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.
Today, CIOs and their leadership teams need to understand their businesses as well as or better than the COOs, CFOs or CEOs. IT has become such a critical part of modern business operations that IT leaders must learn to play a key role in integrating their businesses to perform better in the marketplace. Their responsibilities include helping to create sustainable competitive advantages through strong business models, great customer relationships, quality products and services and improved capabilities that promote a distinct ease of doing business.
For chief executives, the key takeaway is to ensure your CIO is developing the skills and knowledge to work across all business functions and operating units. At the same time, consider requiring all high potential leadership candidates to spend part of their careers in IT—transforming IT leadership teams into a crucible for future business leaders, rather than simply a group of the best technologists that have risen through the ranks. When the CIO role is seen as a key potential successor to the CEO, companies will produce chief information officers who are more well-rounded business leaders with the ability to use IT to drive competitive advantages.
In Management Challenges for the 21st Century, legendary management thinker Peter F. Drucker wrote: “Every organization needs one core competency – innovation.” CIOs today have a key leadership role in driving innovation at their companies due to the integration of information technology throughout today’s modern business operations. There is no other C-suite role better positioned to drive value by working across business functions and operating units—integrating people, process and technologies in new and profitable ways.
Alan Kisling is managing director of Brand Velocity, an Atlanta-based consulting firm that specializes in helping corporate clients successfully design, implement and run large-scale reinvention projects using Peter Drucker’s principles.