CIOs need to build their business strategy credentials, lead change and start thinking like marketers if they want to attain CEO and board positions in the future.
That’s the view of Ron Hooton, CEO of Vision Australia, who spoke at this year’s CIO Summit in Sydney on his rise from IT executive to corporate leader. Vision Australia provides services to blind and visually impaired Australians and has 820 staff.
Hooton joined the organisation in January 2013 after a seven-year stint as CEO at ProCare Health in New Zealand. He was formerly a CIO at New Zealand’s Defence Force, Countrywide Bank and Western Bay Health, taking on a range of general management duties along the way.
“We need a lot more of us CIOs in the boardroom and in CEO roles,” he told attendees. “We’ve heard a lot about the third platform [social, mobile, analytics and cloud] and the need for better customer interactions. It suggests to me we need the smart brains of CIOs in these leadership positions to drive this change.”
In a career that spans 35 years, Hooton took the audience through the key decisions and professional steps he took to achieve his ambition of becoming a CEO.
On his list of what made him a great candidate for the top job was ambition, the fact that he didn’t want to be a CIO forever, his decision to take on several CIO+ roles across a diverse mix of industries, an MBA, and board experience.
Hooton said he’d also undertaken a leadership program as well as a company director’s course with the Australian Institute of Company Directors.
“As CEOs, we have to prepare for the boardroom – things just happen differently there,” he said.
In order to understand what CIOs can deliver as business leaders, Hooton said it was important to recognise the skills boards look at when it comes to appointing a CEO.
He pointed out that across the rest of the executive suite, CFOs are known for looking after the dollars, while lawyers excel at mitigating risk, making both common candidates for CEO roles.
Marketers are increasingly known for generating sales and driving customer engagement, entrepreneurs have ideas, general managers are a safe option for managing teams and divisions, and engineers are subject matter experts.
“We haven’t looked terribly seriously at how CIOs might position themselves to take on a CEO or board role,” Hooton claimed. “If we want these jobs as CEOs, we’ve got to position ourselves in the same way marketers do to get them.”
So how should CIOs be positioning themselves? “In this current commercial environment, our greatest skill is going to be in where we can take businesses in the future and in the face of this very uncertain digital model we have to face,” Hooton said.
More widely, Hooton said any CEO must be an outstanding leader of people and teams. “You just can’t be a recluse, or someone out there with a big ego. You need to be a growth leader of people,” he claimed.
“You are only a leader if you have people willing to follow you. Smart leaders understand that it’s not what you take as credit, but what others do that really matters. That also leads to respecting the individuals in your organisation and their skills.
“What I can’t do is do their jobs for them.”
In addition, leaders must drive strategy and change – areas Hooton believed CIOs can excel in. He stressed the need to have a strong understanding of the core business drivers and values to do this.
“In this room, I think we should claim strategy as our heartland,” Hooton commented. “But we have to capture the strategy landscape, not the IT landscape. To do that, we need to be leaders of change.”
As an example of former IT executives responsible for big organisational change, Hooton highlighted Rob Fyfe, former CIO and then CEO of Air New Zealand, who led a successful transformation of the business. The banking sector is another area significantly transformed by technology capability through self-service solutions for customers.
Along his journey to CEO, Hooton said he learnt a number of lessons, the first of which is to take your opportunities. He also advocated close ties with executive recruiters, and paying attention to the bottom line.
“Be strategic – think broadly,” he added. “I’ve also learnt as much from the people I don’t respect as the people I do.
“Learn from the bad as well as the good.”