Life Among the Seriously Bored

Why do CIOs go numb or go crazy? Why do CIOs change jobs so often? Because one-size-fits-all IT has taken all the fun (and challenge) out of the job. Don't fret, though. There are alternatives

I'm a member in good standing of the Rolodex Club. Here's how you can tell if you are a member. The phone rings, and there's a recruiter on the line. You know how the call goes.

Some "forward-thinking" company headquartered in the coldest, greyest city you'll find on the map is hell-bent on dominating the world market in edible oils and is convinced (at long last) that technology is the answer. Top management wants a world-class, high-profile CIO, and though the position won't report to the CEO, there'll be plenty of direct contact. The compensation package is "competitive" but varies depending on the candidate, and there is the possibility of an IPO some time in the future, should the owner and all his heirs suddenly die at the same time. They are wondering if you have any suggestions for candidates for a position like this.

You know this is championship twaddle, of course. No one is interested in your suggestions; they already know far more CIOs than you do. They want to know if you are interested, if you are feeling insecure or restless or bored enough to apply your estimable talents to the sweet science of deep-fat frying.

Are you bored? Be honest. Most of the CIOs I've talked to in the past year (some of the best in the profession) tell me they're terribly bored right now. I've listened to a few theories on why that is; most have to do with reduced budgets or Y2K being finished or the e-commerce slowdown. But I think the problem actually runs deeper than that. First of all, after the first three to five years, any CIO worth his salt will have blown through most of the meaningful systems issues and problems, and will be thrashing around looking for bigger challenges. And if there aren't any where he is, surely big challenges can be found elsewhere.

To digress a moment, this is where the old adage "never be the replacement for a successful CIO" really comes from. Sure, it's hard to follow a great act, but who wants to inherit a department or systems environment with no big problems?

I used to think there was something wrong with CIOs who changed jobs every few years. I imagined they must be incompetent, impossible to get along with or worse. To be sure, this is absolutely true in a small percentage of cases, but it's not true most of the time.

CIOs, like many other creative types, come in two very different yet equally valuable flavours. The methodical plodder/caretaker type is happy to operate over the long haul, building slowly, improving incrementally and maintaining a stable base for the company to operate on. The more common type might best be described as the change agent/risk taker - that fearless, high-energy character with a mild case of attention deficit disorder who is brought in to incite action or rescue a department or project. This second type will show up in a new job, fix the problems (or hit the brick wall that was specially erected to make sure that nobody could fix the problems) and immediately get restless when the job shifts to maintenance. The same attributes that make this type of CIO effective fixing big problems also tend to make them short-timers and, incidentally, an inevitable source of irritation to the company they work for.

If you've been in the same CIO job for 10 or so years and you're not bored, you're either an extraordinary person or lucky enough to be in extraordinary circumstances. Either way, you've successfully conquered one of the most daunting challenges of any successful career. If, on the other hand, you find that you're bored, not only are you in good company, but it probably says some very positive things about you personally.

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