by Martin Feinstein

What It’s Like To…Go From CIO To CEO

Dec 15, 20043 mins
IT Leadership

When you look at a job—any job—from a distance, it looks a lot different than it does when you’re actually doing it.

Early in my career, I had an image of what being a CEO was like. You showed up in a nice suit; you waited for the next meeting; people ran ideas by you; you managed the company according to established rules.

The reality, of course, is much different. My job is to add shareholder value, make sure we have great employees and give them the best career opportunities, go to every meeting I can and communicate with business units around the world. I spend a lot more time coming up with new strategies than managing according to established rules. It’s a lot less glamorous than it looked from afar. And a lot more work and responsibility—particularly the responsibility I feel for our 18,000 employees.

I joined Farmers just out of college as a claims adjuster. After relocating nine times, getting transferred to the sales and marketing department and eventually becoming senior vice president of property and casualty insurance, I got one of the biggest challenges in my career.

It was a $300 million project to reengineer legacy back-office systems. It was the early ’90s, and there had been a breakdown in business and IT communications. The CEO needed someone to parachute in who had no preconceptions about how best to remedy the situation. He appointed me CIO and charged me with turning things around.

Just like my current job, the CIO position was different than I expected. As a businessperson, I thought it would be easy to draw a quick conclusion about an IT application—good or bad, fast or slow. I didn’t appreciate the complexity of the CIO role and IT’s impact on the business.

I think my experience as CIO helped to prepare me for the CEO job. (I was promoted to COO and president in 1995.) As CIO, I had to go out into the business knowing that the people there knew I was not from their business unit. And then, I had to earn their respect while making difficult decisions. I learned about leadership, project management and prioritization. In business, you always have a few balls in the air, but in IT, it becomes apparent very quickly that there’s an absolute need for clarity. What doesn’t get measured doesn’t get done. I gained a love for metrics and the clarity they bring, and I use them today as CEO.

More than the CIO’s, the CEO’s world is made up of shades of gray. As CIO I could add staff based on programming hours needed, purchase telecom equipment based on ROI, or decide whether to buy or lease hardware based on cash flow. As a CEO, I may have to implement a new product or business strategy based on little more than intuition, decide how to allocate budget dollars to areas where results are hard to measure, or enter into a business partnership based on shared corporate values or relationships rather than strict financial analysis.

And most CIOs probably won’t believe this, but the hours are longer. As CIO, my days ebbed and flowed with the lifecycle of IT projects and problems. As CEO, it’s in early, out late. Every day. At least for me.

—As told to Stephanie Overby