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The rubric that “every company is now a technology company” is meant to highlight the importance of digital technology to all business models. But despite the need for technological know-how at the top of organisations, there is no great trend of chief information officers becoming chief executives.
“Relatively few of the many [chief information officers] I meet on a daily basis even aspire to be a chief executive,” says Iain McKeand, a director at global recruitment company Harvey Nash. And even if they do harbour such ambitions, they may not have the experience they need to succeed.
Only a handful ever win a seat on the board of directors, he points out. Some struggle even to reach the executive committee of their company, let alone sit at the head of the table.
One career path is for chief information officers to consider young “disrupter” companies that rely heavily or totally on technology to deliver their products.
This was the route taken by Anthony Watson, former chief information officer for the retail banking arm of Barclays and then of sportswear company Nike. He took the helm in April 2015 at start-up Uphold (previously Bitreserve), which harnesses blockchain technology to enable customers to store and transfer ordinary currencies between accounts and even countries.
Before he became chief executive, however, Mr Watson notched up considerable experience on the boards of several public companies and international charities in non-executive director and committee chairman roles. “This, for me, was absolutely critical experience,” he says.
His advice to chief information officers aspiring to be chief executives is simple. “First and foremost, you need to honestly assess if technology is truly considered a strategic asset and a competitive advantage at the company where you work. If you don’t attend board meetings and you’re not a member of the executive management team, then 100 per cent for sure, you’re not aligned with the business. You need to be at the table — leading — when strategic business decisions are being made.”
This suggests that chief information officers at some companies may never be in the running for the top spot. But as their role in digital transformation becomes more prominent, there are signs of change. According to a survey of 3,352 technology leaders in 82 countries conducted for recruiters Harvey Nash and consultants KPMG, 57 per cent of respondents are now members of their company’s senior executive management team.
That said, recent examples of IT heads who have taken up chief executive roles in more established companies do not come from a typical IT background. One is Lars Fruergaard Jorgensen, due to take over as chief executive at the Danish pharmaceutical company Novo Nordisk in January 2017. Another is Jamie Miller, who in 2015 became chief executive of GE Transportation.
Both have served as their company’s chief information officers, but Mr Fruergaard has an MSc in finance and business administration, while Ms Miller has a degree in accounting and, before her role as GE’s chief information officer, was its chief accounting officer. Ms Miller says it was the combination of her “digital depth, finance strength and leadership skills” that made the transition from chief information officer to chief executive “a seamless shift” for her.
IT heads aiming for chief executive roles in companies where technology is not core to product delivery need experience in areas such as the supply chain, procurement or being chief operating officers, advises Shawn Banerji, consultant at recruitment company Russell Reynolds Associates. “There’s no question in my mind that broad experience and a great record across a range of disciplines is certainly what sets apart those chief information officers who do make it to the top.”
As Chris Chandler of recruitment company La Fosse Associates says: “If you stay in the IT department, you’re unlikely to leave it.”