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Open for business: Step into the C-suite role you want

Open for business: Step into the C-suite role you want

Do you want the top job? If so, do you believe you can do it? The good news is you can.

Forty-six percent of CEOs believe that CIOs could take on one or two other roles in the C-suite and 19 percent believe they could take on most other roles, according to the 2018 Gartner CEO survey. And that’s exactly what’s happening.

The question is … do you want the top job? If so, do you believe you can do it? The good news is you can.

The traditional route to CEO is being disrupted by a new generation of digital era CIOs, opening doors that once seemed the exclusive realm of CFOs, COOs or revenue focused GMs.

Organisations need the unique lens that CIOs bring to the table to navigate today’s digital business opportunities and threats. They need leaders with a mix of entrepreneurial drive, innovation obsession, technology-enabled strategic thinking and cross-functional operational expertise.

I recently spoke with an Australian retail CEO, who started with the company as a CIO five years ago. As CIO, he led the reinvention of its online and digital business, confident this was the most powerful strategic lever to reshape the retailer’s future. When the CEO position became unexpectedly vacant a short time later, he was already well positioned and had enough credibility as a C-suite leader to assume the role.

Change can happen quickly, so always be ready – you never know when the door will open. Will you be ready when it does?

Think like a generalist

To prepare yourself, think and act like a generalist to complement your specialist CIO lens. Since many CIOs come from a technology background, they often have to form new habits to behave like a business leader. Those who can combine technology savvy, business acumen and change agency have permission space to step up and fill the new, emerging leadership voids in the C-suite.

A financial services CIO recently said to me that if CIOs want to take on ‘pure’ business leadership roles, they need to get more ‘skin in the game’. They need to think and act like C-suite peers to shift their thinking from cost centre manager to revenue generator. They need to move on from serving internal users to delighting external consumers, or citizens in the public sector. 

You’ll need to understand how to grow a business, deliver returns on technology investments, find and take ideas to market faster, shape the digital economy and inspire people in common purpose. While it sound like a huge ask, you’ll probably discover you’re doing all of this and more already. 

So, how do you use and amplify your current expertise to move beyond your CIO role if (or when) the door next opens?

Start by cultivating a different level of credibility for yourself. Reshape your personal brand as a trusted, inspirational and effective leader, who is the best person to potentially lead thousands of people to digitally enabled, sustainable ethical growth. Also, who delivers financial returns to owners, shareholders and, in the public sector, the community.

Your emergent C-suite standing depends on your ability to become that credible business leader. Don’t be the one holding yourself back. Consider this a “carpe diem” message for you!

Behave for the role you want

To be successful, you need to behave for the business leader role you want now — before you have it. Three important areas will help you achieve this:

1. Generate revenue like an entrepreneur

Entrepreneurial CIOs are changing the perception of being associated with IT cost containment to that of contributing to top-line revenue. They’re transforming their organisations by exploiting alternative, digitally enabled business models that generate entirely new revenue streams.

Successful CIOs spend more time gaining insight about the market from customers by being curious, listening, learning, absorbing — and then asking questions. They’re helping their organisations grow by applying technology and solutions that can improve a customer’s experience and drive them to purchase.

They’re also salespeople. They sell the value of IT and sell the vision of how technology can propel the business. You must have an external lens to generate new revenue for the business.

Spend time with sales. Find out what it is about your company’s products or services that isn’t meeting customer demands or needs. This could help you find a gap to fill with a digital solution.

2. Run P&L like the investors are watching

Manage the piece of the organisation you own as though the investors are watching. Run IT like a P&L where long-term results and short-term margins matter. Business management of your organisation is table stakes for the C-suite game.

Sixty-three percent of CFOs now recognise “digital revenue” as a separate category, according to the Gartner survey. This means digital revenue is rising. We’ve reached a tipping point where digital must have its own P&L income statement.

If you haven’t had P&L responsibility before, make sure the conversation resonates and becomes your lever for advancement by seeking out, taking on and learning the ropes in a general manager role.

Change how you run your IT responsibilities inside the company. Know the analytics of the business inside and out, demonstrate your practical general executive skills and be ready to step up to any new C-suite role that is offered or needed.

Business model changes may eventually result, so you have an opportunity to move costs relating directly to the creation and maintenance of such revenue to this category and out of the IT budget.

3. Pivot your brand toward business

Many CIOs are invited to sit at the executive table at times — usually to present an update on the IT strategy — but only trusted-ally CIOs occupy a true seat. That means being a decision maker, with the same influence level as the rest of the C-suite.

Trusted allies generally deliver higher performing IT organisations, and are better at addressing digitalisation within their enterprises when compared to other CIOs.

Build credibility by pivoting your personal brand to the business. Your credibility as a leader will depend on how reliably and efficiently you can provide IT services before you begin selling yourself as a trusted-ally CIO.

Partner with CFOs and COOs to learn to run IT like a P&L and optimise enterprise IT and business costs, then evolve — from transactional CIO to a trusted C-suite ally and thought leader.

When people think of you, they should see you as a trailblazing business and people leader, who also just happens to have expertise in understanding and exploiting technologies to drive results.

Jenny Beresford is a research director with Gartner's CIO Advisory team. Previously, she served as a CIO in global enterprises, held VP and GM roles in consulting and technology firms, worked as a hands-on enterprise agile coach, an innovation lead and a digital transformation director.

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