The path of CIO to CEO

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With technology and digital playing a leading role in every business operation, it has become a survival necessity that company leadership be well-versed in these skills. Having a digitally forward C-Suite and Board, specifically the CEO, shapes an organization’s decision-making process and the overall strategic future of the company. Companies with these skills at the most senior levels are proven to be more successful.

Technology was not always a top agenda item for leadership. Even a decade ago, Chief Information and Technology officers were seen more as support roles, often reporting to a CFO, versus needing to have a seat at the executive table. Since, they have shown their value, not only in bringing companies into the new digital age and driving new revenues, but with tactical development integrating new platforms and methods and cybersecurity.

Few roles outside of CIO in a firm hold a holistic, enterprise-wide view, necessary to truly understand the drivers of a business.

With this in mind, should more CIOs be considered for the CEO role?

The current state of the CIO

The CIO has evolved since it first stepped on the scene more than 30 years ago. The role has earned its space the spotlight, extending beyond IT management to helping to drive revenue through analyzed data, digital products and greater connectivity with customers and consumers.

The CIO role has increasingly become a commercial role with top-line growth firmly on the agenda. Coupled to this, with society deeply rooted in the advancement and success of technology, companies are digitizing end-to-end. Having leadership who understands the complexities of these challenges puts an organization at an advantage.

Heather Barnes

Partner at Leathwaite in the global Technology & Digital practice.

The counter argument

Although it seems like a promising path, not all agree that the jump from CIO to CEO is an ideal one. CEOs are tasked with certain duties that do not align with what is traditionally assigned to technology leaders. CEOs are the face of the company and are focused on multiple aspects of the business on a daily basis. 

Although helpful, they do not necessarily need to be wholly versed in finance, marketing, or technology to come to a concise strategic decision. It is the job of the CFO, CTO and CMO to keep the CEO in the know. Perhaps one of the biggest adaptations for a transitioning CIO is this approach. What makes a CEO successful is being able to jump and work with their experts to keep the business going.

Leap of faith

CIOs who want to consider the path to CEO must be aware of what they are seeking to undertake. They must know their business from top to bottom, understand their peer functions and demonstrate exceptional strategic and commercial acumen.

We are seeing CIOs move into Chief Transformation Officer and COO roles as a next step, with a view to reaching CEO. Indeed, a number of firms are appointing CEOs with strong CIO backgrounds, suggesting the concept is not altogether unreasonable.

CIOs need experience leading projects across all areas of a business, from the executive board down to daily interaction with customers and clients. They are no longer working to build the company up internally and solely navigate enterprise systems but are growing the company externally as well through the digital connectivity and products consumers expect. They are constantly serving as spokesperson, final decision maker or presenting on the company’s behalf.

CIOs need to deliver confidently to earn the respect demanded from the role of CEO and be seen as a broad leader of the firm. On-the-job shadowing or taking on additional responsibilities outside of the tech realm will help determine if it is the right next step.

The representation gap

Talk of CIOs moving to CEO means a shifting of talent and skillset. With technology being such a demanding focus, this move often leaves boards with a gap in tech representation. The definition of digital literacy is constantly changing as the landscape advances and can make or break the strategic future of a company.

More firms should be elevating the role of technology and digital to the Boardroom, thus lifting the role of the CIOs and the value it brings to a firm and raising the quality of conversations at Non-Executive level. It has been proven that firms with technology and digital Board leaders are more successful, with higher share prices.

Exploring leadership

The jump from CIO to CEO might not happen overnight, but in the meantime, potential candidates can consider other positions in the company. With the evolving business landscape, we have seen an increase in roles such as Chief Transformation Officer and COO that can provide opportunities to develop skills a CEO needs. 

As with any move, making the switch is not impossible. We have seen other trends come about over the last decade alone, and this will no doubt be a hot one to watch in the coming years.

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Heather Barnes, Partner at Leathwaite in the global Technology & Digital practice.