Tips for Transitioning from the IT Department to CEO Chair - InformationWeek
IT Leadership
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Rich Wagner
Rich Wagner

Tips for Transitioning from the IT Department to CEO Chair

Prevedere CEO Rich Wagner takes a look at the skills that IT leaders share and what they might need to work on to move into a CEO role.

Innovative by nature, IT pros can make excellent business leaders. Take Dawn Lepore. She started in the IT department at Charles Schwab and rose to the position of CIO. Then, she joined as CEO and positioned the company for acquisition by Walgreens. Then there is Andrew Rashbass. He served as IT director for The Economist before being named CEO of Later, he became CEO of Thomson Reuters.

Yet despite natural inclinations that make professionals with IT backgrounds a strong fit for the demands of being a CEO, there are also several skills needed to thrive at the executive level that IT leaders are not exposed to in their day-to-day jobs. Having made the switch from IT to theC-suite, here are some of the lessons I have learned first-hand.

Learn to let go.

IT is highly operational and focused on day-to-day operations, taking logical approaches to solving immediate problems. CEOs, on the other hand, need to be more forward thinking and delegate day-to-day management in many areas. Since many IT leaders come from hands-on experience, letting go may be difficult. Trusting the team you have in place to handle the details is critical to success in the C-suite.

Consider an M.B.A.

A keen understanding of finance is critical to running a company. IT leaders need to have a grasp of general accounting principles, budgeting and forecasting before they are able to provide the level of guidance needed to drive a company and report to a board of directors.

Hone project management skills

IT leaders are typically very good at project management, which is a positive in any role. The ability to quickly grasp the scope and deliverables and then assign and track milestones of any major initiative will help IT leaders excel as executives.

Learn patience and planning

We live in an era of immediate gratification – movies on demand, grocery delivery, same-day shipping, Google search, etc. Yet within business walls, planning out major projects and initiatives can take weeks or months, and even longer to start seeing results. Leaders who can recognize this dichotomy between business strategy and the fast pace of the outside world will be better poised to see success through realistic goals and planning.

[Read more about executive and technology leadership from Rich Wagner.]

Find opportunities to drive change across business units

IT leaders may be recruited to run and manage many enterprise initiatives, from mergers, acquisitions and divestitures to major cost reduction projects. These are excellent opportunities to gain practical insights into the demands of a CEO. In fact, these initiatives are where some of my best leadership experiences came from prior to starting my own company. It was especially beneficial that these events were not aligned with one single line of business, forcing the IT team to stay neutral and maintain a role in culture management. After all, system consolidation, application development, and even smaller initiatives like changing emails, equipment or software have cultural implications that require IT teams to hone their communication and leadership skills. In mergers and acquisitions, for example, there is always debate, uncertainty and bias toward old processes and procedures. IT leaders can be essential in helping to drive change.

Logic, coupled with innovation, are two keys to executive level success, which is why IT leaders are a good fit for the CEO chair. We thrive in an ever-changing technical environment, and in today’s fast-moving global economy and age of innovation, that ability to adapt with ease is key to success – both in IT and at the executive level. I have seen many business leaders that are clinging to decade old processes, procedures and technologies because they are either too complacent or too fearful to implement and adopt change that is necessary to compete today. IT leaders willing to embrace change can thrive in the CEO chair.

However, executive leadership requires many skills that IT professionals may not get to experience in their day-to-day roles. Seeking out such experiences like those mentioned here helped me succeed in the transition to CEO, and can be helpful to anyone looking to make a similar transition.


With an extensive background in IT strategy and innovation, Rich Wagner has seen first-hand the power that external big data can bring to a company's financial performance. Today, as president and chief executive officer at Prevedere, Rich helps industry-leading companies ... View Full Bio
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