Can CIOs really become CEOs?

sign to CEO officeThere has long been a debate as to whether CIOs have the right skills and experience to become CEOs. And whilst there have been some high profile examples of this happening they still tend to be the exception. The issue was brought to the fore again recently following comments by Isabel Rutland, the co-founder of Discover&Deliver, a luxury lifestyle website.

In 2014 Discover&Deliver appointed former Net-a-Porter CIO Richard Lloyd-Williams as the company’s CEO. However, Lloyd-Williams was recently relieved of his duties and it is the explanation for this decision given by Rutland in an interview with Computing that has sparked the debate once more:

“I think that CIOs tend to be by nature introverted people, that’s not to say introversion is a bad thing, but they are people who tend to like working in very small groups or on their own; you become a coder because you like to work by yourself, it’s not a team sport …

… I think I probably wouldn’t find [CIOs or CTOs] with the right human characteristics and dynamism that you need, especially in a small business. [Staff] have to love you, they have to follow you – and you have to have a tremendous amount of leadership character to be able to do that.”

The view that all CIOs are introverts that started work as coders is a dated one. It may have been broadly true 20 years ago but it is certainly not the case now. An increasing number of CIOs have come from non-technical backgrounds or have at least spent a significant period of their career outside of the IT function. CIOs and the wider IT community are a far more diverse group of people than Rutland suggests and IT departments have a mix of personality styles. So whilst it may be true to say that there is still a higher proportion of introverts in the IT function than there are in, say, the marketing function, it is wide of the mark to assume that all IT staff prefer working on their own.

But the inference that introversion is a bar to becoming a CEO is the real issue here. There is no evidence to suggest that extroverts make better leaders than introverts. In fact, there is plenty of research to show there is no difference between the two personality types and there are even some studies that claim that introverts actually make better leaders. Introverts tend to listen more, they are better at taking time out to reflect, think, plan and consider issues, they also tend to be calmer in tense situations, exhibit more humility and, through their preference to network on a one-to-one basis, create deeper and more meaningful connections with other people. These characteristics are all essential to being a good leader and are no doubt possessed by Barack Obama, Marissa Mayer, Bill Gates, Warren Buffett and Mark Zuckerberg to name just a few introverts who happen to great leaders.

In the second part of her explanation for firing Lloyd-Williams, Rutland implies CIOs do not have the right people skills, capabilities or dynamic qualities required to be a CEO. Again, as a sweeping statement about all technology leaders it is simply not true. Many CIOs are very good leaders and some are running IT functions comprising hundreds or even thousands of people. They connect with their staff and are good communicators, they can set and explain a direction for IT, and they can inspire people to work together to achieve shared goals.

Of course there are some CIOs that are not good leaders, they do not possess the people skills, the ability to communicate and inspire, and the other capabilities required to lead teams. But this is not because they are introverts or because they work in IT. They are just not built to be leaders just as some CFOs, CMOs, etc, do not have the skills needed to be a good leader. Front cover advert

Having disagreed with pretty much all of Rutland’s reasons for why she believes that CIOs do not make good CEOs, I also have to say that I actually agree to a certain extent with her main argument; generally speaking most CIOs do not have what it takes to become a successful CEO. In other words I think Rutland’s view is broadly correct but not for the reasons she cites.

It is true that most of today’s CIOs are not CEO material but this is not because they are introverts or are not good leaders. It is because they do not have the breadth of experience required to be a CEO. They also tend to focus on technology and not on business outcomes, and they do not spend enough time engaging with their stakeholders across the business or with the organisation’s customers. And the majority are still spending most of their time on internal technology projects, upgrades and maintenance instead of focusing on how technology can be used to create competitive advantage, enhance the customer experience and generate new revenue streams.

To be considered as potential CEOs, CIOs first have to make the transition from technology leader to business leader. They need to be leading the discussion about how IT can enable new business models, products and services. They need to get experience outside of the IT function and they need to invest time in networking and building relationships across the business so that they can shape the thinking of their colleagues and set the overall direction for how their organisation can exploit technology.

Some CIOs have already made this transition and are being rewarded with greater influence, a higher profile and a broader remit within their organisations. In many cases their remit has been extended to include the digital transformation of their business. Given the importance of digital and the fact that ultimately it will encompass the entire organisation, such CIOs will find themselves well positioned to make the step up to the CEO role in the future. But they are still in the minority. For the rest Isabel Rutland is correct: for the time being at least, they do not have what it takes to be a CEO.

If you are a CIO that wants to reposition your role or if you want to create an IT function that can meet the needs of a digital business then please contact me or visit my website, axin.co.uk.

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