Making the leap to COO from CIO can be tricky. Three former CIOs share advice for making the transition successfully.
Roughly 40 percent of the CIOs I know long to replace the “I” in their title with a new letter. They like the “E” an awful lot, but they recognize the considerable challenges in obtaining it. They typically want nothing to do with the “F,” and they do not consider the “S” to be a step forward. But that “O,” that beautiful “O.” With its promise of better compensation, higher status and an unquestioned place at the table, now there is a letter worth fighting for.
CIOs who have made the leap to COO are still rare, but the trend is definitely happening. And no wonder. CIOs touch every part of the business, from order to delivery to HR to finance. They are responsible for standards, QA, cost reduction and process improvement. They know their company’s operations intimately—at the process, data and user levels. As technology and the business become more integrated and CIOs evolve into business leaders, CEOs are starting to see the wisdom of promoting their IT guy for the head operations role.
But making the transition is not easy. To grasp the challenge, I spoke with COOs who were once CIOs. I asked them two simple questions: How did you make the transition? And what advice do you have for CIOs with similar aspirations?
Joe Eckroth, COO, New Century Mortgage
After serving in various operations roles for Northrop Grumman, as divisional CIO for GE, and then as CIO for Mattel, Joe Eckroth became CIO for New Century Mortgage in July 2005. Six months later, his boss, Brad Morris, was promoted from COO to CEO. He chose Eckroth to succeed him. “I was brought in as CIO to work across the company and drive transformation, process and technology,” says Eckroth. “When Brad became CEO, he looked at his direct reports and saw in me someone who could play the umbrella role across the company.” His advice for would-be COOs?
Provide leadership beyond IT. “When you get the CIO title, you are given the birthright to be more than the IT guy,” says Eckroth. When New Century was in the throes of an acquisition, Eckroth stepped up and brought his GE acquisitions experience to the deal. This helped him
gain significant points toward the COO role.
Learn to talk finance. “Finance is the language of business. Get comfortable talking about cash flow, income statements and balance sheets, not just software licensing and your headcount budget,” says Eckroth.
Join a board. “If you can get on a board, either nonprofit or for-profit, you can demonstrate your leadership outside of the IT space,” says Eckroth.
Greg Carmichael, COO, Fifth Third Bancorp
Greg Carmichael held IT leadership roles at GE for several years before becoming CIO for Emerson Electric. In 2003, he joined Fifth Third Bancorp as CIO. “My job was to get the IT organization to a place where we could acquire and integrate other banks and open new branches,” he says. “We accomplished that in a short amount of time, so I started to take on new responsibilities.” Carmichael took on areas beyond IT including investment operations, Six Sigma, global sourcing and program management, among other things. In 2006 his title changed to COO to reflect those responsibilities and to anticipate his role in future initiatives.
His boss, Kevin Kabat, president of Fifth Third Bancorp, had recognized Carmichael’s leadership qualities. “When we began to work together, I realized that Greg saw beyond technology and looked at our business from the customer experience,” Kabat says. When it was time to choose a COO, he turned to Carmichael. Carmichael offers the following suggestions for aspiring COOs.
Raise your hand for enterprise initiatives. “Step in as acting CFO when there is turnover in finance, or lead the recruitment effort for a new head of HR. Demonstrate enterprise leadership in your day job and you’re on the road to your next position,” says Carmichael.
When Carmichael joined Fifth Third, he saw the company had not matured in its sourcing strategy, an area he knew from his years in manufacturing. “My recommendation was that we build a sourcing organization,” says Carmichael, “and I offered to do it myself.”
Quickly demonstrate knowledge of the business. “It is critical during your first 12 months as CIO to demonstrate your ability to grasp the complexities and challenges of the business,” says Carmichael. “This will be a deciding factor in whether they take the risk on you.”
Recruit and build a great IT team. “One of the important
characteristics of a COO is the ability to recruit and hire talent,” says Carmichael. “As CIO, if you can build an organization that the rest of the company can admire, you will build credibility for the COO role.”
Asiff Hirji, president of the Client Group and former COO, TD Ameritrade
Asiff Hirji joined TD Ameritrade as CIO in April 2003. At that time, the CEO created an office of the CEO comprising himself and the CIO, CFO and COO. “We four were in charge of the firm’s strategy and execution,” says Hirji. “When we went through a reorganization, my boss asked me if I wanted the COO role.” A year later, the company reorganized again and Hirji became president of the Client Group, with responsibility for the retail and institutional businesses. He offers this advice.
Choose the right company. “You have to be set up for success,” says Hirji. “If you are in a company where IT is core to the business, like in financial services and technology, then you have better chance of growing beyond the CIO role.” You have a deeper knowledge of your company’s revenue generating engine than any other executive, which can make you an attractive COO candidate.
Demonstrate a capacity for ambiguity. “The COO lives in a world with much more ambiguity than that of the CIO,” says Hirji. “If your boss sees you as a classic CIO, who is hardwired to get into the details and who does not handle ambiguity well, then you will not successfully make the transition.”
Set your sights on advancement. When Hirji took the CIO job, he told his boss that he would be in the job for three years. “When you take that CIO position, your mind-set should be that this is a three-year assignment after which you will move into a new role. It’s a contract you make with yourself.”
Martha Heller is managing director of the IT Leadership Practice at ZRG, an executive recruiting firm based in Boston. Reach her at