From CIO to CEO: 10 tips for taking your career to the top

CIOs turned presidents and CEOs discuss their rise to the top and offer insights for IT leaders considering similar leaps.

From CIO to CEO: 8 tips for leveling up
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Businesses have fallen in love with the aphorism, “Every company is becoming a technology company," owing to the importance of digital capabilities. Some companies are taking that idea a step further by hiring CIOs as presidents, COOs and CEOs.

Tapping IT leaders as head honchos does not yet qualify as a trend, but more companies may install CIOs as CEOs if they have led massive transformations, says Khalid Kark, managing director of Deloitte’s CIO program. Digital-minded CIOs may be the only executives with experience managing the velocity of change required to help a business avoid disruption — or recover from it when it happens.

"With the right context and background, they’re not a bad candidate for driving the highest leadership position within the firm,” Kark says.

CIOs who wish to level up must also demonstrate they can handle operations, sales, marketing and, perhaps most importantly, business strategy — veritable Swiss-Army knife leaders who can operate at every level of the business.

Here three former CIOs share their paths to the top and offer tips for CIOs with an eye on leveling up.

A long, multi-faceted career path

Xerox President and COO Steve Bandrowczak served in several CIO gigs and business management roles for DHL, Lenovo and Nortel before he joined HP as CIO of enterprise services IT. Not long after developing the architecture to split the company, then HP CEO Meg Whitman tapped Bandrowczak to serve as both senior vice president of global business services and SVP of business process services. Building on his experience at HP, Bandrowczak helped risk-consulting giant AON spin off its HR business as Alight Solutions, where he served as CIO and COO.

The first several chapters of Bandrowczak’s career have been defined by M&A, spinoffs and integrations; today he is leading Xerox through a business transformation. The industrial printing giant, which owns the storied PARC material sciences business, is developing smart printers and digital design solutions enabled by the internet of things (IoT) and artificial intelligence (AI). A chief tenet of Xerox is applying the formula, Netflix and other successful businesses have brought to the consumer sector to the enterprise, says Bandrowczak.

“Hypersonalization is colliding with the enterprise, creating challenges and opportunities,” says Bandrowczak, who also teaches a class on “leading through digital disruption” for Columbia University’s Executive MS in Tech Management program, which he completed himself. “Xerox has tremendous value, but that value has not been unlocked.”

Bandrowczak offered a few leveling-up tips CIOs can file away for a another day.

Anticipate what your CEO (and customers) want. When Bandrowczak reported to Whitman at HP, he focused on anticipating the things that “kept her up at night,” specifically around what drives quarterly closes, earnings-per-share and other factors that impact the delivery of shareholder value. And when he met with, for example, Boeing CIO Ted Colbert, they discussed how to leverage data analytics to make the business more profitable. CIOs looking to advance should have similar conversations with both their executive leadership team and their companies’ customers.

Take on different roles. As CIOs weigh how their work impacts earnings per share, they may recognize gaps in their own expertise, perhaps in areas such as finance, sales, supply chain or operations. CIOs must quickly fill any skillset holes, which sometimes entail taking on other roles. For example, after serving as CIO for Nortel Bandrowczak moved from his CIO gig to president of Americas, a role in which he didn’t report directly to the CEO. “Don’t get hung up on the hype on the title,” says Bandrowczak. “Sometimes you have to take a step back to get the experience to take two steps forward.”

Learn how to save face. When companies fall prey to cyberattacks or other scandals, it’s the CEO who must keep a stiff upper lip through the hard times. CIOs, with their “helicopter’s view” of the company, should also hone their crisis management skills.

“The CIO has a helicopter view of entire company, including business processes, business architecture, systems and data,” says Bandrowczak. “CIOs more than ever need to have all of those skills.”

Tackling new challenges all the way to the top

Mike Capone assumed the CEO role at analytics software company Qlik in 2018 following three years as the COO of Medidata Solutions, a maker of clinical trial software that grew from $260 million in revenue to $550 million during his tenure. Capone was quite familiar with Qlik, having been a Qlik customer at ADP, where he worked as CIO and held other IT leadership roles before jumping to Medidata. He was intrigued by the potential to help expand Qlik into hybrid cloud environments.

Capone met with leadership at Thoma Bravo, the private equity firm that acquired Qlik in 2016, as well as with Qlik customers, before taking the plunge. "Being a CEO has been an ambition of mine for a while,” Capone says.

Capone offered some tips for CIOs looking to make the transition to CEO.

Partner with your business peers. At ADP, Capone worked with six operating units and established great partnerships with the business unit presidents. CIOs can get a better handle on their own companies, which will help them get insight into business strategy, by massaging similar relationships.

Earn a seat at the table. Capone is a big believer that for CIOs to be effective they must report to the CEO, which he was able to do at ADP. That may seem like a tall task at a time when most CIOs report to their CFOs, COOs or even CDOs. But Capone says such meetings are crucial because they influence the shape and trajectory of the company. "Even if you don’t report to the CEO you have to find a way to get into all of those meetings and strategy sessions," Capone says.

Grasp the business strategy. Sitting in on high-level meetings helps a CIO understand strategy, Capone says. But the CIO who can take that understanding and productize it for competitive advantage will improve his or her marketability. "The world is changing and people who have a firm grasp on technology and how it can alter how business is run are going to be incredibly invaluable," Capone says. "You have to demonstrate that you understand strategy."

Master digital skills. Most strategies hinge on digital, and digital skills are trumping traditional skills. "What’s hard to find are people who know how to transform a company from an older to newer business model and scale a company in the digital age," Capone says.

From managing IT to running the business

Brian McHale held CIO roles at American Apparel and CBS Radio before Colleen Brown, his former boss at Fisher Communications, approached him to run Marca Global, an online reputation firm she founded in 2015. Brown wanted McHale, who was accustomed to putting out IT fires and other challenges throughout his 25-year IT career, to lead Marca Global in helping companies work through digital crises.

At first McHale wasn't sure he wanted to tackle the CEO role, but Brown convinced him that he was the right fit. “She said, ‘I have a technology company and I need a technologist to run it,'" McHale says. Still unsure, McHale served as an adviser to Marca for six months before officially taking the helm.

McHale says CIOs are well positioned to become CEOs partly because of their familiarity with managing costs, building capital plans and dealing with vendor sourcing for various business units. "All of those things require getting familiar and intimate with business," McHale says. "And with digital transformations and technology changing as rapidly as it is, it made perfect sense."

McHale offers the following advice to up and comers:

Immerse yourself in the business. Whether it’s facilitating a restructure or helping your organization position itself for acquisition, involving yourself in high-level business processes will give you great insights into what it takes to run a business. McHale helped American Apparel work through a bankruptcy, and prepared CBS Radio for an IPO. "With each role I tried to immerse myself in businesses as much as I can,” McHale says. “We’re naturally being groomed into these roles because we have to get involved with all of these aspects of the business.”

Run a business line. McHale says running ecommerce platforms for B2B and B2C customers at American Apparel helped him get a handle on how to operate a business. That experience has been vital for his current CEO role, where he sees opportunities to use technologies, including artificial intelligence, machine learning and robotic process automation, to help Marca Global cut costs and drive revenues with technology.

Structure teams to work with the business. CIOs have historically created teams to build infrastructure, including compute, networking and security. While the cloud enables CIOs focus on more strategic activities, IT leaders must also realign their IT teams and operating model to support the business. “I’m happy to write a check every month [for cloud services] if it means having my team add value to the business,” McHale says. A successful realignment that dovetails with the broader business strategy will serve CIOs well as they look to level up.

Copyright © 2019 IDG Communications, Inc.

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