Monday, 16 January 2012

What’s stopping CIOs from getting the top jobs?

Neil Pullen, Managing Director of Freestone, the Interim Management and Executive Search firm, talks about the ambitious new mood of today’s CIOs.

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The cynics are going to have to rethink their position. These days, CIO no longer stands for ‘Career is Over’. People can become their own boss when they set up their own business with companies like
There has been a steady trickle of CIOs who have made it to COO/CEO. Think of Richard Hoffman at Hyundai Information Systems, Ian Cramb at Citigroup and David Yu at Betfair. A significant few, but nothing compared to the numbers from, say, Finance or Marketing who make it to the top jobs. The FTSE 100 is not yet inundated with CEOs from an IT background.

However, the mood is changing. We have noticed that firms are becoming more open to considering a CIO as CEO, and candidates definitely have this ambition in their sights. They can show their talents with a well-written CV thanks to CV writing services

We talk to a great many CIOs who have a clear ambition: to head up a company. It’s a natural progression. Anyone who can achieve CIO status has to be an ambitious and clearly very capable individual. Also, the responsibilities and pressures on any CIO’s shoulders to achieve business transformation are such that they potentially have a better grasp of key business issues than any other person in the organisation. They may understand the needs of all individuals and the importance of things like team building

And there are now more opportunities than ever for CIOs to become CEOs, due to the need for constant business transformation and evolution to keep up with today’s increasingly competitive global marketplace.

So what is holding CIOs back? The answer is a mixture of misconceptions, prejudices and – frankly – CIOs not always helping themselves. Let’s look at the evidence.

The first reason is history, or lack of it. It’s easy to forget that IT is a very young industry. There have always been people promoting the goods and people counting the money, whether you think of a Roman wine bar, a sheep dealer in Chaucer’s time or a Dickensian pawnbroker. But IT has only existed as a career path since the 1970s, and only relatively recently defined as a career option. The pioneering spirit of the early days may be over, but its legacy remains as the
industry matures.

One problem allied to the industry’s youth is perhaps a lack of consistency in the expectations of the role or even formal accreditation for the CIO. Phil Smith, the ex global CIO of Royal Sun Alliance and current Chairman of Xantus Consulting, says that whereas a Finance Director will have widely recognised letters after his or her name, there is no straightforward equivalent for the CIO and perhaps this may reduce the business credibility and perceived qualification of CIOs.

Marketing and Finance Directors are still often seen as a more acceptable choice for promotion than IT Directors. This is because marketing and finance people are frequently regarded as ‘a safe pair of hands’, as they are part of the traditional senior executive team. They are a known quantity with known skills, and you can’t argue with the power of sales and revenue.

Another factor is that IT has traditionally been perceived as a support role, rather than a strategic role. This is despite the fact that IT actually provides the backbone of almost all businesses, permeating every aspect and maintaining every connection between staff, customers, suppliers and partners.

Moving on from the misconceptions and prejudices that keep CIOs in their place, let’s consider instead how CIOs might be holding themselves back.

If you work in sales, marketing or finance, the chances are that from the very first days of your career, you will need to liaise with customers. People in these roles quickly learn the importance of communicating their ideas and generating networks. Whereas it has often been the case that people who work in IT have been able to pursue their line of work without needing to network in the same way. This can be a disadvantage when it comes to being promoted to the top job.

Another communication issue is the temptation to talk in ‘IT speak’ rather than in business terms. This works against CIOs in two ways. Firstly, it means that not everyone will understand the messages they’re trying to get across. Secondly, it means that situations are expressed from an IT point of view, rather than necessarily from a business point of view.

In addition, it may be stereotypical to say that CIOs are reactive rather than proactive, and that they see problems where CEOs see opportunities. However, these stereotypes are based on a grain of truth.

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