The rare leap from CIO to CEO

The number of times that a CIO or CTO has been promoted to the CEO’s position is pitifully low – and where it has happened it is almost exclusively reserved to the IT or information industries.

But according to Dr Robina Chatham, who has conducted scientific research into that all-too-rare transition, CIOs are not necessarily being held back from the top spot. In fact, she has discovered that 62% of CIOs have no desire to be a CEO. Their reasons, she says, were that they enjoyed their current positions, that they liked the technical work, or that they didn’t think they had the necessary skills.

Their priorities were more likely to be a healthy work/life balance, health and happiness. Only 6.5% saw their chief goal as becoming a successful CIO.

Indeed, in a separate study, she found that even those CIOs that do become CEOs were not especially ambitious. “But they were interested in learning and took an interest in wider matters,“ she says. “In general, they took the job because it was an intellectual challenge.”

And ironically it is this unambitious streak that makes CIOs good candidates for the CEO position, says Chatham: “More competitive CEOs go for short-term gain, but they are effectively robbing the company of its future. Because [many CIOs don’t] have the ambition, they could take a collaborative rather than competitive approach.”

Chatham points to research into management style by author and consultant Jim Collins that found that the most successful CEOs did not fit the stereotype of ego-driven sales types. Instead, they were focused on sustainable success for the whole organisation.

‘Level 5 leaders’, as Collins describes them, exhibit “a paradoxical combination of personal humility and professional will”.

And these qualities were common among the CIOs-turned-CEOs that Chatham examined. “They were not involved in empire building like some IT directors,” she says, “so they were not frightened of outsourcing, for example.”

But to say that they were not driven by ego does not suggest they were not confident; quite the opposite, she says: “They were supremely confident in their own abilities; they just didn’t need a job title to prove it.”
In addition, Chatham’s work clarifies the value of a good CIO. The fact that people who work in IT are often not driven by ego or social recognition allows them to provide a valuable role for the company: that of mediator and co-ordinator.

And as the means of collaboration increasingly come under the jurisdiction of the IT department (see The evolution of the CIO), that is an opportunity ripe for the plucking.

Further reading

The evolution of the CIO
A new role is emerging for the chief information officer that puts IT’s top executive in charge of business collaboration, innovation and change management. But what qualities will be needed by the ‘new CIO’?

Pete Swabey

Pete Swabey

Pete was Editor of Information Age and head of technology research for Vitesse Media plc from 2005 to 2013, before moving on to be Senior Editor and then Editorial Director at The Economist Intelligence...

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