Ascending the CEO Throne

By Patrick Gray

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The biographies of many top CEOs read like the lineage of a powerful medieval king, carefully groomed in all the necessary skills of a monarch, allied with all the right people, and given increasingly difficult leadership tests until he is ready to take the throne.

Bright-eyed MBA graduates are inspected for “CEO material” long before they will be even close to the top position. And decades in advance of their C-suite arrival, candidates are carefully moved around the company for seasoning. From international assignments to operational roles at the head of a division or business unit, the potential CEO’s career is a series of stepping stones, gradually gaining experience until they are ready to ascend to the pinnacle of corporate advancement.

Contrast the CEO’s advancement path with that of the CIO. A simple poll of MBA students would find hundreds interested in the top corporate posts: CEO, CFO, COO, but likely few interested in the CIO post. Many CIOs find themselves thrust into the job, either through restructuring or the company caught unawares when its current CIO departs. Similarly, the CIO post is rarely a stop on the way to CEO. While hundreds of CEO’s have held the chief financial or operating title, rarely was the CIO position considered as a training ground for future CEOs.

A New Look

The CIO position has been around for over three decades, yet few companies regard it as both a potential proving ground for future CEOs, and a role that needs a defined ascension plan. Managing a few datacenters and a cadre of programmers will likely not excite top management talent, but today’s CIO must be more than an operational manger tasked with providing a service at the lowest possible cost.

In many companies, IT is one of the largest expenses and producing measurable business value from that expenditure is a Herculean task that will test the mettle of any executive, especially one with their eyes on the CEO position. This changing CIO role also places vast demands on an executive, and taking a good IT manager and dropping them into the C-suite without any formal seasoning is a recipe for disaster if that person is to be effective.

The modern CIO needs to speak the language of business first, and technology second, while having a passion for both. This does not preclude those in the technology ranks from performing effectively as a CIO, rather it suggests that they be given increasing operational responsibility and roles where they must interact with other business leaders as a peer, rather than a service provider.

Selling the CIO

Skipping the CIO post as a potential stopping ground on the way to CEO and not providing adequate preparation to those that aspire to it, makes the post unattractive to motivated and capable executives—exactly the people the role needs. For a simple litmus test, ask other executives if they could see the CIO running the company. If they choke back laughter before answering, obviously the CIO role is still an exercise in providing a service and doing it cheaply. Until the CIO is legitimately included in the ascension plan of a company, it will likely not deliver the value IT is capable of.

The CIO post also gets the short shift in most MBA programs. While your peers might be analyzing case studies of some of the greatest business achievements in the past decade, those on an information services track are taking programming classes; probably the last thing a CIO need be concerned with. Until businesses demand more from the schools they recruit from, they will continue to have IT candidates that are at a disadvantage to their peers from a finance or operational background.

Reaping Rewards

Changing the organization cachet of the CIO title requires a massive shift in thinking about the role, and those who aspire to it. While the mental shift may be huge structurally, including the CIO role on the advancement path to CEO is less of a challenge. This change alone will attract candidates who are willing to test their mettle at running a business.

Many IT shops are also shackled by traditional customer service thinking, or are an engineering and utility shop that would rather be left to its own devices than becoming a corporate maverick. If a leader can shift an IT organization, he or she will likely have what it takes to run the business. In the end, everyone wins: the company gets a highly effective IT operation and yet another avenue for potential CEOs, while its people gain experience and make their mark on an often overlooked aspect of the corporation.

Patrick Gray is the founder and president of Prevoyance Group, and author of Breakthrough IT: Supercharging Organizational Value through Technology. Prevoyance Group provides strategic IT consulting services to Fortune 500 and 1000 companies. Patrick can be reached at patrick.gray@prevoyancegroup.com.