by Martha Heller

Advice for Aspiring CEOs

Oct 30, 20077 mins
CIOIT Leadership

It's never too early to start preparing to become the top executive. Here's how.

Remember back in college, when you blew off your study group in favor of an all-night kegger? Or when you decided you could live with a 3.2 GPA if it meant meeting more coeds? Most likely, you’ve experienced some remorse over strolling through those four expensive years and not making the most of every learning opportunity. How would your life be different if you actually took advantage of all that your college had to offer?


Read other columns by Martha Heller

For more on going from CIO to CEO, read Dawn Lepore’s Lessons Learned

The good news is you have another chance at greatness. Your CIO role, if managed correctly, can be the perfect place to prepare for becoming a CEO. And it’s no wonder. With their unique role in the enterprise, CIOs are well positioned to develop the attributes of a great CEO. As Michael Capellas, former CIO and CEO of Compaq, former CEO of MCI and currently, CEO of First Data, puts it, “CIOs have to be experts at solving complex problems. They have to be precise and experienced planners, they have to spring into operational mode, and they have to be more global than their peers.”

Those CIOs who take advantage of the opportunity to build on these foundational skills—rather than strolling along in their current role—may well find themselves in the top corporate spot. So what can CIOs do now to prepare themselves for the corner office? I asked four CIOs-turned-CEOs to share their perspective on what it takes to become a CEO.

Learn to balance internal and external demands. “The CEO has a much larger group of external constituencies including the board, investors, partners and customers, and has to know when to prioritize the internal versus the external,” says Capellas. “When I became CEO of Compaq, my first priority was to be the voice of the customer and to go on 100 customer visits and see them all. I thought that it was absolutely the right thing to do until I realized I was on the verge of being an absentee leader.”

CIOs have a tendency to prioritize their internal demands over their external constituents. If that is the case, you will have to work on striking a balance.

Change up your management style. As CIO, you manage people with different skill sets—application developers, operations people, project leaders—but most of them have a direct relationship to IT. “As CEO, you have a far more diverse group of people to manage—HR, finance, product development, sales—and you have to learn to relate to them in different ways,” says Capellas. CIOs who find that one management style fits all will have to work some variety into their routine in order to meet the CEO’s management challenge.

Run IT like a business. For CIOs who truly aspire to the CEO seat, Capellas offers an exercise. “Think of yourself as the CEO of your own business with two truly unique attributes. Demand for your services will always be higher than your ability to supply them,” he says. “And everybody is an expert in your consumer business but nobody understands your enterprise business.” According to Capellas, if you can manage those significant business conflicts in a way that keeps all your customers happy, you will have developed the relationship and sales skills to make it as CEO.

Develop your “minors.” As a CIO with a “major” in technology, you may have quite a few “minors” to develop before you are ready for general management. Just ask Michael Curran. During the late ’90s, Curran was promoted from CIO of Scudder Stevens & Clark (now Zurich Scudder Investments) to a series of general management roles, including COO. In 2001, he became CIO of the Boston Stock Exchange, and in 2005, he became its CEO.

“All CEOs have a major in something and they’ve had to build their knowledge of other functions off of that core,” says Curran. CIOs should do the same, he says. “Take a course in contract law and negotiation, learn balance sheets, learn something about marketing. If you’re working globally, read a book about each country you’re visiting, learn a foreign language.” With a pretty serious day job on your hands, you cannot expect to develop expertise in each of these areas, but you can, according to Curran, “get good enough so that you don’t embarrass yourself.”

Scale your conception of systems relationships. “CIOs live in a systems world, and they understand the interdependencies among the elements of the systems—the hardware, the apps, the networks, the third-party vendors,” says Curran. “If you can scale that notion of interdependencies to a broader level that includes boards and governance, product management, people, services and sales, you will be able to adopt the CEO mindset.”

Plan a transitional move into general management. From 1996 to 2000, Chris Lofgren served as CIO of trucking company Schneider National. At the same time, he became president of its logistics business. In 2000, he was promoted to COO. He became president and CEO two years later. “With the exception of a technology company, it is highly unlikely that a company will promote a CIO directly to the CEO position,” he says. “It makes more sense that a CIO would aim for a role running a business unit—one that is driven more by information—before attempting the CEO role.”

Expand your approach to time. “When planning major technology projects, CIOs think about a one- to three-year timeframe,” Lofgren says. “When CIOs think about their company, their shareholders and leaving a legacy to the next generation of leadership, the time frame expands to a decade.” As challenging as technology forecasting is, if you start working long-term goals into your plans now, you will be better prepared when your job demands it.

Report to the CEO. In 1998, John Andrews, CIO of CSX, left the $9.6 million railway company to get into the start-up world. After a few years of launching technology companies, he became CEO of Giga Information Group in 2002 and President and CEO of Evans Data Corp. in 2003. From his experience on both sides of the IT leadership fence, he believes that reporting structure has a major impact on whether a CIO can gain the right experience for the CEO role.

“If you report to the top and have a seat at the table, you have a much better perspective of what it takes to be a CEO,” says Andrews. “You have a broader view of the business and an opportunity to collaborate at his or her level. If you are reporting to the CFO, you are one layer removed from where the action is and you need to make a change.”

Be sure you want the job. “While the CIO role does have similarities to the CEO role, the CEO role is a major step up in terms of scale, pressure, constituency influence, time commitment and external visibility,” says Andrews. “You don’t want to make the leap before you’re ready.” If you quake at the thought of having your every move—your acquisitions, sales forecasts, hirings and firings—scrutinized by shareholders, the government, Wall Street and the public, you may want to think again about vying for the role.

Martha Heller is managing director of the IT Leadership Practice at ZRG, an executive recruiting firm in Boston. Reach her at