Changing perceptions of IT execs is easing the leap from CIO to CEO

It's still a "Man Bites Dog" story when a CIO is promoted to CEO, but more CIOs, especially in financial services, are making the leap.

That's because the perception of IT executives as geeks is slowly changing, says Mark Polansky, North American IT sector leader at executive recruitment firm Korn/Ferry International. Technology companies have been willing to promote CIOs for some time, he says, "but the new story is that CIOs are becoming general managers in all kinds of industries." In some organizations, the idea of having a tech person in the lead is still anathema, he says, but in others, there is increasing recognition that good leadership can come from any field and is to be nurtured wherever it's found.

We asked four former CIOs to reflect on their ascension to CEO. Here's what they told us.

If you want to move up ...

Lose your inner geek. Andrew Studdert, CEO of NES Rental Holdings, believes one key to his success is seeing himself as a generalist, not solely an IT person. "There's a dated impression of the CIO as a guy who grew up coding," he says. "I never wrote a line of code in my life. CIOs have to be successful businesspeople first. If they're not, they're not going to last, and they're not going to move up."

Know what's keeping you back. Three things hinder CIOs' career paths, says Acuity CEO Benjamin Salzmann. First is reporting to the chief financial officer. "This is the worst disease," he says. "Why have IT report to accounting? You show me a company where the CIO reports to the CFO, and I'll show you a company lagging in its industry in the use of technology." Second, when they do get to speak to the board of directors, "some CIOs don't use a human voice," he says. "They start speaking in alphabet soup, or about Java. It's a big mistake." Finally, CIOs often have difficult relationships with other executives because, under the pressure of budgets and deadlines, they get in the habit of saying no, which doesn't make them particularly popular, he says.

Commit. One of the problems with tech people is that there's so much demand, they can always move to some other industry, Salzmann says. Instead, he suggests that you make a commitment to a specific industry. "If you learn everything you can about your industry and bring broader suggestions for change to your company, you'll skyrocket," he says.

Use your line of vision. Salzmann believes that more CIOs should move up, because they work with all departments and see every aspect of the corporation. "It's an incredible advantage," he says. But in his own case, Salzmann supplemented that view with business smarts; in fact, the business savvy came first. After getting an MBA and working in marketing for the first five years of his career, he went to night school to study computers. "Many projects that I was pushing for weren't getting approved because of IT resource issues, so I thought that if I went into IT, I could really make a difference in the company," Salzmann says. When he switched to IT, he became a liaison with the business areas "because I better understood where the business people were coming from," he says.

Get their attention. Chris Lofgren, CEO of Schneider National, says his ability to explain clearly how IT projects could create business value got the attention of the company's executive team, which gave him an opportunity to run a business unit. Lofgren was put in charge of Schneider's logistics business, which he led to significant new growth. "And it proved very valuable for me as CEO to have had experience running a business unit," he says.

Show your expertise. In financial services, understanding what technology can do and how IT assets are best used is a critical competency, not just for a CIO, but for a CEO as well, says Donald Donahue, CEO of The Depository Trust & Clearing. "It's where your biggest expenses are, and it's where your biggest value-add is coming from -- your competitive differential -- so the roles of CIO, COO and CEO are closely aligned in our organization."

Learn about finance. As CIO, Lofgren reported directly to the CEO and had a seat in executive team meetings. That gave him a broad view into both operations and governance, a key requirement for a CIO to be able to move up, he says. Although Lofgren didn't report to the CFO, he turned to him for help. "It became clear to me that a strong understanding of corporate finance would be useful," he says. "I was lucky to have a CFO who was willing to educate me. With his help, I was able to get an accelerated view of corporate finance, which a CEO really needs."

Run IT with a CEO's mind-set. Run the IT division as a business, not as a technology group; otherwise you'll be CIO forever, Studdert says. "You're in a position to see the company from the inside out, from the hub out to the spokes," he explains. "It's a unique place to become a change agent. That's how I moved from tech to operations at United -- by taking an operational view of technology."

Join the newsletter!


Sign up to gain exclusive access to email subscriptions, event invitations, competitions, giveaways, and much more.

Membership is free, and your security and privacy remain protected. View our privacy policy before signing up.

Error: Please check your email address.

More about ACTExecutive RecruitmentHISKorn/Ferry

Show Comments