The Challenges Of Filling CIO Roles

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With demand high and supply low, it's harder than ever to manage IT chief succession. A key strategy is for companies to clearly define the current role and how it will shift in the next few years—and that’s no easy task.

Labor shortages are plaguing just about every industry and role, but the problem is nearing crisis level for finding qualified tech workers. According to the Wall Street Journal, demand for skillsets encompassing technology, digital transformation, data, engineering and information security grew by 83% from 2020 to 2021.

Those shortages are brewing at the highest reaches of the information-technology job ladder to the role of the Chief Information Officer. When a CIO departs, a replacement may not be immediately forthcoming. Experts say that hires that used to take just a couple months now can take up to six months, and sometimes longer. Not having someone at the helm for that long can have a significant negative impact on the enterprise. But because of the urgency, investment dollars, breadth of technology-related initiatives and exposure to the board, it is essential to have someone in the seat to ensure accountability and progress. Interim CIOs are being utilized to maintain continuity with oversight of transformational objectives to include security, stakeholder management and data transformation.

The best-case scenario is for CIOs to abide by succession plans, grooming successors and advising them for years to come. But given the exhaustive efforts CIOs have had to endure since the start of the pandemic, many are simply leaving with little advance notice. And instead of moving to another CIO role, some are transitioning onto public company boards, while others are seeking start-up environments, which is leaving both an even bigger deficit of battle-tested CIOs and an emerging set of leaders ready for succession.

The complexity and sophistication of the technology function and ecosystem has grown exponentially in recent years. In the past, if a CIO left, CEOs and boards could name an alternative leader to “step in.” Today, the job skills required are unique—expertise in infrastructure, cloud, data and analytics, along with emotional intelligence and an interest in leading teams and working across the organization, from HR to finance, supply chain, customer experience and operations. In addition, we are seeing numerous technology leaders move into business leadership roles associated with eCommerce, customer experience and broader succession roles to include COO, President and potential CEO.  The pool for qualified CIOs with this unicorn skillset continues to shrink.

There is no easy solution, but a key strategy to avoiding a future scramble for a CIO is to clearly define the current role and how it will shift in the next few years. And that’s no easy task, as technology continues to evolve daily. The stakes are high and when you consider that besides the CEO, the CIO is arguably the most diversified executive on the leadership team, it is critical to maximize levels of engagement and retention.

Succession planning is essential, experts note, for both CIO and interim CIO roles. Preparation often involves rotating through departments related to software, security and engineering, plus development around enabling business strategy and, depending on the industry, it may include interacting with auditors and regulators. Without that training, the person one rung down might not be able to step in on short notice. The good news is that we’re seeing clients spend more time on development to ensure that executives are ready for the role when it arrives. Most often, the tone and impact of the technology function is set by the board and CEO. This will continue to help the impact of this critical function, which is at the core of much broader digital transformation.

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