Is There Really a Glass Ceiling for CIOs?

As more and more CIOs aspire to general management roles and to become chief operating officers or CEOs, it's important to ask if there really is a glass ceiling arresting the upward mobility of technology executives. It's even more important to know whether some strategies for promotion are more successful than others.

As executive recruiters, we at Korn/Ferry International have so far found no hard evidence of a glass ceiling for CIOs. As with promotional paths to other C-level spots, the rise to the position of CEO is based on merit, behavioral style and desire. Our research has revealed important differences, as well as similarities, in the ways in which CIOs and CEOs approach critical leadership issues.

Using data gathered on more than a half-million top executives, nearly 1,500 of whom were senior-level IT executives, we have developed statistically validated success profiles for a number of leadership positions, not the least of which are "best in class" CIOs and CEOs. Taking into account thinking, leadership and emotional competencies, the profiles are a benchmark against which to evaluate human capital in recruiting, succession planning and leadership development. The contrasts provide valuable insights into the challenges facing technology executives aiming for the top spot.

CEOs and CIOs have similar leadership styles

The good news for technology executives is that successful CIOs share some common traits with successful CEOs. First and foremost, both CIOs and CEOs demonstrate an open, outgoing leadership style that enables them to engage with others on their terms. Adept at developing social relationships, CIOs and CEOs typically "hit the ground running" to rapidly fit into new social situations, build teams and produce results.

CIOs exhibit a more adaptive thinking style

On the other hand, thinking styles of successful CIOs and CEOs differ in some interesting ways. By instinct and by training, CEOs focus on strategic issues, demonstrating a strong focus on action and making decisions quickly with a low likelihood of changing their minds. CEOs are more likely to steer than to adapt.

CIOs, on the other hand, tend to experience less control over situations than do CEOs. They face incredible and somewhat endless challenges in IT systems and developments that force them to balance the strategic and tactical demands of users. As a result, CIOs are accustomed to remaining more analytical and adaptable than their CEO colleagues. CIOs must make tough decisions under a great deal of uncertainty while striving to set standards and controls to manage this uncertainty. Such an environment requires complex and creative problem-solving skills. As a result, CIOs are more likely to adapt than to steer.

CEOs and CIOs show evidence of different emotional traits

Not surprisingly, our research revealed that the emotional competencies demanded most heavily of CIOs and CEOs are tolerance for ambiguity, confidence and empathy. CIOs and CEOs show the largest degree of variation in emotional competencies in the realm of ambiguity tolerance and confidence:

Ambiguity tolerance: CIOs tend to demonstrate less tolerance for ambiguity than do CEOs. This may stem in part from the need to reduce ambiguity in the IT realm through technical standards and integration of complex IT systems and processes. In comparison, CEOs can and usually do tolerate more ambiguity, since they have ultimate decision-making power should the ambiguity become too great.

Confidence: The level of confidence required of senior executives is high across the board. Interestingly, CIOs on average demonstrate noticeably less confidence than their CEO counterparts. To gain promotion, CIOs must first demonstrate more self-assurance.

So, can a CIO reasonably expect to move into a CEO spot? Yes, but with some assistance.

Behaviors Required for Promotion

CIOs aspiring to become CEOs should first evaluate their capacity for behavioral change. If confident that such a change can be made, a CIO should focus on developing a leadership style that more closely matches the action-oriented style of the topmost executives and eschews some of the more analytical qualities that are commonly associated with successful technology executives. The CIO must adopt the attitude of strategic leadership and leave the tactical details to others.

From a thinking and leadership style perspective, this entails growing beyond the traditional IT mind-set:

  • Becoming more action-focused.
  • Letting go of "what if" thinking.
  • Getting used to steering.
  • Learning to communicate plans to others.

Our conversations with successful CEOs who were previously technology executives suggest that aspiring CIOs should also prepare themselves by rounding out their skill set:

Move from a cost-center mentality to a profit-center mentality. Successful CEOs view their organizations as extended communities of interrelated business units cooperating to achieve defined sets of goals in defined periods of time.

Understand financial statements. Few CIOs have had the opportunity to develop the knowledge of a company's financial structure that is required of CEOs.

Bring in the money. The stereotypical CIO image is one of someone who plays only a supporting role. To gain promotion, a CIO needs to demonstrate value as a well-rounded business person who can also interface with the customer and sell.

Fortunately for CIOs, new behaviors can be learned and adopted. In addition, the inexorable trend of increasing globalization in an information-driven economy may cause corporate boards to grant wider responsibilities to CIOs than in the past.

However, the transition may involve two steps. High-performing CIOs of large, complex organizations are becoming ambassadors of enterprise change. Their behavioral styles and exposure to all parts of the business make them ideal candidates for leading change, which is underpinned, although not driven, by technology. This process, which utilizes their strengths in managing complex and interdependent situations as well as in social leadership style, has enabled CIOs to take a corporatewide leadership position. As a result, technology executives will find themselves naturally closer to their goal of becoming CEO.

For a CIO aspiring to become CEO, there is no glass ceiling. However, the CIO needs to gain greater credibility. As IT becomes increasingly commoditized, CIOs must elevate their position to avoid slipping back into the delivery and support position that they held in the 1980s. CIOs have an opportunity to become agents of change and help direct an organization's future growth. With willingness to become action-focused and more confident, CIOs can indeed become very successful CEOs. But now is the time to begin demonstrating those qualities, step by step.

Simon Wiggins is a London-based senior client partner at Korn/Ferry International, where he is a member of the firm's global CIO practice. He can be reached at Also contributing to this article is Mark Polansky, a senior client partner at Korn/Ferry International in New York and leader of the firm's information technology practice for North America. Mark can be reached at

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