by Daniel J. Horgan

Why IT Execs Are Suited for Being CEO

Dec 01, 20023 mins

CIOs aren’t built to lead companies, so the stereotype goes. Their overly analytical mind-set, lack of social skills and limited strategic sense mean that attainment of the CIO title is the apex of an IT worker’s career.

But now comes a study from Santa Clara University challenging that conception, saying that IT executives have been incorrectly typecast and?by dint of both personality and training?are remarkably well-suited to claim the CEO throne.

Coauthors Peter S. DeLisi and Ron Danielson used the InQ psychology test, which categorizes thinking styles according to how people process information, to survey 339 mid- and executive-level IT professionals from companies in various industries and the public sector. To the researchers’ surprise, the IT execs scored low in the analyst category. Instead, they tested strongest in the idealist and pragmatist categories, which denote a big-picture, action-oriented mind-set.

“That puts [the surveyed IT executives] in the same sort of thinking styles as CEOs,” says DeLisi, who is academic dean of the IT Leadership Program at the Santa Clara, Calif.-based school. “We thought that they would test as analysts. [The test-takers] even perceived themselves as analysts.”

Yet no other corporate executive has a better knowledge than CIOs of how the enterprise works, say DeLisi and Danielson, an associate professor of computer engineering who is also the university’s CIO. While finance and human resources department heads can have equivalent organizationwide perspectives, they don’t have the detailed level of understanding that IT executives do. “Neither [CFOs nor HR heads] can explain how a customer order gets converted into a manufacturing process, and from there into subsequent logistical, financial and service systems,” reads the study, which is titled “’I Think I Am, Therefore…’: An Inquiry into the Thinking Styles of IT Executives and Professionals.” Indeed, with a broad view of the business and a lack of allegiance to any single function, the CIO has a perspective comparable to that of the CEO.

The preconception that IT executives lack the capabilities to lead is not only a missed opportunity for organizations, it also has been detrimental to CIOs’ careers. They miss out on job assignments and opportunities for advancement, say the researchers.

So how can CIOs spread the message that they are ready to lead? DeLisi and Danielson offer two overarching suggestions: CIOs should hone executive-level skills by, for example, volunteering to head up major initiatives, and they should familiarize themselves with all aspects of the business.