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How to Become a Fixture

How to Become a Fixture

At companies notorious for burning through CIOs, your credibility and effectiveness are in question the moment you walk through the door.

Musical Chairs for CIOs

Six organizations notorious for churning through IT leaders

  • Delta Air Lines-| Four heads of IT came and went in seven years before current CIO Curtis Robb joined in 2000.
  • Ecolab-| Current CIO Rob Tabb is the 13th head of IT in 26 years.
  • Gateway-| The computer maker has had five CIOs since 1998.
  • IRS-| Has gone through four CIOs in seven years.
  • PepsiCo-| Pepsi's Frito-Lay subsidiary has gone through six CIOs in 10 years.
  • United States Tennis Association-| Larry Bonfante is the fourth CIO in 10 years.

At Ecolab, Rob Tabb is the 13th head of IT in 26 years, according to a long-time employee. This turnover rate is even more stunning considering that the CEO has been with the $US3.4 billion chemical company for more than 45 years and that most of the other executives have fairly long tenures. The CFO, the heads of human resources and global operations, and the president of the international sector all have at least seven years under their belts. The COO joined three years ago but has already been promoted to president. It's just the CIOs who don't stick. Number 12, Jeff Kubacki, arrived in November 2002 - a few weeks before number 11 was put out to pasture - and served as interim CIO for almost a year. Tabb, formerly vice president of IT at Nike, became IT head number 13 in October 2003.

Tabb and Kubacki, who is now the vice president of global infrastructure and operations (reporting to Tabb), realized that before they could start any of the strategic projects that are the cornerstone of a good IT department, they had to figure out a way to stop the CIO turn-over. After all, no one in the company - neither the business executives nor the IT rank and file - would sign on to the plans if they thought the CIO turnstile was still spinning.

As their predecessors at Ecolab proved, it can sometimes be tough for CIOs to stay put. While the CIO position is generally more stable than it used to be, CIO churn isn't all that uncommon. Lots of companies have experienced it to a degree, and some are veritable revolving doors for IT execs. It can happen for many reasons: inadequate CIOs, dysfunctional cultures, and mergers and acquisitions. Each instance may have a good reason, but the big picture shows a high rate of CIO turnover is bad for the organization, and it creates a challenge for any IT leader brave (or foolhardy) enough to boldly go where many have come and gone before.

"A lot of these positions are set up to fail," says Larry Bonfante, the fourth CIO in 10 years at the United States Tennis Association (USTA). The problems at companies that have experienced CIO churn are systemic - the business doesn't understand IT just as much as IT doesn't get the business. The result can be a catch-22: High-profile CIOs won't take the job, and lower-profile CIOs don't immediately command the respect necessary to turn the position around.

But IT leaders such as Bonfante who have walked into companies with historically high rates of turnover believe it's possible to stop the cycle - and keep their jobs - if the CIO can manage two things. The first task is to market IT to other departments and the rest of the executive team, making sure that they understand IT's goals and accomplishments. Yes, you've heard it before, but communication about IT has never been more important. Simultaneously, the CIO must improve morale in his department, rallying the troops behind a singular guiding vision. Kubacki believes that CIOs must patiently work toward these two ends before doing anything else.

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