From CIO to CEO: How to make the step up & whether you should

With technology and data playing central roles in organisations and their business strategies, CIOs have today a unique opportunity to climb to the top of the professional ladder

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Most CIOs will tell you that their job is one of the most exciting that exist within an organisation. The dynamism that the role implies, as well as driving business innovation and digital transformation, are enough motivation for some IT executives.

However, if you have been bitten by the ambition bug, you might have been toying with the idea of swapping the ‘I’ of your title for the big ‘E’ - the almighty CEO.

The nub of the issue, however, is: do you have the necessary skills and experience for the transition, and do you even want to? What’s preferable, being a technical CEO or a business-savvy CIO?

What position CIOs ahead of their C-suite colleagues?

Talking to CIO Asia, Jerzy (George) Szlosarek, CEO and previously CTO of global cloud-centric network service provider Epsilon, assures that his technical skills proved very useful at the time of making the step from CTO to CEO.

“My background has always been very helpful to where I am now because for the better part of 20 years in telecom, networking and engineering, I’ve spent my time building products and services to deal with the technical issues in the market,” he said.

A successful transition, at least in Szlosarek’s case, implies a change of vision: “a 360 view”.

“In my CTO days I was working towards a set of parameters because we needed things to work in a certain way or products and services to behave,” Szlosarek told CIO Asia“Moving to the CEO [position] is all about the 360 view. Always look at the situation objectively, you need time to step back and look at the situation from a 360 point of view, look at it from all the angles.”

According to the CEO, at the top of many companies, particularly those who work with the cloud, there is people who have technical skills because they are able to think differently and create new solutions - which is not always the case of CFOs or COOs.

“I think leadership at the top has to be about driving the business strategy. Having a vision, communicating that business strategy, building a culture around that and understanding where are we headed as a society, where are the boundaries and where are the limits - if there are any limits,” Szlosarek told us.

Which attributes need CIOs to become CEOs?

According to Alan Mumby, an executive recruiter with over 23 years of top-level CIO/CTO/CDO international recruitment experience, the first attribute that CIOs need in their career progression to the highest rank within an organisation is leadership.

“The CEO needs to be a leader. CIOs also have to be leaders - those who aren’t good leaders fail”, Mumby told sister publication CIO UK. “So successful CIOs have the leadership attribute.”

Strategy is the second must-attribute that Mumby identifies in CEOs and that any CIO looking for the promotion should master. Whereas CIOs generally only inform stakeholders of the strategy taken by the business, the CEO calls the shots and sets the direction for the entire company.

Participating in high-level meetings and partnering with business peers can help CIOs understand the business strategy taken by the organisation and become accustomed to the business jargon.

Obviously, if a CIO aspires to become a CEO is because they are willing to accept additional responsibilities. Boards like to see a can-do attitude and willingness to confront new challenges, getting out of your comfort zone and explore new territories, even if there’s high risk involved.

“Visionaries at the top”

In Szlosarek's view, successful CEOs need to have a good understanding of the role that technology plays in today’s industries and economies - something that CIOs and other IT executives have already mastered.

CFOs and COOs, being close allies to the CEO, are strong candidates for the vacancy and historically, successful promotions of these executives show a preference for them. And although these C-suite executives have a solid background when it comes to management, Szlosarek thinks that what drives success to businesses is having people who think different and create new solutions on the CEO chair.

“Vision, strategy and direction for the future: you need visionaries at the top,” he told CIO Asia.

Szlosarek affirms that his transition from CTO to CEO have provided him with countless learning opportunities and constant challenges in an ever-changing society. In a customer-centric world, he says, it’s all about the customer experience, and that’s something that IT executives need to grasp if they want to succeed in becoming CIOs.

His advice to CIOs that want to apply for the CEO position? “Always focus on the customer and the outcome. If you have dreams you want to fulfil: aspire to the top spot - and aspire quickly! Make sure you drive good business outcomes so you quickly get recognised and promoted to go the next step up the ladder.”