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IT Is too Important to Leave to the Technologists

It’s no secret that information technology is core to modern business. To make the most of IT investments and innovations, chief executives must understand how technologies enable their company’s competitive advantage. Yet how many of today’s CIOs are considered the leading candidates to succeed their CEOs? Precious few—a weakness that CEOs and their boards should consider changing.

There are a handful of examples of CIOs who have risen to the position of CEO. Michael Capellas emerged from CIO to CEO at Compaq and is now chief executive of the cloud computing company VCE. Before Marissa Mayer, Yahoo!’s CEO was Scott Thompson, former CIO at Barclays Global Investors and CTO at PayPal. And Tesco Chief Executive Philip Clarke was previously the company’s CIO (and before that, a shelf stocker).

Why do so few CIOs ever become CEOs? According to a white paper by CA Technologies, more than half of CIOs aspire to their role as a gateway to general business management positions and many consider themselves as a contender for chief executive. Yet the majority of CIOs feel their progression into general management is hampered by being typecast as “technical specialists.”

The modern CIO is far from a “technical specialist;” a more apt title would be chief integration officer, a title “CIO” may soon signify. Great CIOs don’t just run IT, they integrate functions, navigate organizational differences and keep key stakeholders in agreement and strategically aligned. This critical position forces CIOs to step up and play a more strategic role in guiding and improving the ongoing performance of their companies.

Given how the importance of the CIO has evolved over the last decade, more organizations should be turning to IT executives to fill broader leadership positions. CIOs today must understand the fundamentals of their businesses, operations and customers at a depth that allows them to guide company technology investments to the areas that are most important to strategy and growth. In short, CIOs must have a level of knowledge about their businesses that should elevate them to become prime candidates for expanded leadership roles.

Decades ago, when computers were introduced into businesses, “IT folks” were, first and foremost, business people. Likely, a company’s first designated IT professional was someone from shipping or accounting who happened to have built a home personal computer from a Popular Mechanics kit. Fast forward to today, and IT professionals are a highly specialized group and critical to the success of any enterprise. This increased specialization has created a need for years of training and experience to become proficient in today’s complex IT areas, along with ongoing education to keep up with new innovations.

However, this technical focus is mainly required for the specialized technologists who make the modern information technology world possible. For the people who rise to lead and manage these individuals, a very different skill set is needed. The fact is, IT has become far too important to the growth and prosperity of businesses to leave in the hands of the pure technologists.

About Alan Kisling