Reaching for the Brass Ring

May 22, 2006

Allen Bernard

Even though CIOs today often can have a better understanding of how and why a company works (or doesn't), moving from IT to the golf course and private jet of the CEO is probably not going to happen any time soon.

"I think culturally it really requires a sea-change," said CIO Update contributor Dan Gingras and a partner at Tatum, LLC, a professional services and consulting firm that places executives in temporary assignments at companies around the world.

"I remain skeptical for the same reason I think the state of the CIO is woefully not where it should be."

In other words, if your company views IT as a strategic asset that can drive the business and enable the long-term strategic vision of its current leadership, then you are lucky. Most CIOs, said Gingras, are still viewed as tacticians whose job is to keep the lights on.

Executive recruiter Bob Molnar agrees with Gingras, but is not quite as gloomy about CIOs' future prospects. Over time, it is inevitable that IT will shine as the driver of business change, process and strategy. When this happens, then it will be only natural for CIOs to move into key leadership positions — but only if they have the vision, leadership and relationship skills necessary to deal with the job.

"I think the CIO, for any number of reasons, is frequently the smartest person in the company regarding what that company does, how it does it, and how they can improve themselves," said Molnar.

Once the boards of directors also come to this revelation, then the CIO will probably make the short list, at least, for the top job.

"If companies and board of directors are smart they are going to see that many CIOs … will bring to the table, without doubt, the best knowledge, bar none, of every executive in the company in terms of what that company should be focused in doing for the next five to ten years."

Where you work (manufacturing, retail, high-tech, etc.), however, will have an impact on how quickly you can look forward to running things. For example, it's fairly common in financial services for a CFO to get promoted to CEO, or a merchandising expert in retail. In the pharmaceutical industry it's often a doctor.

If you are in high-tech, though, this doesn't guarantee anything. Often it's the CTO who moves into the job, said Gingras.

But, as technology becomes more and more pervasive, enabling massive changes to the way companies work, create, relate and cooperate, having an intimate understanding of what technology can and can't do for the firm's goals will become increasingly important, said Bob Cohen, vice president of Communications of the Information Technology Association of America (ITAA).

"Obviously, they share the goal of trying to return as much value as they can, so there are a lot of overlaps," he said. "And of course the CIO moving into that job, the learning curve for the technology is not there. For CEOs, technology can continue to be sort of a black box and bit of a mystery."

It may take awhile, but at least the winds are blowing in the right direction, said Molnar. Just look at how long it has taken for the CIO to report directly to the CEO — years. And, as the old-guard gives up the reins of power to a younger, more technology-savvy generation, the CEO's job will inevitably go to someone with the skills — personal, leadership, and technical — to drive the company forward into the middle part of the 21st century. There really isn't any choice.

"So who can strategically drive the company best?" asks Molnar. "[I]f we come back to believing central to many of those issues it's information technology … the CIO is the only one who can really understand how to use IT to best exploit opportunities for improvement."


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