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CIOs share how they made the leap to CEO

Kim S. Nash | Sept. 26, 2013
CIOs who won the CEO job talk candidly about the relentless pressure for profits, the ultimate accountability and what they wish they'd known as CIO.

In his short time as top leader, Thieme recognized he needed a wider mind-set. "Rather than being a partner with all the other functions, they are your direct reports," he says. "You look at how they all work together to improve our position in the marketplace."

Now he is working on a startup company: a poultry and beef farm focused on the local food movement. But he's still on the lookout for a CEO position.

Aspiring to the Corner Office

Metrolist CEO Kirby Slunaker predicts that more CIOs will rise to the CEO job, citing the fact that, perhaps more than any other officer, CIOs see all parts of the business. Many CIOs aspire to be CEOs. One industry survey found that 42 percent of CIOs worldwide say they have the necessarily skills for the job. But just 4 percent of existing CEOs among the world's biggest companies are former CIOs.

Boushy, for one, is disappointed that more CIOs haven't arrived in the CEO office in the last decade, perhaps because many IT leaders are still too tactical and risk-averse. "The CEO's role in most organizations is about as broad a role as you can have," he says. "One's ability to be prepared for what comes your way—despite the fact that maybe you've never had that experience before—is a very important commodity."

Horner says the portion of potential CEOs in the CIO ranks is "a small percentage."

He laments the "disservice" some CIOs do to themselves and their IT groups when they tolerate their staff being too focused on in-the-weeds technology in discussions with colleagues outside of IT. "They behave like technical nerds instead of business-improvement folks who happen to know technology," he says.

Now he doesn't tolerate it. "I will stop people mid-sentence and say, 'I don't need to know that.'"

If Horner hires a CIO—and he sees no need for one yet—it'll be someone of a new mold. He'd want someone to spot emerging IT and train professionals on those hot technologies so that Mastech will be out in front of staffing needs. Or the CIO would advise him on smart acquisitions. "They wouldn't be taking care of PeopleSoft and our outsourced email," he says. "They would be helping me grow my business."

Kevin Horner, CEO of Mastech and former CIO of Alcoa, offers advice for CIOs who aspire to the top job.

  • Create time to focus on strategy-setting and customer issues by delegating as much of your daily operational tasks as possible and developing potential CIO successors.
  • Develop a network of executive peers and mentors inside and outside your company so you can learn some of the nuances of performing C-suite jobs other than CIO. Volunteer internally to run a large acquisition integration or advise an external nonprofit.
  • Work up the org chart to build relationships with key internal customers. Then help them solve the problems of their external customers.
  • Make IT strategy your personal objective. That is, don't delegate it. Spend your newly freed-up time living and selling that strategy.


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