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CIO to CEO: Climbing the leadership ladder



In the Deloitte CIO Survey 2013, the professional services firm found that many CIOs yearn to have a deeper impact on business strategy and move up the corporate ladder. Polling 700 CIOs and IT leaders from 36 countries, the survey found that nearly a half of the respondents were looking to further their careers in positions beyond IT. Aspiring to more senior roles in the executive management team—notably the COO or CEO role—and moving to a career outside of IT “may have been unlikely in the past,” the report found, “but our survey shows that attitudes and aspirations on this are starting to change.”


To connect the dots along the path from CIO to CEO in the real world, we caught up with Shawn Banerji, whom we spoke with last year about IT mentoring, succession and the changing role of the CIO. As a managing director at Russell Reynolds Associates, Banerji advises clients on the role of technology across the enterprise and helps them attract the leaders of the future. Banerji, too, sees the enterprise IT landscape shifting, but it’s not without challenges for IT leaders who want to move ahead.


“We are at an inflexion point vis-à-vis the CIO role in most industries—we are quickly moving into an on-demand future, where cloud-based, Platform-as-a-Service (PaaS) delivery constructs are commoditizing heretofore complex, expensive operational technology,” he said. Banerji sees it as a challenging time in which IT leaders can indeed move up the org chart, but they must simultaneously work to maintain relevance.


Q: Deloitte’s 2013 CIO Survey found that, of CIOs eyeing a new role, nearly a quarter aspired to become CEOs. Historically, haven’t CEOs tended to have finance, rather than technology, backgrounds?

Shawn Banerji: Aspiration and the planning and preparation that goes into becoming a CEO are not necessarily related. Most Fortune 500 CEOs have, in fact, gone through a formal succession scheme and, yes, historically many CEOs have come from the finance function, with any number having served as a CFO. There certainly are other avenues to the CEO role, and in any number of organizations, that person may have a sales and marketing background. If you go back 20 years, a significant percentage of CEOs, if they came from outside the organization, were from the ranks of strategy consulting—particularly McKinsey, which for years was considered the cradle of CEOs.


Q: More than a third of respondents to the Deloitte survey said they lack access to adequate training and development to move on beyond the CIO role. How does that square with research you’ve undertaken at Russell Reynolds?

SB: We have also conducted a global CIO survey in conjunction with Dr. Arthur Langer, who runs the MA in Technology program at Columbia University. This exercise included CIOs and those subordinates in a line of succession. This data demonstrated that this group invariably felt they were not receiving the type of leadership development and training in order to build their career in the IT function, let alone more broadly. These results are symptomatic of a longstanding, often pervasive human capital issue, where IT leadership has been marginalized through ignorance or a lack of genuine interest.


Q: Does that lack of investment indicate an eventual obsolescence of the CIO role?

SB: Not necessarily, but it does have very real implications for the role of the CIO, the office of the CIO and the IT function at large. Vendors have become more present in their interactions with users, aka the internal customers of IT. As cloud-based solutions become more present, accepted and cost-effective, a corresponding ‘consumerization’ of technology is driving user expectations. You can call it the ‘Apple effect’ if you like, but as CEOs, CFOs, COOs, HR and other key stakeholders are becoming increasingly technology fluent, their expectations for IT are being directly affected as well.


Q: So wherein lies the opportunity for a CIO looking to not simply keep the lights on, but move toward the CEO role?

SB: The opportunity is for those CIOs who are using IT to solve business problems and create market opportunities. Many CIOs have fundamentally sound grounding in running operations, resource management, budgeting—all of which are components of the CEO’s repertoire. By adding strategy, innovation and other skills to that toolkit, some CIOs will have the opportunity to take on greater accountabilities, perhaps even that of the CEO. But that will only happen through the right investment in people development. Even though the CIO role may be at an inflection point, the role may not necessarily be at its zenith. There are evolving connotations for the CIO role, the CTO title, the chief innovation officer role—and they continue to evolve. For individuals who are actively developing the competencies to address the business challenges and opportunities of the future, the future is bright.


Q: Are there businesses in which CIOs have a better chance of moving up the org chart?

SB: Yes. If you look at where this has happened, say, it’s in companies where technology is core to the business and the products and services are delivered through technology mediums, i.e. the Internet. The same could be said for a software company, storage company, data company, analytics business, or CRM business. ‘Products’ are either being delivered to the customer via the Internet, or the Web plays a prominent role in the business operation from cataloging to transactions and customer service. In these businesses, the CIO should have a greater opportunity to move up the org construct.


Q: Any final words of advice for aspirational CEOs coming up through technology?

SB: We are living in a time of unparalleled opportunity in regard to what technology can do for the organization. This juxtaposition of timing, circumstances, interest and technology is allowing individuals who perhaps would never have had the aspiration—or frankly, the ability—to move into a CIO role, or perhaps even a CEO role one day. With this opportunity though, is a series of challenges, ranging from the competition for these positions, which is fierce, to the collaboration needed on the part of other key stakeholders. If CIOs and aspirants can’t develop competencies in respect to leadership, innovation, financial oversight and ROI, and a record of building and delivering differentiated value to their customers internally and externally, they do risk being marginalized. And I can unequivocally share that I have yet to speak with a CIO who wants to see that happen.


Shawn Banerji is a managing director serving the global technology sector of Russell Reynolds Associates, a search and assessment firm for senior-level IT executives. For more perspectives on IT leadership, subscribe to the Discover Performance newsletter.


Related links:

CIOs must lead as mentors, develop ‘soft skills’

Deloitte CIO Survey 2013

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About the Author


Alec Wagner is a longtime writer & editor, enterprise IT insider, and (generally) fearless digital nomad.

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