by Martin Veitch

From CIO to CEO? Probably not, say IT veterans

May 07, 20092 mins

Courtesy of SAS Institute at its user conference in London on Wednesday, I had the pleasure of chairing a discussion that centred around where CIOs go next. Most of the small but perfectly formed audience were CIOs so you might expect an upbeat conclusion along the lines of: IT is key to differentiation therefore CIOs get to sit on the board and maybe even get to occupy the CEO hot seat. You’d be wrong.

Optimism was routed by hard experience. One distinguished CIO was blunt: CIOs do not get to discuss business strategy in the way the CFOs do. Another inserted the caveat that this was the case unless the company itself was pretty much an IT shop: a software company, dot-com or similar.

In my experience, most CIOs have no strong desire to be CEO although some might like to be COO. For those that do, the ability to look across functional silos should be a strong suit, as should be the irresistible permeation of IT into more nooks and crannies of business activity.

But two things stop CIOs moving up: first is the failure of (especially non-US) companies to put key management on a rotational tour of business operations so that they gain invaluable experience of other departments.

Second is the fact that more senior management now better understand IT so that ‘knowing’ information management is becoming a basic tenet of the CEO role. IT is no longer a pure specialism; Mohammed didn’t go to the mountain so the mountain has come to Mohammed.

Indeed, some attendees felt that the CIO role itself could be vulnerable as core operations continue to be moved out and IT becomes commoditised. I’m not sure if I buy that but I also agree with those who argue that CIOs might be no nearer assuming the position of CEO than they were 10 years ago.