CIOs Can Be Business Masters of Tomorrow

BOSTON (06/12/2000) - One of the more provocative points I make in classes I teach at the University of California at Los Angeles and UC Berkeley is that the CEOs of the future will probably be drawn from executives now working in corporate IT. I say this with total confidence because the environment in which IT executives find themselves today is the perfect training ground for the executive wealth creators of the future.

Unfortunately, many organizations will arrive at the conclusion that corporate IT execs make great CEOs only after learning painful lessons from unproductive managerial dalliances with vendor execs. It's important to differentiate vendor executives (who create and sell technology) from IT executives (who create value by using technology). These are two totally different sets of skills.

As a doctoral candidate in Japanese studies in the late 1970s and early '80s, I observed that the Japanese had a distinct managerial advantage during that time. Why? Because the world they grew up in - resource-constrained, with a small domestic market and a constitutionally mandated postwar orientation toward peaceful commerce - was the perfect training ground for the then-emerging global competitive environment. The Japanese were very good at building small, fuel-sensitive cars because they had to be. Their economic environment demanded it.

The current business environment demands that IT executives be future-focused, able to initiate charismatic change programs and courageous enough to pull the plug on initiatives gone bad. The people best trained for the future will rule it, and they will be IT execs.

Successful IT execs are driven by a sense of the future. In some cases, this orientation imparts a deepened sense of purpose, leading several top CIOs to comment that they want to be remembered not for the work they've done, but rather for the work they have yet to do.

CEOs have learned that one of their most important roles is managing investors' perceptions. One way to manage such perceptions is to position a company to be labeled as a top candidate for leading the way to the future. The slightest whiff of economic nostalgia will significantly reduce a company's price-to-earnings ratio. The popular literature reflects this future obsession, showing that it's no longer enough to be good at the "new" thing. One must be the creator of the "new, new" thing.

IT executives will play two key roles in the future:

Starter: With the exception of the equator and the prime meridian, everything begins somewhere. All Old Economy players toiling in the kitchen of the New Economy are starting with more or less the same ingredients, but not everyone will end up producing palatable economic entrées.

The CIO is emerging as the CEO's preferred choice to play the role of chef - the starter/change agent for Old Economy organizations striving to discover technology-enabled ways to combine old ingredients into delightfully tasty, high-growth, attractive-margin recipes.

Stopper: IT executives are realizing that every high-value project begins in chaos and ends in something approximating order. The situation at the beginning of major change initiatives may be fuzzy and ill-defined - that's natural. But don't stifle chaos - embrace it. In this early, ill-defined state, we will lack a lot of details. Tolerance for ambiguity is one of the key skills of the future.

In certain cases, executives will learn that they're following the wrong path.

The great executives of the future will be world-class at ejecting bad ideas and terminating bad projects.

All organizations are either fleeing from a troubled past or moving toward a vision-rich future. CEOs must be able to paint a compelling picture of an exciting future, be able to start programs that move the organization toward that future and be strong enough to dump projects that prove - after a short while - to be inconsistent with it. It's what all good senior IT execs do right now.

Thornton May is vice president of research and education and the corporate futurist at Cambridge Technology Partners Inc. in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Contact him at

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