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Can CIOs Become CEOs?

IT is still viewed as a support function that is not central to the business. This can make it difficult for CIOs to ascend to CEO positions, but not impossible.

Greg Carmichael of Fifth Third Bank, Stephen Gillett of Starbucks, Philip Clarke of Tesco PLC, Dawn Lepore of Schwab Co., and Tim Campos of Facebook, all have one thing in common: They started out as chief information officers and followed the path to become chief executive officers.

In so doing, they took different paths to attain the CEO position. Some were promoted from within the same company where they had served as CIO. Others took positions in startup companies, and still others moved to another company that offered them a CEO opportunity.

There is no one way to move from a CIO to a CEO position, and the reality remains that most CEO positions go to either operations or sales and marketing executives. Nevertheless, there are some common circumstances and best practices that we already know from those who have risen from chief information officer positions to become chief executive officers.

Routes to the CEO Position for CIOs

Companies where technology is No. 1

Companies that are heavy into tech are the most likely to appreciate the background and technology acumen of CIOs, and the most likely to consider a CIO as a CEO candidate.

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 businesses. They understand the value of technology, and in many cases, such as when companies are selling their services and products to their customers’ CIOs, a CIO turned CEO is a good strategy because that person has stood in the shoes of the same people that the company sells to, and he or she knows their issues.

Technology spinoffs

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

This is a perfect CEO opportunity for the CIO, who now has a chance to run IT for both his/her company and others. It gives a CIO a plausible route to the CEO position that otherwise wouldn't exist.

Transformed CIOs

In other cases, CIOs learn the end business, impress those around them and become CEOs.

These individuals make the decision to leave IT for a more direct responsibility in the business and may also augment their education with an MBA degree.

In these cases, it’s important for CIOs making a career change to the end business to learn the nuts and bolts of the business, and to have a firm handle on the financials.

Their own company

There are CIOs who reach an inflection point in their careers. They decide to go off on their own and start their own companies. Often, these companies are in the areas of IT consulting and software.

Non-Starters for CIOs Who Want to Become CEOs

If you are a CIO aspiring to become a CEO, there are several “don’ts” that you’ll want to avoid.

Working where the CIO doesn’t report directly to the CEO

If your line of reporting is to the CFO or to the COO, and you don't have a direct communication line to the CEO, you are likely working in an organization that doesn’t feel IT is important enough to report to the CEO. This is a sign that it will be difficult to advance beyond the CIO position. You are also likely to have limited visibility with both the CEO and the Board.

If you aspire to one day be a CEO and you find yourself in this position, the best move is to find a CIO position in another organization where the CIO reports directly to the CEO.

Working where IT is not central to the business

In organizations where IT is clearly viewed as a support function that is not central to the business, it will be difficult for CIOs to move beyond the CIO role. In these organizations, it is usually either the SVP of marketing/sales or the COO who will get the nod for CEO, if the organization doesn’t search for an outside candidate.

Being too technical to run the business

Being able to glibly “speak IT” without knowing the end business is a losing strategy for CIOs who want to be CEOs. The CEO, the board, and the executives around you will be intimidated by the slew of IT acronyms that you spin out at them. They will see you strictly as a “techie,” and not as someone broad or knowledgeable enough about the business to run it.

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