The differences between a CIO and a CEO - What CEOs know and CIOs don't

The changing CIO role spells both danger and opportunity. CIOs who focus too much on technology and not enough on business may see their careers take a downward path. On the other hand, those who take a broader view of IT and embrace the business can move into bigger roles, including COO or CEO. [See also: From CIO to CEO - CIOs who made the step up to become CEO]

We often hear that CIOs should start thinking more like CEOs. But that's easier said than done. Consider the contrast in personality types. While there are a few CEOs who are introverts, most are extraverts and fit naturally into a role that requires constant interaction with diverse groups of people. Those CEOs who are introverts have to overcome their introversion to step into a role more suited for extraverts.

Research from Joe Peppard at the European School of Management and Technology in Berlin panders to the stereotype that CIOs are more likely to be introverts, tending to get bogged down in detail and ignore the big picture. While introversion is not a showstopper, it certainly doesn't help when it comes time to step into a CEO role.

Consider also the differences in the career paths it takes to get into the respective jobs. Most CEOs have some experience in a finance role early in their careers, and very little hands-on experience with technology. CEOs need to understand cash flow, since cash flow is the basis for any business.

By contrast, many CIOs had hands-on experience with technology early in their careers, and little experience with finance. CIOs, traditionally at least, needed to understand the evolution of technology, since adopting technology at the right time will make or break an IT department.

Finally, consider the differences in the attributes of the CIO role versus those of the CEO role. CEOs operate under a revenue and profit model - budget is allocated to ensure next year's revenue and profit; CIOs typically manage under a cost centre model - budget depends on last year's revenue and profit.

Management attributes are different from one position to the other. The CIO has to manage a team of technologists. The CEO has to manage a team of people with a range of skills. Communication attributes are also different. The CIO generally only communicates to the outside world about technology and transformation. The CEO has to communicate to the outside world about a variety of subjects - and he or she is one of the principle symbols that bolster (or damage) the corporate brand.

Despite the differences in personality types, career paths, and job attributes, there are several cases of CIOs who have become CEO. But sometimes the move doesn't work out so well. For example, Philip Clarke was a CIO and then became CEO of Tesco. He was replaced in 2014 for poor performance. Perhaps his poor performance was a result of his thinking like a CIO, although it is worth noting his background was coming up through the company at Tesco and not the archetypal route to the CIO role.

Justin Menkes sheds some light on what it takes to be a successful CEO. He spent a lot of time recruiting CEOs for Fortune 500 companies and authored the book Executive Intelligence: What All Great Leaders Have. Menkes says the best leaders understand that the right answer is the group answer. Great leaders know how to get a group to come up with the right solutions to the problems facing the company. Unfortunately, this kind of leadership is often challenging for CIOs who tend to find answers themselves. Often unknowingly, the CIO imposes those answers on their teams.

This difference in behaviour comes down to one other striking difference between CIOs and CEOs: CIOs are more likely to be specialists, whereas CEOs are more often generalists. One important consequence of being a specialist is that specialists tend to take a stronger position in a discussion. As Matt Graham-Hyde writes in his book The Essential CIO: Why The CIO Needs to Act Like the CEO: "IT is an expert knowledge-based function and the people who work in IT roles have their livelihoods tied to the success of the technology in which they are expert. More than their livelihoods, their personal equity and intellectual value are tied to these technologies. Generally I found IT people to be great at taking a technology position and then defending it to the end."

Justin Menkes says that even if a CEO is the smartest person in the room, he or she should avoid providing answers. "If you give them the answer, it may save you a day, but it will cost you three months in execution. If your staff comes up with a good answer themselves, they will bust their butts to prove they were right."

But what do you do if your staff comes up with a solution you think is clearly wrong? Menkes says great CEOs will ask questions that will cause their staff to see that the solution is less than optimal. According to Menkes, successful CEOs are good listeners. Less successful CEOs are too smart. They stop listening and start telling.

Despite the gap between personality types, career paths, and job attributes, more than ever CIOs need to start thinking more like successful CEOs, Matt Graham-Hyde believes. "If you get up every morning thinking, 'I am the CEO of this' you will start to adopt different behaviours and look for different opportunities and outcomes for your IT business," he says.

Once again, this may be easier said than done. The most challenging aspect of leadership for CIOs is that they have trouble with the idea that the right answer is the group answer. Successful CEOs know this. Most CIOs don't.

Next page - Nick Booth's 2010 article on the differences between CIOs and CEOs > >

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