What's stopping CIOs from getting the top jobs?

Neil Pullen, managing director of interim management and executive search firm Freestone, talks about the ambitious new mood of today’s CIOs

The cynics are going to have to rethink their position. CIO no longer stands for "career is over".

There has been a steady trickle of chief information officers who have made it to chief executive or chief operating officer. Think of Richard Hoffman at Hyundai Information Systems, Ian Cramb at Citigroup and David Yu at Betfair  – a significant few, but nothing compared to the numbers from, say, finance or marketing who make it to the top jobs. The FTSE 100 is not yet inundated with CEOs from an IT background.

The responsibilities and pressures on any CIO’s shoulders to achieve business transformation are such that they potentially have a better grasp of key business issues than any other person in the organisation. 

And there are now more opportunities than ever for CIOs to become CEOs, due to the need for constant business transformation and evolution to keep up with an increasingly competitive global marketplace.

So what is holding CIOs back? The answer is a mixture of misconceptions, prejudices and, frankly, CIOs not always helping themselves. Let’s look at the evidence.

The first reason is history, or lack of it. It is easy to forget that IT is a very young industry; it has only existed as a career path since the 1970s, and it was only defined as a career option relatively recently. The pioneering spirit of the early days may be over, but its legacy remains as the industry matures.

One problem allied to the industry’s youth is perhaps a lack of consistency in the expectations of the role, or even formal accreditation for the CIO. Phil Smith, former global CIO of Royal & SunAlliance and current chairman of Xantus Consulting, says that whereas a finance director will have widely recognised letters after their name, there is no straightforward equivalent for the CIO, and perhaps this may reduce the business credibility and perceived qualification of CIOs.

Marketing and finance directors are often seen as a more acceptable choice for promotion than IT directors. This is because, as part of the traditional senior executive team, they are regarded as "a safe pair of hands". They are a known quantity with known skills, and you can't argue with the power of sales and revenue.

Another factor is that IT has traditionally been perceived as a support role rather than a strategic role. This is despite the fact that IT provides the backbone of almost all businesses, permeating every aspect and maintaining every connection between staff, customers, suppliers and partners.

Moving on from the misconceptions and prejudices that keep CIOs in their place, let’s consider instead how CIOs might be holding themselves back.

If you work in sales, marketing or finance, the chances are that from the very first days of your career, you will need to liaise with customers. People in these roles quickly learn the importance of communicating their ideas and generating networks.

It has often been the case that people who work in IT have been able to pursue their line of work without needing to network in the same way. This can be a disadvantage when it comes to being promoted to the top job.

Another communication issue is the temptation to talk in "IT speak" rather than in business terms. This works against CIOs in two ways. Firstly, it means that not everyone will understand the messages they are trying to get across. Secondly, it means that situations are expressed from an IT point of view, rather than from a business point of view.

In addition, it may be stereotypical to say that CIOs are reactive rather than proactive, and that they see problems where CEOs see opportunities. However, these stereotypes are based on a grain of truth.

The management expertise of the CIO community is as good as any other group. If CIOs grasp the challenge to defeat some of these common prejudices and to aim high, they are in a better position than ever to achieve their goal. CIO to CEO? Carpe diem!

Neil Pullen is managing director of interim management and executive search firm Freestone.

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