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Why CIOs Don’t Become CEOs – By Chris Laping

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Author: Chris Laping, CEO of People Before Things

“A leader is one that knows the way, goes the way, and shows the way.” —John C. Maxwell

Last month, I sat down for an afternoon coffee with a seasoned Chief Information Officer (CIO), Jim (Name changed for the purpose of this blog). He and I are connected to some of the same people but had never formally met. Over the years, I’ve heard such great things about him, especially how he focuses on team members first. I was anxious for the meeting and grateful for his time—I learned quite a bit in that hour and a half.

One of the things Jim said that really piqued my interest was a passing comment about CIOs becoming CEOs. He said, “I resolved a long time ago that the CIO job would be the pinnacle of my career.” It caught me off guard because, if I’ve ever met a CIO with the presence and experience to run a company, it was Jim. But then he followed up with, “CEOs so rarely understand the CIO role … how can you ever get promoted if your boss [or Board] doesn’t even know if you’re doing a great job or not?”

It’s no secret that as a CIO I was interested in becoming a CEO. As such, Jim’s revelation really got my attention. We’ve all seen the stats which clearly state that less than 2% of CIOs become CEOs, while 79% of CIOs have an interest in growing into a larger role. However, I’ve never found a succinct answer for why CIOs rarely breakthrough to the next level. I thought Jim might be onto something.

This conversation reminded me of a CIO conference I attended. There was an audience of well-respected technology leaders representing well-respected companies. Our closing keynote speaker was the President of one of the attending brands. (I guarantee you would know the brand.) His talk was meant to reassure us that the work of IT was vital and, in his case, moving his organization forward. Instead, he bragged to the audience, “My IT guy is here. I don’t know exactly what he does, but I know we’re spending $30 million a year on technology and innovation.” During the Q&A session, one outspoken CIO had the guts to ask, “How can you spend $30 million on anything and not bother yourself with what your ‘IT guy’ is doing?” He wasn’t alone in the crowd with this thought.

When I reflect on that President’s words, two questions come to me. First, in this market, is it professionally and socially acceptable to plead ignorance about technology? I ask because we routinely hear about digital transformation and how it is changing business (inside and out). We also see how the most relevant and quickly growing public companies focus on innovation. If I ask most CEOs, “What’s the biggest challenge(s) in your organization today,” (s)he is readily able to provide a laundry list of improvement opportunities most of which have some connection to technology. So, why is it acceptable to not know more?

Second, if a CEO is disconnected from the job of the CIO, what’s the likelihood that technology-enabled change has half a chance of succeeding in his/her organization? CIOs rarely push change that originates solely in his/her office. Rather, it’s more common for some new innovation to solve a pain point or seize an opportunity that originates in other, non-IT functions. To rally people in the organization for a change, the CEO has to offer and reinforce a compelling WHY that connects team members to purpose. If (s)he doesn’t, why would team members believe the work is important?

We all know CEOs must be highly effective at identifying opportunities to improve an organization. I’m just saying that in most cases, those opportunities need to be solved with some combination of people, process, AND technology—in concert. And when a solution requires an organization to change, it’s critical the CEO takes accountability with the other leaders to enable and activate people for that change. And this most certainly requires a high level of collaboration with the CIO.

In 2016, you’d probably never hear a CEO proclaim that the CFO’s job was a mystery or that good money was being invested by the function of Finance with unknown outcomes driven by misunderstood activities. That would be viewed as categorically irresponsible. Rather, CEOs regularly collaborate with CFOs to ensure the financial health of the company. It just makes sense to do the same with a CIO given that technology is such a large part of day-to-day operations and touches almost every single team member and process in the organization.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying all CIOs are ready to become a CEO. The expectations of good leadership for CIOs is the same as any other executive leader. You have to be transformative across functions and have a bias for action. Most importantly, you have to do the people-related groundwork that’s required to build followership. If you can’t do that, the CEO position shouldn’t be the goal. But a final consideration for CEOs: identifying those attributes in CIOs doesn’t require you to be an engineering savant or how to write code. Therefore, it’s probably not okay to not know what your IT guy is doing or if they’re doing a good job.

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Chris Laping

About Chris Laping

Chris Laping shares more than 24 years of information technology, business transformation and change leadership experience through his recently released book, "People Before Things," and a boutique consultancy, People Before Things, LLC. Prior to this work, Mr. Laping enjoyed 14 years as a CIO across three brands including GMAC and Red Robin Gourmet Burgers. He has been recognized by the Economist, InformationWeek, and ComputerWorld for various leadership accomplishments and the work of his teams has been highlighted in four published books. Mr. Laping frequently does speaking engagements across the country. He lives in Denver with his wife, three kids and golden retriever.