by Nick Booth

How to ace the CEO selection

Feb 22, 2011
CareersIT LeadershipRetail Industry

The work of a CIO can be a good grounding for the skillsneeded to become a chief executive officer (CEO). After all, their work can touch and re­juvenate all areas of the organisation and keep the business ahead of the competition, says Helen Pitcher, chairman at leadership consultancy IDDAS.

But, she warns, they will always have a tough job convincing the board of their leadership qualities. There is a perception problem which hands rival candidates, such as CFOs or divisional CEOs, an advantage. Conventional wisdom has it that a CIO is a specialist who lacks the vision, leadership skills and the all-encompassing view of the organisation that is required.

Any CIO who aspires to be CEO needs to avoid saying anything that confirms those prejudices. Ditch the jargon and practice explaining everything in layman’s terms, she advises.

Commercial nous “A CEO has a commercial perspective,” says Pitcher. In any interview, your interrogators will want to be reassured of your grasp of the commercial realities. Never express anything in IT terms.

Emotional intelligence is another must-have among recruiters these days. Think how your statements will demonstrate your empathy with people.

The overwhelming desire for any employer is for someone with the capabilities to drive the business. Don’t tell people how you will do this: you need to show you have already achieved it.

“A really good CIO with business acumen is worth their weight in gold,” says Pitcher. A good CIO is sometimes better than someone who has been divisional CEO. But they need to convince people that they have a global mindset and influence across the entire business.

In an interview, the interviewer’s notepad will have certain character headings they want to tick off, such as Strategic thinking; Leadership; Commerciality; Cor­p­orate Governance.

Each of your interview answers has to earn a tick in each box. Think how each of your actions will exemplify one or more of these assets.

People skills The common perception of the CIO’s role as technology-centric means that people will wrongly suspect you lack the vital people skills needed to identify and encourage talent. Can you prove you have done this? Can you prove that you have developed competencies, and taken people with you on your journey? “A good CIO is like a good conductor who can bring together all the elements,” says Pitcher.

So think about journeys and conductors – just don’t mention bus architectures.

In its search for a CEO a board will ­instruct headhunters like Simon North at Position Ignition to find the six best candidates. These are then put in front of a panel,­ typically comprising the chairman, senior directors and often the departing CEO.

If you get through this stage of the ­interview process, you will have to repeat the process with the nominations committee. Be aware that the committee sometimes takes a dim view of the previous panel’s recommendations — politics abounds, and being a CIO, you might have to fight twice as hard in the next round, so be prepared for that.

CFOs are considered the natural heirs to the throne, says North, who is a veteran of boardrooms at Shell, Rolls-Royce, Price Waterhouse and KPMG. That said, your biggest attribute as CIO is your potential for creating cost efficiency.

A good CIO can cut costs more effectively than a CFO and can, in theory, create new business directions. CFOs aren’t known for their vision.

Business vision Of course, vision only becomes reality­ if you can get people to go with you, so you need to demonstrate that you are good at influencing people. Your interview ­answers need to convince the board you have the right psychological make-up.

“They need to be confident in you as a leader, as it’s a damn difficult job,” North explains. “Chief executives are extroverts. The inter­viewers are looking for someone who will lead meetings and constantly project ideas.”

In some businesses, an introvert might be acceptable, says North, but that’s rarely the case. So you need to find some evidence that you can deal with people and bring them on.

If you haven’t got any evidence of this in your career, now might be a good time to start connecting with people more.

From a business perspective, there are four areas where you need to demonstrate your complete understanding, says North. These are:

– external customers – internal customers – suppliers – financials

Customer aware Since a CIO is typically associated with the support systems, your empathy with customers will be suspect. Your sales and marketing rivals will be perceived as the people who talk to customers and get feedback from them. But you do have the best tools for analysing customers.

You need to remind people of your knowledge of product lines and demand. Come up with some people-oriented customer insights.

By the same token, you must show that you understand the dynamics of internal customers and the relationships between the different departments of your organisation. Although your technology underpins these relationships, you need to concentrate on how people and processes are harmonised. Avoid using words like ‘integ­rate’, which might confirm prejudices that you’re a ­techie at heart.

Supplier manager When you are asked to talk about suppliers, the interviewers are investigating how much you actually know about the way the business works. Here you need to convince the audience that your knowledge goes deeper than the systems you put in place.

A CIO in a Fast Moving Consumer Goods (FMCG) business, for instance, might not have needed to know about the actual products the company sells, but you will need to sound convincing on FMCG. What went wrong with Product X, and how should we learn from that? The same goes for CIOs in a service industry.

“You need to demonstrate your understanding of the propensity for the company’s learning from past experiences and future growth,” says North.

Up on finance Although CFOs are not as venerated as they once were, you will still need to demonstrate your mastery of the financials, and your use of language is central to this. Talk about profit and loss, shareholder ­expectations and shareholder values, cor­p­orate governance and strategies for tax and social responsibility. Even when talking about your technology triumphs, make sure you tell the story of funding in terms of tax avoidance or measure success by shareholder value.

A CEO reports to the chairman and shareholders, so you will need to convince­ people that you understand the legal framework and sensitivities around that. Appearing naïve on a question like this is interview death.

You need to convince the company you have the vision to take it forward. Don’t talk about your projects in terms of tweaking the machinery and support systems, that relegates you to the IT department and confirms the panel’s prejudices. Instead, express your achievements in terms of leading the business or reshaping it.

Competitive edge According to the Ros Taylor Group, one of the alpha male characteristics venerated by boards is being a good competitor, and not in a TV Apprentice-style bad-mouthing-rivals way. “Our psychometric tests show very high dominant and high interpersonal strains in CEOs,” says the group’s founder and CEO Ros Taylor.

Taylor offers free leadership skills to any CIO that is interested in doing voluntary work in return. Perhaps her most important piece of advice is this: don’t fake it. A CEO’s life is short and brutal. If the shares are down on Wednesday, they can be out by Friday. If you push yourself into a job, and it goes wrong, your career can be left mortally wounded.