CIO to CEO: Next career path?

The people and process management skills required of CIOs also apply to CEO positions. Learn how they helped three driven IT leaders make the transition to senior executive.

While there isn’t yet a significant trend of CIOs transitioning into CEO roles, it’s absolutely undeniable that the people and process management skills developed within an IT leadership position are vital for driving growth across entire organizations.

Interestingly, the newly minted CEOs to whom we spoke were not overly anxious to step into their roles. They agreed, however, that speaking the language of the business, and not that of IT, is among the reasons they were sought to steer the future of the companies they now lead.

We're always looking for what's coming up next in technology; for an aspirational and driven few, this may be what's next for your career.

A holistic view into the business

In one of his first posts as a program analyst at Tenneco, Yusuf Abu-Hatoum quickly realized that IT was about way more than bits and bytes, binaries, and servers.

yusuf abu hatoum NABCO

Yusuf Abu-Hatoum, CEO

“Business owners couldn’t catch on to what we were trying to do within IT, so that made it difficult to partner with the business,” he explained, now nearly eight months into his CEO post at NABCO. “CEOs don’t always understand the impact and power of technology, thinking IT is a bunch of servers and technology connected to each other.”

C-suite executives and boards are not interested in hearing about the hardships of legacy IT. By design, most successful CIOs already understand the pain points of every division within a company, from production to human resources, marketing, sales, and customer service. It’s likely they’ve already touched many of these business processes because technology, at some capacity, is at the center of operational functions.

Maggie Sayer had never been a CEO, and she admits she was hesitant to step into the role when approached by her predecessor at Keys Federal Credit Union.

maggie sayer Keys Federal Credit Union

Maggie Sayer, CEO

“Over my career, I’ve managed 90 percent of the projects for the financial institutions that I’ve worked for,” Sayer said. “A good technologist has to have the ability to see the big picture. So much of what’s done in an IT department impacts the day-to-day business but also has the ability to impact the bottom line.”

Lea Deesing led the City of Riverside, California’s 60-person technology team for more than five years as the chief innovation officer. Under her leadership, the city earned national recognition for government transparency, cybersecurity, project and workforce management, and mobile applications. She now serves as the assistant city manager.

lea deesing City of Riverside, California

Lea Deesing, Assistant City Manager

“I think CIOs truly understand the speed at which the world is changing due to innovations and technology, and they are well equipped to foster corporate agility to stay competitive,” she said of her new post. “CIOs also understand and value the importance of making empirical, data-driven decisions. They understand where the future is headed —into the realm of robotic process automation and artificial intelligence. Such technology will change the trajectory of the world as we know it, for better or worse.”

Never settling for stagnation

After more than a decade serving as CIO for midmarket manufacturing companies, Abu-Hatoum tired of the political jockeying required to drive implementation of transformative technologies. He struck out on his own and launched an IT consulting firm. What was supposed to be a six-month assignment at NABCO to turn around a disappointing ERP implementation alongside some road mapping and strategic IT planning quickly caught the eye of senior management.

“In a CIO role, as much as you try to be transparent, you always have to manage internal politics,” he explained. “As a consultant, they were paying me to be direct and blunt.”

He called the revised six-month project plan to improve the ERP system with SAP “extremely aggressive” for an organization that was underperforming and unaccustomed to fully executing on IT projects. Few operational processes were appropriately documented, he recalled, so mapping critical business processes and reengineering workflows to connect institutional knowledge of seasoned employees was imperative. Abu-Hatoum finally agreed to step into the role, albeit conditionally for six months while he continued on as the CIO and hired an IT director to manage day-to-day IT operations.

Sayer said she made a personal commitment to herself early in her career to study for and obtain a new certification each year to continuously expand and polish her skill set. That deal resulted in an MBA and about 10 information security certifications that she’s employed as an information security consultant for the past two years.

“Everything in life is really a project of some sort, so knowing how to lead a project, stay in budget, analyze the various impacts, and meet a deadline is never going to be a set of skills that go to waste,” she said.

In addition to teaching part time as an adjunct professor, Sayer said mentoring —both seeking out career advice and serving as a source for those who seek it —have guided her career to date.

Get a mentor and then be a mentor, she advised, adding she’s been lucky to have had several along the way. In her first job out of college as a project manager at Wachovia, a seasoned female technologist helped guide her through the politics of IT coordination in a larger corporation. She’s also added Eric Gomez of TrueSec Consulting, initially as a vendor and eventually as an employer, to her list of mentors. And within the first week as CEO at Keys Federal, she connected with a fellow female CEO through an industry association who’s made herself available via monthly teleconference. In turn, Sayer said she’s offered herself as a resource to an IT staffer within her peer’s company.

Consensus building and staff management

Following to the successful realignment of NABCO’s ERP, Abu-Hatoum said the company is better positioned for renewed focus on growth — 10 percent for the next five years through mergers and acquisitions, to be exact.

When he stepped into the role, there was little to no focus on the operational side of the business, and employees were unmotivated due to a lack of succession planning and staff development.

Motivating employees, leading process change with finesse, forging strong partnerships, and managing potentially adversarial relationships are all key tenets for successful IT leaders.

Deesing agreed that rejecting the status quo and finding solutions to seemingly insurmountable challenges is key for successful leadership.

“Equally important is understanding the mind of the next generation — their acceptance and demand for a sharing economy, the desire for apps for everything, and automating as much of their work as possible so they can do higher-level thinking and creative work,” she added. “We have to step up our organizations to the next level of automation to stay competitive, vibrant, and economically sustainable.”

Abu-Hatoum said his previous focus on key deliverables and performance metrics as the CIO has helped chart a renewed focus on growth for NABCO.

“We have turned the company around. It was bleeding, and we’ve stopped that. Now, we’ll focus on strengthening the foundation of the product and its people that will help lead to growth and profitability.”

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