From CXO to CEO

Thanks to client Larry Perlstein, I recently presented on the topic “From CXO to CEO” at a SIM (Society for Information Management) group in Connecticut.  We had a very active and interesting discussion primarily around making the move from CIO to CEO.

In our discussion, it became clear that many of the skills necessary to be effective in a CIO position are the same as those needed by a CEO—leadership; strategy development; strong business perspective, acumen, and judgment; decision-making; etc.  The overlap is strong enough that nearly 70% of CIOs say they would like to move to a CEO position.

Yet, when I asked how many in the room reported to a CEO who had formerly been a CIO, no one raised their hand.  It seems that despite the desire and the overlap of skills, very few CIOs make the leap to CEO.

We then looked at the career moves and strategies of a few of the people who actually did make the move.  Phil Clark was promoted from CIO to CEO at Tesco, the world’s fifth largest retailer with $99B in sales.  (He was fired in under one year due to lack of sales growth, but that’s beside the point.)  His observations were that his lack of board experience and limited focus on vision, mission, and passion affected his performance.  Bruce Parker, former CIO of American Airlines and United Airlines, became CEO of Airnet Systems.  He claimed his key to promotion was running IT as a business and gaining exposure as a board member (at Sapient).  Dawn LePore went from CIO of Schwab to Head of Technology, Operations and Administration then CEO of Drugstore.com.  She had been on the board of Ebay and bridged through another board member to the board at Drugstore.  Her recommendation—you really need to understand the business.

The common themes here which apply to anyone looking to make the leap are first to focus on developing a deep understanding of the business by running your function as a P&L and looking at the business from the outside in.  Secondly, those who made a successful transition gained experience beyond their functional specialty.  They took over administration, operations, and often moved into the COO position.  The third lesson for those aspiring to the CEO position, from any functional area, is to build a strong business network, ideally at the board level.

If you are addressing executive-level career decisions, consider professional help and advice from a consultant at MDL Partners.

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