In his 30-plus-year career, Richard Wiedenbeck has run the bases on business roles. He’s been a program manager, headed up business development, served as the president of a project consulting company, and even earned a near six-figure salary as a professional magician. It’s only been in the past decade or so that he’s capped off his resume with a turn as a prominent CIO.
Wiedenbeck, currently senior vice president (SVP) and chief technology and transformation officer at Ameritas, says all those years spent in business and consulting roles gave him a different perspective and leg up over traditional IT leaders, especially now that technology is so intertwined with business strategy. “My teeth were cut in the roles and initiatives for why you look to technology,” he says. “You put technology to work to solve business problems or create opportunities, and I spent a lot of time in that space.”
The CIO, and more recently CTO roles, have steadily gained prominence these past few years as technology has emerged as the key enabler of digital strategy, becoming, in many cases, the epicenter of modern business. With the pandemic accelerating digital transformation along with a shift to hybrid and remote work, the CIO profile has soared even higher, crystalizing the need for today’s IT leaders to be ambidextrous — as comfortable plotting a technology roadmap as they are discussing strategy in the boardroom.
According to the 2022 State of the CIO, 86% of respondents see the CIO role as more digital and innovation focused with 84% characterizing the CIO as a critical changemaker, taking the lead on business and technology transformation. Seventy-nine percent of respondents expect the CIO to maintain a strong educational partnership with the CEO and board of directors.
This years-in-the-making transformation of CIO from back-office manager and order taker to strategic business leader has finally caught the attention of some on the business side. With technology in the spotlight and the CIO position calling for their brand of business savvy and leadership skills, the CIO track is suddenly a viable path for executives outside of traditional fast-track IT circles.
Gartner research shows the percentage of CIOs hailing from non-IT backgrounds more than tripled between 2015 and 2018, with a little over a quarter of IT leaders hitting the job without the customary years of in-the-trenches IT experience. In fact, those with backgrounds in digital product development and digital innovation, executives with P&L experience, and even heads of software companies are starting to encroach on CIO territory, escalating competition for influential IT leadership jobs, according to Martha Heller, CEO of Heller Search Associates, a recruiting firm specializing in CIO and IT leadership.
“The CIO role used to be defined as an operational position that would focus on efficiency and keeping the business running faster, cheaper, better, and safer,” Heller says. “Now, technology leadership isn’t about running the business; it’s about changing the business and finding new opportunity.”
While the shift has opened the appeal of the position to a much wider potential executive audience, Heller contends that a non-techie technology leader only makes sense if the company has already made investments in a modern IT architecture and gone full throttle with digital-enabled business. “These candidates, especially those with P&L experience, may be more strategic and better able to speak finance, the language of the boardroom,” she says, “but that’s all predicated on a company having an agile, modern architecture. If you’ve got a massive investment in legacy IT, you can’t have a CIO that doesn’t have an enterprise IT background.”
The language of business
For Wiedenbeck, serving in key roles at companies such as Boeing, Northrop Grumman, and RR Donnelley, where he actively leveraged technology to advance key business outcomes, gave him an advantage well before such criteria was a must for aspiring CIOs. In his early days of IT leadership, Wiedenbeck says he had credibility coming right in the door, unlike many of his CIO counterparts who have to work hard to continuously prove their business mettle.
“Technology has to care as much about business outcomes as the business does, and [my background] gave me that lens and ability to speak their language,” he says, adding that early feedback from his business counterparts was that he knew what it took to sell to customers or own responsibility for P&L. “They were willing to listen more,” he says. “They respected me because I understood their world; I wasn’t just pitching their world.”
University of California, San Diego
Vince Kellen, now CIO of the University of California, San Diego, maintains that his early embrace of now popular IT strategies, such as agile practices, and his fiscal awareness honed through years spent in accounting and marketing gave him an edge for IT leadership roles. Kellen, who began his career on the business side in various accounting and general management posts, had an organic interest in technology, which he cultivated over the years through bootcamps and university programs, including earning a degree in computer science. What started as a hobby doing computer stuff on the side morphed into formal business roles where he continually gravitated to technology-oriented assignments. “No matter where I went, everyone brought me technology problems and I solved them,” he says.
Because he was on the finance side, Kellen was always trying to leverage technology as a means to an end — identifying problems where technology could make a difference and orchestrating development of a minimally viable solution out of necessity and practicality. “I cut nickels in half so I don’t have to ask my boss for money to help IT,” he says now of his CIO philosophy. “I say, ‘Here’s this opportunity, here’s the potential for financial gain, and here’s how we are going to get it done on practically nothing,’” he explains. “I know how to accomplish all major objectives at a fraction of the cost of my peers because I have business sensitivity.”
What Kellen and other business-traveled IT leaders also have is an innate ability to speak the language of business — a requirement that remains a challenge for many of today’s CIOs. That’s certainly where Mary Glide, currently vice president of technology at Sequoia Capital, believes she has the upper hand. Glide, who studied accounting in college and started out as an auditor, also found herself drawn to technology, taking on tasks such as setting up networks and CRM systems in her early days and eventually teaching herself how to code. A few years into her accounting career, Glide realized she wanted more formal IT responsibilities. Eventually, her search led her to Sequoia, which at the time, needed someone who could split their time between finance, IT, and marketing — a job scenario that fit perfectly with her aspirations.
After three years in the split role, Glide spent another 16 years at Sequoia focused on various aspects of technology and has never looked back. Her current role involves managing all the company’s global workspace technologies and global infrastructure, but Glide also keeps her hand in software development. “I can’t stop building things, but I’m not doing software engineering work anymore,” she adds.
Glide says her early work on the business side provided a foundation for communicating effectively with her LOB counterparts, including helping them understand problems and developing a business case for technology when and where it makes sense. “A lot of times, I can find a more creative solution rather than solving that one need,” she explains. “A solution can be too technology-focused, and people don’t step back and see that a process change is called for, not a technology change.”
Honing a competitive edge
IT executives hoping to stand apart from business leaders pivoting to technology leadership need to keep focused on what they should have been doing all along: furthering their technology expertise while immersing in the business. CIOs who have successfully crossed over from business make the following suggestions:
Get an MBA. Going back to school isn’t for everyone, but you can accomplish much of the same goal through a so-called “street MBA,” accomplished by picking up projects, volunteering for co-sponsorship, even doing several “tours of duty” in various parts of the business such as business development, manufacturing, even supply chain to get a real-world grasp on how operations work. “Lean into the business every chance you can and pick up work,” advises Ameritas’ Wiedenbeck.
Heller Search Associates
Be a value creator. For too long, CIOs have viewed their role through the prism of cost savings, not value creation. That’s not going to fly in the digital world and it’s certainly not going to deliver any advantage when and if you come up against tech-inclined business leaders. CIOs should operate from the vantage point of an internal consultant, constantly looking across every aspect of the business and staying abreast of what’s going on in the technology world to drive growth. “You need to always be looking for opportunities because that’s how you wind up being sought after for that new chief digital officer role or any new CIO job,” Heller says.
Embrace modern IT constructs. Transforming IT architecture through embrace of cloud, microservices, APIs, and agile development is not only a jump starter for digital business; it’s a key enabler for IT leadership and career growth. “You need to create a flexible, adaptable architecture that allows you and your organization to get out of the operational weeds,” Heller contends. “If you’re saddled by a project pipeline and getting reports to everyone that needs them, you’ll never be free to be transformative.”
Polish those communication skills. CIOs need to get as good at the so-called “elevator pitch” as their business counterparts. That means being able to articulate technology in terms that resonate with the business and that are simple to understand. “CEOs have so much on their mind, they don’t want an education in technology,” Wiedenbeck says. “What they want is to understand in business terms how that technology direction makes good business sense. Don’t discount the value of a good PowerPoint.”
At the same time, don’t discount the value of a solid technology foundation — something business leaders must develop if they want a hand in leading transformative digital business.
“You have to get away from the core of technology into the core of business without leaving the core of technology behind,” Kellen advises. “That’s invaluable to the CIO, and those without a core understanding of technology will feel hampered.”