Thinking the unthinkable: CIO as a future CEO?

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The thought of that guy that the chief financial officer wheels in to board meetings from time to time becoming chief executive is unthinkable. For a start he doesn’t speak English, or at least “business English”, and his negative reading on the gravitas-charisma index could send the share price south once his top banana appointment became public.

That, sadly, is the mindset in many boardrooms across the planet. The idea of the chief information officer even sitting on the board is unthinkable to many. So the CIO as the next CEO is some way off. For some it is just a conceptual leap too far.

But surely it is inevitable? Very few organisations function without IT. Business has evolved from agricultural through industrial to services, and looks set to gravitate towards customer experiences. Banking, for instance, is evolving from a banking-centric model – “you need to come to us when and where it suits us” – to a customer-centric model – “we are there for you, when and where you need us”. This needs IT.

In an increasingly customer-empowered market, all organisations will become customer-centric and their need for IT will increase. So if you care about customers, costs and share price, then IT will matter to your organisation.

So a revolution is underway. Boardrooms around the planet will question what business they are really in. Some of this will be driven by lessons learnt from clumsy attempts at outsourcing IT wholesale (see IT outsourcing debate, Page 4).

But there also comes a point when, for example, an airline company’s core business moves from aircraft, route and passenger management to information management. At which point it makes sense to outsource everything except brand management and IT. Unless of course you know an IT supplier that knows the airline business better than your IT department, and is at least as technically effective.

If the core business is now information management then it will not be enough to have the CIO on board – information leadership is required. My gut feeling is that many senior executives secretly acknowledge the importance of IT. Their resistance is based on their discomfort in making IT-related business decisions.

Their aforementioned suspicion of the CIO, who appears to be cut from a very different cloth to the existing board members, does not endear them to matters IT either.

As the boardroom gravitates towards a digital future, CIOs need to prepare for business leadership. Few would have anticipated this extended career path, given the general board level disdain held for IT, what with the Y2K overspend and the dotcom bubble.

But the world has moved on and people development functions need to get to work on this new reality. Ensuring that the CIO has a career programme that embraces the key business functions and develops the critical interpersonal skills to influence business leaders will be a priority.

The smartest CIOs have not waited for the HR function to kick-in. They have seen this coming for some time, and have carefully carved their own career path and managed their own development.

Similarly their smartness has led them to pursue the companies that understand the value of IT, so they tend to be the best paid CIOs.

Over time, the executive headhunters will “test” for the digital gene when short-listing candidates to be chief executive. Once the boardroom is end-to-end digital, so to speak, then a new type of leadership will be required. Enter the digital leader. A role designed for business-centric CIOs. To rephrase an aphorism: “The post-geek hybrid business technologist will inherit the earth.”

■Ade McCormack (ade@auridian.com) is founder of Auridian, a people-development business, and is author of IT Demystified – The IT handbook for business professionals

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