by Richard Pastore

Why CIOs Need to Think Like CEOs

Jun 09, 2010
IT Leadership

The ability to think like a CEO, focusing on how a company engages with customers and its industry, makes for a better CIO-CEO partnership.

CIOs who focus on business strategy are surprisingly similar to CEOs. Although most CIOs profess no interest in running a company, thinking more like the CEO can only strengthen the CEO-CIO partnership and sharpen the strategic impact of the role.

“The difference between CEOs and CIOs is markets, products and sales channels,” concludes Michael Capellas, who recently became CEO of Acadia, a joint venture of Cisco and EMC to provide private cloud solutions. The CEO looks at those three areas from the customer’s perspective, focusing on sales. CIOs typically focus internally, on following a product through the supply chain and recording expenses. CIOs should develop more of an outside-in point of view, says Capellas, who in the late 1990s was promoted from CIO to CEO of Compaq.

When you compare the performance of CIOs and CEOs as leaders, they’re remarkably close, says Chris Patrick, global CIO practice leader with executive recruiter Egon Zehnder International. Egon Zehnder has compared thousands of individual executive performance assessments. The only major gaps between CIO and CEO performance appear in externally-focused skills such as knowing a company’s market, understanding customers and identifying new revenue opportunities.

Those gaps are significant, however, and it can be challenging for IT leaders to close them. “When you’re so busy in your everyday role, there’s little time to hone some of these skills or take on that knowledge” says Rodger Riney, founder and CEO of Scottrade. Yet IT leaders who excel at such outward-facing skills can even make the leap to CEO. “If CIOs have the desire and ambition to do it, and are given the luxury of time to broaden themselves, it’s just a very short step up, quite frankly,” adds Riney.

CIOs with no ambition to be top dog would still do well to put themselves in a CEO state of mind, advises Capellas, “Learn your CEO’s agenda and make it your agenda. Wear it on your forehead, reference it in your discussions with staff.” When the CIO’s agenda is fully in synch with the CEO’s, the CIO becomes the true partner of the CEO in moving the business forward.