From CIO to CEO: How to make the step up, and whether you should

Although transitions from CIO to CEO are still infrequent, today more than ever IT executives have the opportunity to achieve the highest rank in an organisation.

Cristina Lago Sep 27th 2018
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If you are an ambitious CIO, you might have been toying with the idea of swapping the ‘I’ of your title for the big ‘E’ - the almighty CEO.

Since you have already made it to the c-level management in your organisation, it makes sense that your career aspirations will point to the highest position within the business.

The nub of the issue, however, is: do you have the necessary skills and experience for the transition, and do you even want to?

CFOs and COOs, being close allies to the CEO, are strong candidates for the vacancy and historically, successful promotions of these executives show a preference for them.

Do not despair though: being technology such an important component of business strategies in this time and era, CIOs and other IT executives have also great chances to make it to the highest rank in a firm.

Which attributes need CIOs to become CEOs?

Leadership

According to Alan Mumby, an executive recruiter with over 23 years of top-level CIO/CTO/CDO international recruitment experience, the first attribute that CIOs need in their career progression to the highest rank within an organisation is leadership.

“The CEO needs to be a leader. CIOs also have to be leaders - those who aren’t good leaders fail”, Mumby told sister publication CIO UK. “So successful CIOs have the leadership attribute.”

From the recruiter’s perspective, there are a number of aspects of the CEO role that CIOs don’t naturally acquire through their job function or previous experience before becoming CIOs.

Notwithstanding, with the CIO position becoming increasingly more business focused instead of exclusively IT-centric, technology executives are also learning about other important aspects of the organisation, such as finance or operations, that are essential skills for any CEO.

Being the tech-savvy can be the CIO’s secret ace up the sleeve considering that today IT permeates every department of an organisation, giving you a substantial advantage over other c-level colleagues.

Strategy

Strategy is the second must-attribute that Mumby identifies in CEOs and that any CIO looking for the promotion should master. Whereas CIOs generally only inform stakeholders of the strategy taken by the business, the CEO calls the shots and sets the direction for the entire company.

Participating in high-level meetings and partnering with business peers can help CIOs understand the business strategy taken by the organisation and become accustomed to the business jargon.

CEOs are not keen on technical terms and prefer to have a holistic view of the business - a shift from technical to commercial is necessary. And although CIOs are already familiar with budgets, CEOs need to be able to generate revenue and minimise losses, as well as understand the direction of the business and its competition.

“CIOs need to gain an understanding of the financial community and how the "City" works”, said Mumby. “Understand how to talk to people in that community. I would also suggest CIOs get some action in terms of brand, in terms of revenue generation, and in terms of product development. All of that hones one's leadership and one's stakeholder management skills.”

Driving digital transformation and discerning which technologies can disrupt your business is a strong asset that will undoubtedly work in your favour at the time of convincing those above you that you are right for the CEO job.

Willingness to take on new responsibilities and challenges

Obviously, if a CIO aspires to become a CEO is because they are willing to accept additional responsibilities. Boards like to see a can-do attitude and willingness to confront new challenges, getting out of your comfort zone and explore new territories, even if there’s high risk involved.

Dawn Lepore, who as CIO of Charles Schwab boosted her stock with an ambitious move to the internet as CEO of Drugstore.com from 2004 until it was sold to Walgreens in 2011, thinks that willingness to take new responsibilities and challenges are table stakes for any CIO who aspires to become a CEO.

“To take any CEO job, things change so rapidly, the marketplace changes, competition changes, you have to show that you can take on something that you've never done before or that you don't know anything about," Lepore said. "You have to show that you're willing to take risks and deal with ambiguity."

CIO to CEO transition cases

Although still infrequent, there are plenty of successful CIO to CEO transition examples to look for inspiration. Below are some of them:

Sarah Wilkinson - Home Office CTO to UK’s National Health Service (NHS) Digital CEO

A member of the 2016 CIO 100, Sarah Wilkinson has spent over a decade working in executive tech roles including positions at Deutsche Bank, HSBC and Lehman Brothers. Wilkinson was the Chief Technology Officer at the Home Office in 2015 before she became CEO at NHS Digital in August 2017.

Antony Watson - Nike CIO to Uphold CEO

Anthony Watson was Managing Director and CIO of Europe, Middle East and Global Operations at Barclays from October 2009 until February 2014 when he left to become CIO of Nike. Watson then joined startup Bitreserve as COO and president in April 2015, before becoming CEO of the rebranded company Uphold later in the year.

Greg Carmichael - Emerson CIO to Fifth Third Bank CEO

Greg Carmichael spent 11 years in the IT department of General Electric before he took on his first CIO role at Emerson, a US manufacturing giant. He then joined Fifth Third Bank as Executive Vice President and Chief Information Officer and worked his way up the corporate ladder to the position of President and CEO.

He took over various business lines on his path to the top, convincing the bank's executives that he could make a good CEO. This year, he added the position of his Chairman to his roles at the bank.

Dawn Lepore - Charles Schwab CIO to Drugstore.com CEO

Dawn Lepore was a CIO and Vice Chairman of Technology for Charles Schwab, credited for her role in the company's successful e-commerce business. Lepore then became president, CEO and chair of online retailer Drugstore.com, and has worked as an interim CEO for Prosper.com for 11 months. Lepore has also discussed the steps CIOs should take to become CEOs. She is now the CEO of Lake Bay Partners.

As the CIO and later Vice Chairman of Technology of brokerage Charles Schwab from 1993 to 2003, Dawn Lepore was among those pioneering IT executives who became strategic business leaders.

Clive Selley - BT CIO to BT Openreach CEO

A successful CIO, Clive Selley has driven technology to BT since April 2010 before becoming CEO of BT's Openreach business in January 2016. Selley had already been CEO of BT Innovate & Design alongside his role as the organisation's Group CIO, as well as being CEO of BT Technology, Service & Operations.

Andrew Rashbass - The Economist IT Director to CEO

Andrew Rashbass was IT Director at The Economist, where he also had roles as a publisher and managing director, before becoming CEO of Economist.com and then CEO of the Economist Group. Rashbass then became CEO of Thomson Reuters in November 2013 until April 2015. Rashbass has been credited with the successful transition moving from print to digital driving an effective subscription base, and he is now executive chairman of DMGT-owned Euromoney.

Thaddeus Arroyo - AT&T CIO to AT&T Business CEO

Thaddeus Arroyo joined AT&T in 2007 as CIO and was appointed CEO of AT&T Business in December of 2016.

Before Arroyo was named CEO, he had a brief spell as President of Technology Development at AT&T, where he was responsible for developing products and services and AT&T business segments. He credits this position with providing the broad understanding of the business and its technology that he needed to be CEO.