by Thomas Macaulay

What CDOs can teach CIOs about how to reach the CEO role

Oct 22, 2019

The ranks of Chief Digital Officers who have stepped up to CEO swole further in September 2019 when Ulrik Bengtsson made the step up at William Hill.

Bengtsson joined a growing number of CDOs making this transition Last year, the CDO Club organisation for digital leaders teamed up with investment firm Bain Capital to release a list of 101 CDOs Who Have Become CEO since the CDO Club was founded in 2011 – an impressive number given that Chief Digital Officers are far less common than CIOs.

“With CIOs, there are hundreds and thousands of them, and it’s kind of rare to see them make that jump to CEO,” CDO Club CEO David Mathison told CIO UK.

Mathison has personal experience of what is needed for the C-suite, having founded and served as CEO of the Kinecta Corporation, where he raised $30 million in under two years. He believes that the principle reason why CDOs are more likely than CIOs to reach the C-suite is their development of more varied skillsets.

His team looked at the CVs of each of the 101 CDOs on their list and found that around two-thirds of them had previously been employed as Managing Director, Executive Director, President or CEO prior to becoming CDOs.

They include Vivian Schiller, who was CEO of National Public Radio, and then became CDO of NBC News. What may be seen as a step down in position was a big step-up in organisation.

This trend extends beyond the CDO Club list. Bengtsson himself was previously CEO at both Swedish gaming company Betsson AB and broadcaster Viasat Sweden before joining William Hill as CDO.

CIOs are more likely to pursue IT career paths, which don’t typically experience of marketing, sales, ops, and finance that CEOs require, particularly at publicly traded companies whose board members and shareholders will be wary of candidates who lack those skills.

Read next: From CIO to CEO – CIOs who became CEO

CDOs, meanwhile, often leave their jobs in tech to gain executive experience, which gives them proof points in the market. This gives them an understanding of how to quickly build teams, and a contact book of former employees and colleagues they can recruit to their new company.

“Companies are hiring these people, not so much because of technical chops or because of marketing prowess, but because they know how to take an analogue business and turn it into digital one,” said Mathison.

Career advice for budding CEOs

CIOs often assume the responsibilities of a CDO, and hybrid titles combining the two roles are becoming more common, with Steinhoff UK Chief Digital and Information Officer Chily Fachler among the IT business leaders to recently fuse the jobs.

These extended roles are one way in which CIOs can build a bridge from the IT office to the boardroom.

Mathison advises CIOs who want a different seat in the C-suite to follow the career paths and skillsets taken to the CEO role by people in similar and companies and sectors.

If they work in a marketing-driven organisations, they could find clues in the moves made by Stephen van Rooyen of Sky UK and Ireland, who was promoted from Managing Director of Sales, Marketing & Brand to Chief Digital Marketing Officer before being named CEO.

Read next: CIO career path: how the UK’s top IT business leaders reached their positions

If they work in media, they may find inspiration in the career of Charlie Redmayne, who left his job as Chief Digital Officer at HarpersCollins in 2014 to lead Harry Potter digital publisher Pottermore before returning to HarpersCollins as UK CEO.

“He realised in order to stay relevant, he needed to grab onto those digital and data pieces so that the company didn’t hire somebody to be his peer or above him, so he grabbed those responsibilities,” Mathison recalled.

CIOs also have great opportunities to progress into the C-suite if they are willing to acquire the experiences that the step up requires. And the need for those skills is increasing as outsourcing becomes a a growing threat.

“If you’re just making sure the lights are still on, that could be outsourced too,” warned Mathison. “Grab these responsibilities while you can, because it’s important – and they’re going to hire somebody else to do it if you don’t.”