Why don’t CIOs become CEOs?

Interesting thread at Slashdot, based on a vacuous article about why CIOs don’t become CEOs.

Here is my comment as I posted it:

I found May’s utterances utterly superficial and very old-fashioned. First of all, though not many CEOs come from the post as CIO, many top executives have had a stint in the IT part of the organization, learning about what the technology does and how to think about the company as a value producing system. As for the use of Peters and Waterman’s book as a sort of criteria for what constitutes a good CEO, that is laughable – the book refers to companies, not CEOs. And it has been utterly debunked many times.

May’s article would have been right on about 10 years ago. Back then, the reason CIOs did not make it into the top spot (in fact, 40% of CIOs were fired, and the average tenure was about 2.3 years) was because they did not understand that the skills that got you into the top IT position were not the skills that would keep you there.

In CSC, we conducted a survey of CIOs in the top 1000 corporations in the world, and got a surprising result: Of the 40% of CIOs that were fired, only a few were fired for "not producing cost-effective IT". The rest went because they could not communicate with the top management group, were ineffective change agents, or could not contribute to business strategy development. In other words, when you are a CIO in a large corporation, you are no longer the IT organization’s representative into top management, but the other way around. If you cannot make the transition to thinking about the whole company as a system, you are toast.

There are actually quite a few companies where technical competence is visible in top management. Royal Bank of Scotland comes to mind, with one of the most effective IT strategies in the world (a central "manufacturing division" handles transactions, IT, HR, and call centers, leaving the branch network – and they have more than 50 brands – to serve customers and grow the business. UPS, Wal-Mart, Amex, Wells Fargo, Royal Bank of Canada, some of the large airlines, Dell, quite a number of telcos, some insurance companies (I particularly like a German one called AMB which runs many insurance companies off the same systems) and many others have top management that understand the impact of IT and think of the whole company as a system. Does that mean that they come from the position as CIO? Not necessarily, though some of them do.

Being a CIO is about information, not IT. For that, you have a CTO or a CIO office that handles the technical pieces. Most of the top CIOs I know worry about the customers and the customer experience. One CIO of a large hotel chain worries about the speed of the in-room Internet connection – and whether the ventilation is good enough that you can shave after taking a shower without the mirror getting fogged up.

IT is a tool. It is an important tool, but it is what it does for the customer that matters. And the role of the IT organization is not to make IT elegant – it is to make business elegant. If the tools happen to be boring and the CIO not very visible – so what?

1 thought on “Why don’t CIOs become CEOs?

  1. RSannes

    Good commentary!
    This is really easy. Business managers don’t care about technology issues. Technology managers don’t care about business issues. Neither care to much about people issues and change management. Unless you’re one of those success story cases on IT management. The hard part is to help them change behaviour.

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