are almost at the end of the interview for a new CIO position. You have dazzled the headhunter with your digital transformation examples and explained how you saved your previous company from certain death. Now, the moment of truth: if you are so critical to the firm’s success, she asks, why are you leaving?

CIO fired
The question designed to strike fear into the hearts of CIO candidates: why are you leaving? (Photo by Nutlegal Photographer/Shutterstock)

If any question was designed to strike fear into the hearts of CIO candidates, it is this one. During my time as a headhunter for senior IT executives, I heard the same answers over and over.

“The CEO and I didn’t see eye to eye.”

“The new CEO wanted to bring in his own guy.”

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“I felt I had achieved all the goals I’d been set when I joined.”

“They stopped investing in technology so it was just a business-as-usual role.”

“I didn’t agree with the new strategy.”

“The business wasn’t doing very well and they want to downgrade the role.”

What these candidates didn’t realise is that there are only a few senior headhunters in this space, so there was a good chance I had heard the full story from their CEO or CFO, who I was helping to find their replacement. Unsurprisingly, they never gave the answers above.

Instead, they would often tell me that the CIO was technically capable but didn’t fit in with the executive committee (in other words, they lacked political acuity). Or that they added little commercial value and didn’t contribute to the bottom line (commercial acuity). The CIO wasn’t “strategic”, they would say – they didn’t innovate or identify new opportunities (strategic vision). That their leadership skills were poor and the technology teams were not delivering (inspirational leadership). Or that they needed someone more future-focused (innovation).

The average CIO lasts about two years – hardly enough time to assess the potential for the business to grow, create a strategy, oversee delivery, and assess the business benefits.

The average CIO lasts about two years – hardly enough time to assess the potential for the business to grow, create a strategy, oversee delivery, and assess the business benefits. We see many CIOs who have only had time to focus on internal issues and to rejig the technology function (introduce Agile, reorganise the department, adopt new tools and governance, and select new partners, for example) without doing what they were brought in to do: help the firm identify and capitalise on new technologies that create new opportunities for growth and increased profitability.

No other C-level function has such a short shelf-life: CFOs, HR directors and CEOs usually last more than a couple of years. The reason? They use their emotional intelligence to navigate the politics of the new firm, and quickly work out what they need to do to get things done in that specific culture and how they can belong. They recognise that they must wear two hats: the day job and the membership of the team which is shaping the future of the business.

These are the skills world-class CIOs must develop if they are to stay the course and reach their full potential.

For more information about the work Holley is doing, visit CIODevelopment.

Cathy Holley spent 25 years as a CIO headhunter and has placed some of the world's leading CIOs – she now coaches CIOs looking for their next role, as part of the team at CIODevelopment.