Others have made the leap. Clive Selley, BT's CIO, became the CEO of BT OpenReach. Philip Clarke spent some time as Tesco's CIO before becoming CEO from 2011-2014. Nike CIO Anthony Watson took the CEO mantle at a far smaller company, Uphold, before going on to found the Bank of London. But what does it take to cross the C-suite chasm?
Good CEOs steer the company, sometimes in directions where employees and managers are scared to go. That takes a clear vision and some deft leadership skills.
Your vision should be your north star; a guiding light that informs everything you do. Filling the CEO's role means demonstrating your vision by nurturing it in the IT department. Do you have a bold direction for the IT department, or are you just keeping the engines running?
A vision is crucial but won't suffice alone. You must be able to bring everyone else along with you. That means articulating your plan in an engaging way, so nurturing communication skills is important.
Cultivate an authoritative voice within the organisation now by engaging others and listening to their concerns. Joining executive committees is one way to do this. Another is to engage in strategically important cross-functional projects that will benefit multiple other departments. What better way to get noticed for your leadership and execution skills?
As a CIO, you might think that you know financial management, but you might have focused on internal budgets that costed projects against available expenditure. That misses the revenue element of a corporate profit and loss (P&L) sheet that CEOs must obsess over. That comes from customer sales.
Trendy IT departments might call their internal users customers, but companies often force those users to use the IT department's services, making them a captive audience. There's no direct accountability between customer sales and available income. When you move into the CEO's chair in a for-profit organisation, revenue becomes a movable feast, depending on your ability to court external customers.
Selling to those customers means understanding them. As a senior executive in an internally-focused department, you might not get to interact with business customers that often, yet this is a critical task for all CEOs. You won't be able to serve them without understanding their needs, challenges, and aspirations, which means that you must position yourself to deal with them regularly.
Getting direct experience with customers might be difficult to do in the CIO's role. Doing so could involve a lateral move. Chief technology officers (CTOs) often have a more external, customer-centric focus in their quest to develop externally-facing systems. Other roles on your way to the CEO's office might include a chief transformation officer or chief digitisation officer.
As a senior technology executive, the top job in the company is in your grasp. Smart companies are realising that technology isn't just an internal tool; it's vital resource that will keep them competitive. That puts the CIO in a better position to make the jump, but those who put the right groundwork in place will be more likely to succeed.