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From CIO to CEO

From CIO to CEO

It’s a long way to the top if you want to become CEO

Does the board respect the CIO’s viewpoint? Are CIOs seen as ‘big picture’ people? Does the board see the CIO’s role as purely a technical one? Could a CIO ever be CEO? According to a recent survey, 54 per cent of CIOs have aspirations to use their role as a gateway to general business management positions, and many consider themselves as a contender for future chief executive.

The Future Role of the CIO — Becoming the Boss survey, undertaken late last year by market research company Vanson Bourne on behalf of IT software supplier CA Technologies, covered 685 interviews across Asia-Pacific, Australia, Europe and the United States. It also looked at the careers of a similar number of CEOs. The survey — which, it must be admitted, is highly partisan (and frankly repetitive) — suggests that CIOs “have the necessary business acumen, commercial ability and people management expertise to add considerable strategic value to the business and its shareholders”.

Addressing the company board and CEO, the authors of the report say, “Now is the time to reconsider the out-dated belief that CIOs are not equipped for high-level management and explore a new way of thinking about who is best placed to become a business leader of tomorrow. Affording your CIO the opportunity to advance towards becoming the boss could be the best strategic decision your business can make.”

Considering the apparent expectations of a majority of CIOs, how realistic is it that CIOs have the ‘right stuff’ in the first place, and the opportunity on the second, to make the transition to the CEO position?

Certainly when any CIO does successfully make that move, the result is widely touted in the IT press. Such global figures as Philip Clarke, CEO of UK supermarket chain Tesco; John Glaser, Siemens Health Services; and Rob Fyfe, Air New Zealand, have all been mentioned.

But the reality is that these ex-CIOs are few and far between. Despite the 54 per cent aspiring to make the move, only about 4 per cent of CEOs in the world’s top companies previously served in a technology leadership role. They are easily outnumbered by CFOs (29 per cent of CEOs) and COOs (23 per cent).

Thereby hangs a tale. Many — if not most — of the CIO to CEO success stories involve people who have moved through a variety of C-level positions.

Rob Fyfe, for example, joined Air New Zealand in early 2003 as CIO, and led its business transformation team. Only months after, in October of the same year, he was appointed CEO. His role as CIO of the airline was the only IT management role he had held, previously working in marketing, operations and general management with such organisations as the Bank of New Zealand, ITV Digital, NAB and Telecom NZ.

Many of those who make the transition do so in IT-based firms. The CA/Vanson Bourne report says that the progression to the top job is more likely in manufacturing (11 per cent of CEOs) and highly unlikely in finance (1 per cent). Even though finance may be entirely dependent on IT, this does not seem to be a factor.

The ambition of CIOs to be at the top of the management pile is not new — it’s been around as long as ambition has been a factor in any career plan, and as long as those in professional positions see the typecasting of the holders of particular job titles as changeable and the glass ceiling as breakable.

So what are the barriers to the CIO to CEO transition, and what can you do about it, assuming you want the job in the first place?

What did I do wrong?

In a much-cited blog that appeared in Forbes.com in 2010, Joerg Heistermann says, “CIOs love technology. It’s a hobby, a passion and a secret lover.”

Heistermann is former CEO of the Americas for IDS Scheer and before that was CIO of a pan-European mail-order company. He goes on to suggest that, for CIOs, “At work, technology is used to improve productivity and revenue.

At home, the latest mobile and multimedia gadgets are the centre of gravity for leisure activities.

“It’s the exclusive focus on this very passion that inhibits CIOs from growing into a CEO role to get to the next level.”

He goes on to also suggest that, “For many CIOs, IT budgeting is the bane of their existence. Budgets prevent them from doing what they might want to do and put them in the hot seat if business demands exceed the budget.”

If even a former CIO characterises senior IT managers as acquisitive nerds and geeks without a proper appreciation or even ‘love’ of the bottom line, then what hope does the CIO have in convincing the board that they have what it takes?

In a different and curiously titled blog called ‘What I’ve learned as a CEO working for a CIO’, Adam Brotman, chief digital officer for Starbucks, says, “When you can combine the CEO-like raw vision and passion with CIO-like detailed planning around implementation, scale and design, it’s a much more powerful initial vision and one that’s even more likely to succeed.”

Ironically, it’s this eye for detail that some regard as a stumbling block for CIOs’ move upwards. Not that planning around implementation is a bad thing — far from it. It’s just that many other C-level execs and board members think that’s all that CIOs can do. Despite the apparent desire of CIOs for more money to “do what they want to do”, many see CIOs as risk-averse, and when running a company, risk is an intrinsic element in the arsenal of any leader. If you don’t risk, you may not fail, but you also don’t move.

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