CIOs are in charge of ensuring their company can stay ahead of the tech curve. Businesses lean on them to anticipate industry changes and mount an appropriate response. But CIOs can also prepare organizations to continue innovating once their tenure ends.
Companies often grapple with turnover in the tech side of the C-suite. CIOs have one of the shortest average tenures among the C-suite, with an average company stay of 4.6 years according to Korn Ferry data. That's considerably shorter tenure than CEOs who remain at a company 6.9 years, and lower than the average C-suite tenure of 4.9 years.
CIOs leave their companies from a myriad of opportunities. Executives can be swayed to lead a bigger company in a similar industry, or poached to lead technology companies in their area of expertise. Or maybe tech chiefs have wrapped up key modernization projects and are on the hunt for the next problem to solve, elsewhere.
Preparing for succession in tech leadership is critical for continuity in technology strategy, and CIOs can play a role by grooming existing IT talent, providing them with opportunities to lead or own key projects. This helps businesses reap the advantages of having internal candidates in the waiting, who'll be faster to get up to speed.
Complexity lies ahead for organizations without a succession plan in place for the CIO position, according to Lily Mok, research vice president at Gartner, Inc. Disruption is typically higher, and lasts longer, when the successor comes from outside the organization.
New CIOs come to their position most often through the outside of the organization. Eight in 10 CIOs joined the C-suite as an external hire, the Society for Information Management found in its 2021 IT Trends Study. Finding a replacement in the executive market is not an easy task.
"If you go out to the market to hire a CIO, it takes three to six months to fill the position, on average," Mok said.
Training the next CIO
Talent development needs to become a companywide strategy to bolster existing talent, rather than a disjointed effort taking place solely in IT.
At the College of Westchester, a White Plains, New York-based college, a learn-by-doing approach helps build executive experience, CIO and CISO Kelly Walsh says.
"If your supervisor is going to be out for a period of time, and they have certain periodic tasks or meetings or any kind of things they're expected to do, the subordinate can have the opportunity to step in," said Walsh.
Not all technologists aspire to become CIOs, but there are traits that Walsh looks for in the kind of employee who could one day succeed him.
"One really key thing is communication," Walsh said. "Specifically, being able to translate technical challenges, issues and requirements to business challenges issues and requirements, so that the people you're interfacing with aren't just hearing a bunch of technical mumbo-jumbo: They're hearing how a technological solution or challenge directly affects them."
Often organizations will flounder to determine if there's any internal candidates who can sub in for leaders after there's a vacancy, said Walsh. "We're proving whether or not they're ready, by making sure we give people the opportunity to work at the next level."
Translating for the business audience
Mentoring budding IT leaders also means gradually showing them how to connect with business stakeholders.
For Carter Busse, CIO at software company Workato, training a would-be successor starts by ensuring the IT employee handles a project with scope and impact.
"I give them a very visible project," said Busse. At a previous company, Busse supported a direct report by allowing them to own the rewrite of the quote-to-cash process, presenting the demo of the final product to the organization.
"I give them something big that they can spread their wings open, and fail a little bit if they have to, but I'm there to catch them," Busse said.
Having the perspective of leaders from other parts of the business, from finance to sales or marketing, helps CIOs become an ally in thinking through solutions, Busse said. "If I find someone who wants to be a future IT leader I really try to teach them how business works."
When CIOs resign, companies tend to appoint an interim CIO to keep projects and essential tasks going as the search is underway.
Typically, there's someone within organizations who can play the role of acting CIO when needed, said Sridhar Karimanal, head of the Health and Life Sciences group at Eagle Hill Consulting. But then the next step is usually an external appointment, either of a CIO who comes from another organization or a technologist with Silicon Valley experience.
The option of an internal candidate who can assume the CIO role comes with the advantage of shortening the time to get integrated into the role, said Mok. These leaders also come to the C-suite with relationships they can leverage for faster execution of their priorities.
"All those things can contribute to more efficiency and effectiveness of the new leaders," said Mok.