by Peter Hind

Going from CIO to CEO

May 02, 20076 mins

CIOs who aspire to be CEOs should stop their pursuit of technology.

Recently the Commonwealth Bank of Australia (CBA) made what, to some, might have seemed a surprising appointment. It selected as its new CEO someone who had graduated to senior management via the CIO role. Admittedly, Ralph Norris had previously been CEO of Air New Zealand. His formative years, however, had been spent in IT at the Auckland Savings Bank (ASB), a subsidiary of the CBA. At the very least the résumé of Ralph Norris is testimony to the fact that a career in IT is not an impediment to anyone who aspires to one day be CEO.

Nevertheless, it is common in this industry to hear talk of a supposed glass ceiling which prevents IT executives from reaching the highest echelons of the business. Yet I have always been mystified why this is the case. The CIO has probably the broadest perspective of anyone in the business. By contrast, finance and sales, the two traditional paths to the CEO role, have an almost blinkered focus on what the business is about.

Stop to think of what CIOs must keep abreast of in their role. They need a solid understanding of all the organization’s processes as they have to look at where these can be effectively automated. They need to appreciate the needs of the key stakeholders in the organization because they have the task of enhancing their decision-making. They frequently have to work with external suppliers and clients to eliminate costs by fashioning intricate supply chains. They record the business accounting details and work intimately with the finance department in producing the quarterly reports. Then they have to manage people and projects. Finally, they find themselves at the cutting edge of all the business trends because of the ramifications these have on IT.

Why then do so few CIOs aggressively promote this understanding? My own belief is that a lot of IT people find it hard to relinquish their technological heritage. For many it seems their ability is questioned if they are not familiar with some new technology announcement. I witnessed this firsthand when I ran the InTEP executive forums in Australia for 10 years. The best-attended seminars always seemed to relate to a technology case study. Those sessions that struggled to draw a crowd were those left-field sessions that looked at issues like benchmarking or staff management.

I often wondered if many CIOs had stopped to reflect on just what the Gartner hype cycle really meant. In essence this is advising CIOs to avoid getting too excited about any new technology until it has been around for a while. Mind you, I’m not even certain Gartner practices what it preaches in this regard. I have just been forwarded a copy of the recent Gartner report showing the best placed CRM vendors for 2007 in the Gartner Magic Quadrant. I was left wondering how many of these suppliers had been through the “trough of disillusionment” on the Gartner hype cycle.

I recognize that it takes a lot of courage to let go of the past. However, unless CIOs are prepared to do this they will forever be labelled the “technology gurus” in the business. They will find themselves summoned to the CEO’s home on the weekend to help fix the family PC. Colleagues will ask them which laptop they should purchase for their child.

No one will think they have any view on the business that really matters. Many might be happy with this state of affairs. It could well be their comfort zone. However, a lot will feel frustrated that their corporate knowledge is not being effectively harnessed.

How then can a CIO make the transition from perceived geek to recognized high-flyer? My good friend and IT author Rob Aalders believes a useful starting point is to break your rice bowl. Rob is arguing that what has fed your career up until now will not nourish you in the future. He believes that to survive as a CIO, and to advance beyond that position, IS executives must make a deliberate decision to abandon their pursuit of technology.

Let’s start with the very title CIO. This talks about information and makes no mention of technology. As such, a CIO needs to become the custodian of all sources of knowledge that could help a business. This would include the corporate library, the records management systems and even the magazines, periodicals and research to which the company subscribes. Moreover, a CIO should also take an interest in what is contained within these data sources. If the answer to every question posed to a CIO is technology, then she will quickly be seen by the rest of the business as too narrow-minded in her focus.

Many IT executives need to take a hard look at what they read. I have no problem with IT management magazines, as they focus on practical examples of IT in action. These examples can give ideas of how the business can be transformed for the better. However, does the CIO really need to subscribe to magazines that tell him all the latest desktop news or those which sing the praises of operating systems like Linux? These matters should be the province of their staff. Asian CIOs should have publications like the Asian Wall Street Journal and the Economist on their reading lists. These will tell them about business trends and developments that will help in their dialogue with their executive counterparts.

CIOs should also examine how they network. What seminars do they attend? Whom do they regard as their key suppliers? These will certainly reveal something about their focus. Is finding out about Vista or a better understanding of virtualization really the top issues that concern them? Surely others in the department can do that research. CIOs should be focusing on issues such as skills development, client retention, compliance legislation and even global warming. These are the challenges that increasingly confront the CEO and the rest of the executive team.

Ralph Norris advanced to be a CEO not because he was seen as really knowledgeable about IT. He may well have been, but I would bet London to a brick that his peers recognized him much more for his depth of business understanding. His time in IT gave him a broad knowledge of the business. Norris saw that his role as a CIO was to grow that business understanding. Recognizing how technology could play a part in enhancing the business is obviously important for a CIO, but the CIO who aspires one day to be a business leader appreciates that these experiences are the starting point in their career and not the finishing post.

This article originally appeared in CIO Asia.

Peter Hind is a freelance consultant and commentator with nearly 25 years of experience in the IT industry. He is co-author of The IT Manager’s Survival Guide and has been running enterprise IT executive events for more than a decade across the Asia-Pacific.