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How to Make the Move from CIO to CEO

This is an interesting time for CIOs aspiring to become CEOs. With so many organizations, regardless of industry, positioning themselves as “technology companies” (hello GE!), CIOs have increased influence on their company’s business and have gained valuable experience beyond the expected realm of technology. If you are a CIO looking to become CEO, here are some things you can do to set yourself up for the promotion.

Think like a CEO

The first step is actively thinking like a CEO. Your role should not just be about “keeping the lights on” but should be involved in setting vision and direction for the company as a whole. Every decision you make and action you take should be made with an eye to how it drives the business. You shouldn’t be thinking just about technology; you should be thinking about innovation and how the company can be more competitive in its market.

Have a voice

Know how to be heard and also how to stand your ground. The CIO has an advantage in that she has to work across departments, but it can also be a disadvantage as there are multiple constituents to please, each with competing priorities. This is where diplomacy, but even more importantly, a backbone, are critical attributes. An upwardly mobile CIO knows how to balance varying groups’ needs, make tough decisions when necessary, and stand by those decisions.

Take risks

Most CEOs did not get where they are playing it safe. However, many CIOs can be risk averse, which will never get you the CEO job. Be cognizant of opportunities to put yourself on the line – you certainly don’t want to make an unsound suggestion without doing your homework, but the old saying “no guts no glory” definitely applies here. You will be remembered far more for creative ideas, even if they are ultimately unsuccessful, than if you are quiet and passive and just toe the line.

Hire good people

One of the most essential functions of a CEO is finding (and retaining) a strong team. If you can recruit and choose the right leaders for your department, you’ll free-up time to focus on more strategic tasks and will develop a key skill that will serve you well in any executive role. And, the less you are “in the weeds” the less you will be perceived as “just a techie” so you can continue building your presence as a strong business executive.

Think outside your box

Any executive that has made the transition from CIO to CEO undoubtedly was able to contribute beyond technology. Figure out the pain points in the company and offer solutions. Make yourself invaluable by making suggestions on M&A activity. Lead an effort to establish an employee retention program. Contribute to reducing company inefficiencies. The broader experience you have across not just IT, but HR, Finance, Sales, etc., will position you more as an overall leader.

Finally, if you are looking at taking a CIO role with the intention of priming yourself for a CEO role, make sure you research how the company views IT.

  • To whom does the CIO report?
  • What is the annual budget?
  • What was their last major IT investment?
  • Who was the prior person in the role and what role did they move into?
  • What is the company’s view on innovation?

In some ways, the CIO role is more besieged than ever with the advent of Chief Digital Officers and shadow IT – even the marketing organization has been infringing on what was traditionally IT’s turf. However, it’s also a time of extraordinary opportunity for CIOs who aspire to move up the food chain and eventually sit in the corner office. Unfortunately, there are some places where IT is still viewed purely as a cost center, and despite your best efforts, you may not be able to wield much influence or gain the background necessary to advance. For some CIOs, this is fine, but if you see yourself eventually running the show, make sure you have the chance to be more than the person who just keeps the lights on!

Photo credit: Kari Shea for Unsplash

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