Can CIOs Become CEOs?

Greg Carmichael of Fifth Third Bank, Stephen Gillett of Starbucks, Philip Clark of Tesco PLC, Don Lepore of Schwab and Tim Campos of Facebook all have one thing in common: They started as CMOs and followed the path to becoming CEOs.

In doing so, they took different paths to reach the CEO position. Some were promoted from within the same company they worked for as CIO. Others held positions at startup companies, and others moved to another company that offered them the CEO opportunity.

There is no single way to go from a CIO to a CEO position, and the fact remains that most CEO positions go to either operations or sales and marketing executives. However, there are some common circumstances and best practices that we already know from those who rose from CIO positions to becoming CEOs.

Paths to CEO position for CIOs

Companies where technology ranks first

Companies with technology heavyweights are more likely to appreciate the background and technological acumen of CIOs, and are more likely to consider CIOs as a candidate for CEO.

These companies could be in software, IT consulting, online retail/education, social media, or even semiconductors. The key is that technology is at the center of their business. They understand the value of technology, and in many cases, for example, when companies sell their services and products to CIOs of their customers, a CIO who becomes a CEO is a good strategy because that person has stood in the shoes of the same people the company is selling to, He knows or knows their problems.

Technology benefits

In the banking and financial services sectors, there is a history of dismantling internal IT organizations into independent subsidiaries selling IT hosting services to others in the industry.

This is a perfect CEO opportunity for the CIO, who now has the opportunity to run IT for his/her company and others. It gives the CIO a reasonable path to a CEO position that would not otherwise exist.

Transforming CEOs

In other cases, CIOs learn the bottom line, impress those around them, and become CEOs.

These individuals are making the decision to leave IT for more direct responsibility in the business and may also increase their education with an MBA degree.

In these cases, it is important for CIOs who are changing careers to downstream businesses to learn the specifics of the business, and to have strong control over finances.

their own company

There are CIOs who have reached an inflection point in their careers. They decided to go on their own and start their own company. These companies often work in the areas of IT and software consulting.

Not for beginners for CIOs who want to become CEOs

If you’re a CIO aspiring to become a CEO, there are many “nots” to avoid.

works wHere the CIO does not report directly to the CEO

If your reporting chain is the CFO or COO, and you don’t have a direct line of communication with the CEO, you probably work for an organization that doesn’t feel that IT is important enough to report to the CEO. This is a sign that it will be difficult to advance outside the CIO position. You will also likely have limited visibility with both the CEO and the board of directors.

If you aspire to someday become a CEO and find yourself in this position, the best step is to find a CIO position in another organization where the CIO reports directly to the CEO.

Work where IT is not central to the business

In organizations where IT is clearly seen as a support function that is not central to the business, it will be difficult for CIOs to bypass the CIO role. In these organizations, it is usually the Senior Vice President of Marketing/Sales or COO who will get the CEO’s approval, if the organization is not looking for an outside candidate.

Being Too Technical to Run a Business

Being able to “talk IT” clearly without knowing the bottom line is a losing strategy for CIOs who want to become CEOs. The CEO, board of directors, and executives around you will be intimidated by a plethora of IT acronyms you give them. They will see you strictly as a ‘technologist’, not as someone who is extensive or knowledgeable enough about the business to run it.

What to read next:

Why and how the CIO role is changing

CEOs: The New Corporate Rock Stars

Improving the relationship of CIOs and CFO


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