The Most Sought-After C-Suite Role

CIOs are in high demand and low supply, leading to open seats in this pivotal operations role. “The pool is just too small.”

When the chief information officer departed after giving two weeks’ notice, the CHRO figured that she’d fill the role in six to eight weeks. She called a couple of recruiters, who shared some distressing news: if she was lucky, the job search would take six months—and while that was going on, the firm would need an interim CIO.

A CIO shortage is brewing at the highest reaches of the information-technology job ladder. Demand for skillsets encompassing technology, information, and security grew by 83% from 2020 to 2021. When a CIO departs, a replacement may not be immediately forthcoming. “Not having someone at the helm for six months can have a significant negative impact on the organization as a whole, with dramatic results,” says David Armendariz, general manager of information technology at the Lucas Group, a Korn Ferry company. “But because of the speed and significance of these projects, not having someone in the seat is irresponsible.” Interim CIOs are being swiftly put in place to prevent security breaches of networks, emails, and firewalls, which can leak, say, a half-century’s worth of data.

Some CIOs happily abide by succession plans, faithfully grooming successors and advising them for years to come. But others, after two years of an exhausting pandemic, are simply leaving with little advance notice. “They don’t want to bottleneck the org chart, so we’re seeing some transition onto public company boards,” says Craig Stephenson, managing director of the North America CIO/CTO practice at Korn Ferry.

The complexity and sophistication of information systems has grown exponentially in recent years. “In the past, if a CIO left, you could have a manager or director step in temporarily,” says Armendariz. Today, the job skills required are unique—expertise in infrastructure technology and data and analytics, along with emotional intelligence and an interest in leading teams. “Everyone is looking for this unicorn skillset in a CIO these days,” says Deepali Vyas, global head of the FinTech, Payments, and Crypto practice at Korn Ferry. “The pool is just too small.”

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, say experts. But many companies fail to do this. “From an organizational standpoint, companies are still trying to figure out how the CIO role has evolved and what it covers,” says Vyas. Experts say that clearly articulating the role facilitates filling it or, as needed, parceling out its responsibilities.

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 interacting with auditors and regulators. Without that training, the person one rung down might not be able to step in on short notice. “We’re seeing clients spend more time on development, to ensure that executives are ready for the role when it arrives,” says Stephenson. “But these situations are not always perfect.”