The Road from CIO to CEO


From CIO to CEOA very interesting point of discussion is how a CIO can inject some impetus into the role to eventually propel him/herself into the CEO position. With a shift in mind-set, possibly some study, while focusing on fulfilling the role of the “new CIO” as a key enabler and innovator in the broader organisation, it may just be possible.

In some recent posts, I have addressed the topic of the changing role of the CIO, leading to ‘The CIO as Business Leader’. I looked specifically at how the evolution of technology and the increased importance and proper utilisation of information have impacted the CIO and to a degree, changed the job role rather substantially to become a key role player in the business. In this post I investigate how the CIO can take that momentum further to eventually land up in the driving seat.

I recently came across an interesting article related to this, entitled “CIOs need strategy and change management credentials to be CEOs”. The article states that “CIOs need to build their business strategy qualifications, guide change and start thinking like marketers if they want to reach CEO and board positions in the future.” This statement caught my attention, as most CIOs today are focusing heavily on the technology aspects of a business – where they are, amongst other duties, required to keep up with technology trends as a key function of their jobs. This is encouraging CIOs to make or contribute to the strategic business decisions required to keep the business successful. It is even expected of the “new digital CIO” to recommend changes and innovations that will revitalise the business and in effect cause changes to the business strategy. With that in mind, I find myself asking, surely then, such a CIO is headed in the right direction to one day become a CEO?

The “new CIO” most certainly must have strong business insight – gained through purposefully utilising business intelligence and through growing other key business-related skills, as explained in the post where I question whether the ‘CIO is the new über-data-scientist?’. However, it has come to light that all this, although strategically important, is not quite enough, in isolation, to take the CIO all the way to the CEO role just yet. No doubt, it’s obviously a huge step in the right direction, but more is required.

The “new CIO” of today (bearing in mind that the traditional role has changed significantly) has to anticipate the needs of the business, and so developing this skill further is a great starting point to a possible CEO future. Above this however, is the need for the CIO to start developing a learning around leadership and driving strategic decisions forward within a business. I truly believe that a good leader is one who can and is willing to introduce strategy and change and affect it successfully. This may not come naturally – the successful candidate may have to study aspects of leadership to learn how to do this effectively. As an aside, it may also be necessary to study financial management in quite some detail.

The CIO, in fact, has to acquire the skill and the know-how to not only identify, drive and execute these decisions, but needs to make sure that he/she is heard loud and clear enough to actually stand out! This requires a CIO to be “louder”, “bolder” and more assertive – in a substantiated, sensible and positive way.

Furthermore, to eventually get the transition right, CIOs should also take the time to understand the CEO role better. CEOs are generally natural born leaders, they become the face of the company and of course they should lead by example. Peers on the executive level and employers alike will only respect a CEO if the CEO in turn shows respect for them and the brand. An aspiring CIO must be confident, that once in the power seat, the power will not “go to his head” either. In other words, a good CEO is hungry for success for the business, but never power hungry for himself.

However, talking about appetite, the ambitious enough CIO will need the drive and enthusiasm to take this “all the way”. It requires learning and actively practicing new skills, changing an outlook or two, becoming heard more and applying a mix of old and new skills differently. It may even require studying or completing an in-depth leadership qualification, such as an MBA, including a substantial component on financial management.

Concluding thoughts

There is no denying that the role of the CIO is slowly changing, and just when one thought that technology and information as business strategy enablers were the main focus areas, we have now thrown in the route to the CEO position too. The difference today is that the playing field for any CIO has changed and expanded to encompass so much more – more that can possibly lead to CEO status should an aspiring CIO want it. Slowly, out of necessity and even passion, the traditional more “technical” CIO is being replaced by a new or hybrid forward thinking and innovative CIO. This CIO is today an executive who is an integral part of the leadership team – someone that in my opinion must step up and be heard – someone who can one day be the CEO.

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