Ideas above their station?

skyscrapersThere is nothing wrong with being ambitious in your career and there is also nothing wrong with admitting to your ambitions either. And that is exactly what many CIOs have done according to the results of Deloitte’s first international CIO survey.

The study, which covered more than 700 CIOs, found that 31% of them are targeting the COO and CEO roles in their organisation for their next career step rather than a sideways move to another C-level role. Unfortunately for those CIOs, a recent analysis by QlikView of the backgrounds of the current CEOs of FTSE350 companies has revealed that only one, Philip Clarke at Tesco, is a former CIO. That’s less than 0.3%.

So are the vast majority of CIOs who have ambitions to rise to the top of their organisation going to be disappointed? Do they have ambitions beyond their station? The results of the Deloitte survey suggest that they do. But there is some hope. Forbes recently published a series of interviews under the title Beyond CIO about executives who have progressed from the CIO role into more senior positions, including COO and CEO. So it does happen.

And why shouldn’t it? We are in the digital age. Technology is playing an increasingly important role in every aspect of the organisation and, in particular, the customer experience. As a result it has never been more important for boards to take an active role in guiding and overseeing their company’s IT investments, strategy and opportunities. For an organisation to succeed in the digital age, all members of its leadership team will need to understand what it means to be a digital business and how technology can enable this. CIOs have an advantage over their peers in this respect as they already understand the technology. So who better to step-up to the COO or CEO position than the organisation’s technology leader?

Yet 349 of the UK’s top 350 public companies have found someone better than their CIO to become the CEO. So something’s not right. The Deloitte survey provides a clue as to what may be preventing CIOs from realising their ambitions; many CIOs are struggling to change the perception that the IT function can play a more strategic or value-adding role beyond that of an internal service provider. Of the 90 UK respondents, only 19% said that their organisations see the IT function as a credible source of innovation. So, if the IT function is seen as little more than a support function that responds to the requests and needs of the rest of the business, then by definition so must the CIO. And what company would promote a leader of an internal service provider to the COO or CEO position even if they do understand technology?

CIOs need to change the perception of the IT function and their own role if they want to increase their chances of moving up the corporate ladder. The IT function needs to transform from a reactive service provider into a proactive partner to the rest of the business. The rest of the organisation is focused on how technology can be used to enhance the customer experience, grow revenue or enable competitive advantage. But the majority of the IT function’s time and resources are spent on technical activities; building, maintaining and supporting infrastructure and applications. The CIO needs to change the focus of the IT function, and hence its skill set and resource mix, to match the focus of the rest of the business.

And there is work for the CIO to do as well; they need to build their own credibility outside of the IT function to demonstrate they can contribute to wider business issues. They need to be more than just the head of an internal service provider. They need to be one of the leaders of the business. If they can achieve this transformation then there is no reason why the 31% cannot realise their ambitions to become the COO or CEO.


  1. Interesting article! Though I think the key challenge (as highlighted: changing the perception of the IT function) might need addressing at an earlier stage in education (secondary or tertiary). School and university tech-related courses tend to be quite technical, and don’t focus anywhere as much as they should on understanding communal (i.e. project/team/company) objectives and drivers. As such, each generation tends to enter the workforce with a somewhat myopic perspective, which is further entrenched because of existing business biases and expectations.


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