CIO to CEO: A Growing Opportunity For IT Leaders to Rise to the Top

by | Sep 28, 2022 | C-Suite Dynamics, CIO Best Practices, HR/Talent, Professional Growth & Careers

When the time comes to pick a CEO to lead a company, most companies pick from a small number of candidates that come from similar professional backgrounds. According to a recent study released by the executive search consulting firm Spence Stuart, 85 percent of CEOs come from just four professional backgrounds. The professional backgrounds include chief operating officer (COO), chief financial officer (CFO), divisional CEO, and a non-executive position in charge of managing a large business division. Notably absent from the list of CEOs are professionals that achieve the rank of CIO, or chief information officer.

However, CIOs have recently moved to the front of the line for companies choosing the right leader to become a CEO.

The importance technology plays in the success of an organization is one reason why more CIOs have transitioned to the position of CEO. COVID-19 accelerated the trend of CIOs turning into the leaders of some of the most recognized companies in the world. The pivotal role technology plays in moving a company forward is just one of the factors that motivate the board of directors to pick CIOs to become the leaders of their organizations.

CIOs also bring several other attributes to the table that make them ideal candidates for open CEO positions.

Examples of CIOs Transitioning to CEOs

Before the digital revolution, the list of CIOS transitioning to CEOs contained the names of leaders you could count on the fingers of both hands. The companies that consider CIOs for CEO positions typically operate in the technology sector of the economy. A prime example of the tech-centric focus on CEOs is the case of Twitter. In November of 2021, the Chief Technology Officer (CTO) at Twitter, Parag Agrawal, replaced founder Jack Dorsey as the company’s CEO. Dorsey described Agrawal in his resignation letter as the driving force ‘Behind every critical decision.”

Three other high-tech companies have moved their technology leaders into the CEO’s chair. Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella worked as the company’s head of the cloud and enterprise group before assuming the role of CEO. Intel CEO Pat Gelsinger worked as the CTO of the company before taking over as the leader of the technology giant. At IBM, CEO Arvind Krishna spent nearly three decades in various information technology jobs before becoming CEO in April 2020. Outside of the technology industry, grill manufacturer Weber recently named Alan Matula as interim CEO after Matula led the company’s information technology division.

How a CIO Can Become a CEO

Although most of the cases of former CIOs becoming CEOs involve a promotion, a growing number of organizations are looking outside of their leadership teams to select the next chief executive officer. CIOs offer several skills that make them ideal business leaders, with adapting to rapid change representing one of the critical leadership traits that make technology specialists the perfect candidates to lead organizations.

Let’s see how a CIO can become a CEO.

Build a Strong Professional Network

Building a strong professional network starting early in your career can help you leverage your technology background when the time comes for your organization to pick a new CEO. Speaking at industry conferences, joining the company succession team, and serving on one or more boards of high-tech companies can help you build the type of professional network that stands out among the board of directors of your organization.

Take Risks

CEOs take and understand the risks that are associated with leading a company. CIOs take frequent calculated risks when it comes to creating and managing initiatives, such as incorporating novel approaches to addressing cybersecurity issues. Taking and understanding risks involves not searching for advice from professional peers, but instead, identifying the pros and cons of taking a certain action and acting with resolve when making decisions.

Demonstrate Leadership Skills

Boards consider many factors when reviewing a list of candidates to become the next CEO. One of the most important factors concerns a candidate demonstrating the ability to lead teams. A CIO who balances delegating responsibilities and taking charge of projects can have an advantage over other CEO candidates that have not demonstrated the take charge mindset required of a CEO. Accountability plays a huge role in determining the leadership qualities of a CIO.

Understands How to Develop Business Strategies

CIOs typically followed the vision of their CEOs when it comes to implementing advanced technology initiatives. Because of the importance technology plays in making business decisions in the digital era, a CIO who displays the ability to create and implement business strategies that influence the performance of the entire organization become a viable candidate for assuming the role of CEO. You not only have to show that you understand business strategies, but also must develop them as well.

Put Together a Strong Support Team

A CIO leverages technology to help an organization solve complex problems and achieve business goals. This requires leadership skills that make CIOs compelling candidates for leading an organization. However, your success as a leader depends on the talent you have around you. Choosing the right professionals as a CIO to manage daily operations indicates you know how to assemble the right team of C-suite executives to help you lead the company as the CEO.

Additional Career Resources

Your Path to CIO: Tips for Becoming a CIO

How a CIO Can Support the CEO

The Traditional and Emerging CIO-CFO Relationship Dynamic


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