Next Stop, CEO?

Most, if not all, Chief Information Officers (CIO) end their careers in that position. Why is the CIO position terminal?

Most, if not all, Chief Information Officers (CIO) end their careers in that position. Why is the CIO position terminal?

How many executive search firms, looking for CEOs, are raiding IT departments? Ironically, even major technology firms are not headed by ex-CIOs! Wouldn’t you expect the CEO of IBM or Microsoft to be an ex-CIO?

In my – admittedly, limited and unscientific – research on the topic, I could not find a CIO who became a CEO of a major corporation. I would not be surprised if there are CIOs who have successfully made the transition but I am convinced that they are a rarity.

What prevents technology leaders from becoming business leaders?

CIOs have successfully transitioned to the Chief Operating Officer (COO) role. My search came up empty on successful CIO transitions to other “C-level” business roles such as Chief Financial Officer (CFO) or Chief Marketing Officer (CMO).

Granted, lack of “content” knowledge could be preventing the transition from CIO to CFO or CMO role. Since technology automates processes, the transition to COO is more natural.

But CEOs are generalists who manage, or more appropriately, lead, specialists. If a CFO can become a CEO, why can’t a CIO?

Longevity is a factor –you have to be there to make it to the next step! On average, the CIO tenure is less than 30 months. But I am referring to “successful” CIOs - those who have overcome this “average” tenure. Why have they not made it to the CEO ranks - at their company or any another?

Positioning could be another reason. There was a time when the CIO role was not positioned for this transition as they reported to a senior executive – CFO or COO – who in turn reported to the CEO. With this configuration, one could argue, the CIO did not possess the exposure or experience to make it to the head of the table. However, of late, in many instances, CIOs report directly to the CEO. They have a seat at the table, so to speak. Now, what is impeding their transition to their boss’s chair?

Failing to find a rationale, one is left with one logical issue: Do CIOs lack skills required to become CEO?

Till there is a comprehensive scientific study on the topic, I decided to base my answer on my, again, admittedly limited, observations.

Is the CIO viewed as a business leader?

In order to become someone, one has to be viewed as such. This perception can make all the difference between a dream and its realization.

Business leaders often do not view the CIO role as being business focused. Business is business and IT is IT. CIOs are thought of as techies and “order takers” – we devise the strategy and you build the systems to support it.

In a survey of business and IT leaders, done by Accenture,

  • Only 11% of the respondents – both CIO and other business executives – consider the CIO as a business leader
  • Only 29% of the respondents – 27% of general business managers and 31% of IT executives – felt that the CIO’s primary focus is on business results

With this point of view CIOs might never have their hats in the ring.

To add to this, most CIOs perceive themselves as technologists. The highlight of the survey results, for me, was how only 11% of IT leaders saw themselves as business leaders!

Is the CIO role understood?

What led to this point of view, or shall we say, lack of respect?

I believe, the CIO role is not fully appreciated. A role that starts with a meaningless name such as “Chief Information Officer” is bound to end up without impact.

The idea behind the CIO role, was to have a business person managing technology. It was not meant for a technology person who “knows the business”. It was meant for a business person who knows how to leverage technology. Call it “strategic skills” or by any other term, fact remains that the CIO role is about business acumen not technology prowess.

A “real” CIO should be able to transition to the CEO ranks because not only do they possess business knowledge but also the savvy to leverage technology toward that end. This should be an effortless and welcome transition – it is about time we had technology savvy CEOs!

Are current CIOs business leaders?

Do current CIOs fit the job description? I would argue that, more often than not, they do not.

Let’s face it, there aren’t many business leaders with technology knowledge. Coupled with the misunderstanding of the role, it is often filled by a technology person with little or no demonstrated business skills.

By technology person I mean someone focused on technology implementation - often with a negative attitude towards strategy – “the last thing we need is a strategy” is not the most desirable statement a “business leader” could make. While “getting it done” is important – well, critical – it is a step that comes after figuring out “what is the right thing to do”.

Misunderstood role, perception and lack of business skills have led to CIOs being unappreciated. It should be a priority for CIOs themselves to get out of this vicious circle. One way for them to help themselves is by realizing the importance of business skills to their roles and developing them appropriately. At that time, they will have the votes needed to make the transition to CEO.

Sourabh Hajela is a management consultant and trainer with over 20 years of experience creating shareholder value for his Fortune 50 clients. His consulting practice is focused on IT strategy, alignment and ROI. For more information, please visit Or feel free to contact Sourabh at

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Posted on 06/02/2009 by

Next Stop, CEO? author sourabhhajela



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