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Staying the course: Why sticking with one job beats jumping around

Execs often rush from one job to another but there are benefits to staying in one role for more than a year or two, especially in tech.

Been around the office since typewriters and rotary phones? It could be worse... Image: iStock

The CIO, perhaps more than other c-suite positions, is often seen as a turnaround role: a position that an executive will stay in for two or three years before moving on to the next challenge.

Research, however, suggests CIO tenures have started to lengthen during the past decade and the average time in role now stands at about five years. So how long should a CIO spend in one role and what are the benefits that come from sticking around?

Staying in one place provides great continuity to the business

Mark Foulsham has been group CIO of insurance specialist esure for more than 11 years. He recognises the length of tenure is unusual and that many other IT leaders jump from one job to the next. Foulsham, however, believes permanence brings benefits to both the business and the individual.

"Staying at one company can be seen as a negative but I think it actually demonstrates a commitment to delivering long-term value," he says. "There have huge changes to the business during the past 11 years and my role has been different at each stage."

Foulsham has moved beyond sole responsibility for IT and into the management of other functions, including operations, procurement and facilities. The company floated in March 2013 and he recognises that working for a publicly listed organisation brings new pressures.

Yet across all phases of business growth, Foulsham says his key role has been to use IT to help the business cope with constant change in an aggressive market place. "It's been much more than short-term, tactical decision making," he says, suggesting that -- on the whole -- he has kept the company's IT architecture as simple as possible, avoiding overly-complex systems and services.

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"I've been at esure for at least three phases of IT-led business change and I've seen the benefits of my decisions come to fruition," says Foulsham. He believes two common threads run through his management experiences at esure: perseverance and tenacity.

"Staying in one place for a long time ensures great continuity for the business," says Foulsham. Such steadiness differs to the trouble-shooter CIO, who stays for a couple of years, transforms IT and makes way for another executive, who then comes in and begins a new cycle of change. Foulsham has been fortunate to oversee transformation in one place. And his work at esure continues.

"The business has changed so much. If it hadn't, I would probably have looked to move a long time ago," he says. "This is a fast-growing business and it's exciting to still be part of the change process. There's still so much more to do."

Working for a growing business provide lots of opportunities

Bill Wilkins has been CIO at First Utility since 2008, yet he says the rapid growth of the business -- from startup to a major supplier serving one million customers -- means he has had the opportunity to fulfil two very different roles. And the change is far from complete.

"I'm sure there's a third role that's about to emerge, which is when we've reached scale," he says. "So I'll probably end up feeling that my time at First Utility involved working for three very different types of business."

Wilkins takes great personal satisfaction from the fact that he can see many of the things that he has put in place reach maturity. "What we need to be good at -- as a successful utility firm -- changes and evolves every year," he says. "So there's always new stuff to learn and new opportunities for optimisation."

Governance is one area that drives further change. Wilkins recognises rules and regulations are crucial in the utility sector. Yet he also says smart firms embrace governance and use new policies to help encourage creative thinking. "When change is forced on the industry, we need to be first to deal with that adjustment and to use it to our advantage," he says.

The ongoing scale of change -- from internal growth to external governance -- means Wilkins believes his current role will continue to keep him busy, despite being in situ for seven years. "I'm far from thinking my work is done. I'm actually sitting here and thinking that there's so much we can do in IT for this business," he says.

Longer tenures allow CIOs to see their work come to fruition

Rob Threadgold, global head of IT infrastructure and operations at ICBC Standard Bank, joined the finance firm straight after leaving school 12 years ago in an entry-level role on the helpdesk. He is now in charge of infrastructure at an international level and also runs global estate services.

Threadgold, as one might imagine after an impressive rise through the management ranks, is a strong believer in the value of tenured CIOs. "I like to think long-term and act in a sustainable manner," he says. "I want to try and provide growth over a prolonged period of time."

Threadgold says change in a sector like banking, across areas such as regulation and governance, is often greater than might be perceived from the outside. He says the belief that CIOs should change jobs regularly is misguided and that organisations benefit from consistency.

"It's one of my biggest bug bears," says Threadgold, referring to the perception that most IT leadership roles last two years. When a short-term CIO leaves, the new incumbent is often left with an organisation that's been cut to the bone. The slightest changes, says Threadgold, can lead to problems in terms of capacity.

"Gone are the days when a CIO could come in with a simple agenda and cut 20 per cent off the cost base," he says. "A lot of the things that CIOs get involved with are multi-year programmes and you only really start to see the return on investment in the second and third year. It's better if your tenure is longer."

But, if it is, then you need to make sure that you continually update your IT strategy, says Threadgold. "As a CIO, you should be able to deliver two or three major transformations during a long tenure, because you will have then helped the business move on through its use of technology," he says.

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