From CIO to CEO?

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From CIO to CEO?
Featured Author - Peter Meyer - December 11, 2000


Why don't CIOs become CEO? The step from Chief Information Officer to Chief Executive Officer seems like it should be simple - one little initial. Shouldn't information, one of the most important assets of any organization, be the key to success and promotion? To many, it makes sense that a good CIO should become CEO. Does that happen?

A quick search of the Fortune 1000 will show what many CIOs know intuitively. The list of CEOs changes every month but there are few who were CIO on the way to becoming CEO. Most of the CEOs come from line jobs such as sales, finance, engineering, and marketing. You will find a smattering of General Counsels, manufacturing people, and even an HR person, but no CIOs. Why not?

One easy answer is that boards of directors do not understand and value technical issues. Easy but incorrect. If that were true, engineers would never become CEOs. Another answer: People who handle larger or more strategic budgets (sales, finance) are more likely to get promoted. But in today's world, the IT budget is one of the largest around, and the IT investment is strategic.

So, what does it take to get promoted to CEO? To find out, our firm surveyed presidents, CEOs, board members, and top executives in a variety of companies and nonprofit organizationsi . We started with two questions:

  1. What do you look for in a presidential promotion?

  2. Who got the promotion to CEO, and whyii?

i The survey results, recommendations, and specific techniques for general managers can be found in So You Want the President's Job... , by Peter Meyer, published in and copyright Business Horizons, January 1998

ii For the purposes of the study, we included CEO, COO, General Manager, and President. The titles are not completely equivalent, but by asking follow on questions we were able to get to the equivalent roles no matter which title they carried.

Listening: The Reality versus the Perception

The results were not what you would expect. Before we look at the larger study, lets look atthe perception of CIOs and what that has to do with promotion to CEO. For organizations that are promoting a new President, the image of the candidates is an important consideration. Each candidate carries a reputation, and some parts of that image are built by conscious actions. However, part of the image comes from previous titles. If you are from finance, people will often categorize you differently than someone who comes from sales. A positive or negative view of the incoming CEO will affect how well he or she can do in that new job.

What is the perception of CIOs? Lumping all CIOs into one category may not be fair, but we are dealing with perception. A clue can come from the survey of CEOs done by the London School of Economicsiii. This survey discovered that, as a group, CIOs are not perceived by CEOs as contributing to the competitive advantage of the business. In that perspective, someone who knows how to make the infrastructure of a network sing does not automatically know how to make the business move forward. No matter what we might want to think, the perception is that understanding IT strategy does not lead to understanding the business strategy. As the follow on report states, "Many senior managers view the CIO primarily as a support player rather than a leading strategist.iv"

For many IT professionals, that perception is perfect. Many are dedicated to a career with technology and have no desire to work in the rest of the company. However, if you want to move your career into the mainstream business, this observed dividing line between IT and business must be crossed. The CEO promotion study can show you how to change this perception for you or your department.

iii From the Compass World IT Strategy Census 1999, copyright 1999 by Compass Analysis. The study was commissioned by Compass, a global management consulting firm and conducted by the LSE.

iv From the Compass World IT Strategy Census 2000, copyright 2000 by Compass Analysis. The study was also commissioned by Compass, a global management consulting firm, and conducted by the LSE.

The Most Common Denominator

When we conducted the study, we looked for the most common denominators determining promotion to CEO. It was not obvious what these might be. It turns out that the common denominator for being promoted is neither skill nor experience. You probably know several examples of top executives who possess neither great skill nor any depth of experience. You probably also know people who can make an organization hum but never get the nod. Nor is the common denominator longevity inside the organization or loyalty. These can matter, but are not critical.

So what is the common denominator? The executives we asked all said the same thing: Employees see the new CEO as a person who listens. Colleagues, bosses, and the people who worked for such managers all seemed to share the perception that visibly good listening skills are prerequisites for a good CEO.

That is, the promotable executive not only is a good listener, she is , recognized as a good listener. Many managers may listen well, but people interacting with them may not notice it. In the survey, the executives most often promoted were the ones whom colleagues and subordinates noticed were good listeners.

Being recognized for good listening cannot guarantee that you will get a promotion, or that you will do well if you are promoted. It's like table stakes: you use it to get into the running for promotion.

The Value of The Perception

"Looking at some of my peers," says Jamie Allen, a former general manager at Tandem, "I have observed some terrible communicators... One vice president heard, but he didn't tell you he'd heard.v" The result? He was denigrated by others, missed promotions, and appeared not to do as good a job as he should have done.

Sometimes listening has to start before anyone says anything. Chris Rooke, a Vice President of Compaq Computers, often came across what he calls "the wrong rock syndrome": A boss says to a subordinate, "Get me a rock," but when the subordinate brings the rock, the boss says, "No! Not that rock, bring me another one!" and the subordinate has to go back for another one. This is an analogy of what happens when one does not check for understanding. Fault is not the issue. Rooke's team was redoing work and wasting time. Rooke has learned to ask questions when he gives directions. He can check others' understanding, or lack of it, before they fetch the rock.

Checking for understanding creates real value. Doing this can save hours or weeks later. How often have you seen someone start down a road only to find it's the wrong road? It can cost a person precious time, and it can cost a company time and other resources to cover the loss.

The value of listening is clear: You cannot succeed in running a company if you do not hear what your people, customers, and suppliers are telling you. Poor listeners do not survive. Listening and understanding well are key to making good decisions.

Showing that you listen has a different value. It does not change the decisions you make; it changes how the people around you accept and implement your choices. When people know you hear them, they are more likely to listen to you. So, listening (or active listening) is valuable for making decisions; demonstrating listening is valuable for making them stick.

Many CIOs are good at taking in information but fall short when it comes to showing that they have heard. Is it possible to be a good listener and not get recognized for it? Yes. Is it possible to project the appearance of a good listener and not actually be one? I don't think so.

v Quotes from the executives in the article come from conversations with the author, and are used with their permission. All are ibid.

Getting the Promotion

The object, then, is not just to become more knowledgeable of your business, but to show that you listen as well. Expertise without the ability to listen can be valuable in support roles, which is how many people look at the typical IT manager. The result is that IT's image of expertise can be a detriment. That perception can reduce the chance of promotion outside IT. An image of listening well, which is not associated with IT, can help overcome that negative perception.

The lessons? To get the president's job, be good at your task and get known as a listener. People who promote others to the position of president look, consciously or unconsciously, for this crucial trait. It does not necessarily mean you are ready to run your company. However, increasing your visibility as a listener can help you earn the promotion. It builds trust, and building trust increases your chance of promotion.

Even if you do not aspire to general management, your visibility as a listener has an important advantage. Listeners get heard, and the more people know you to listen, the more credibility you will have when you speak. That can never hurt.

Sidebar - Let Them Catch You Listening

How do you get caught listening? When Dennis Haar was President of Aspect Telecommunications, he gave an example with an employee whom management had passed over for promotion. Haar knew Aspect wanted to keep the manager, and he had a good idea of what behaviors she needed to improve before she could succeed at the next level. Haar could have saved his own time by simply suggesting that the manager change those behaviors. Instead, he lengthened his conversation with her, making sure she caught him listening before he offered a solution.

I have watched Haar practice this, both before and since his promotion. First, he takes the time to restate the comments in his own words. After restating, he asks if he is right. Clearly willing to hear a "no," he restates again until he gets it right by the other person's definition. After confirming that, he empathizes aloud, to make sure he understands how the other person both feels and thinks. Only then does he offer a solution.

The problem was that the company should not have promoted the manager, but she did not yet understand that. Dennis' careful message was: "I can do all that for you if you want. I can go see the right people for you and talk to them. But here are some things you must change or it won't work." He used listening to keep her loyalty while giving advice she needed but didn't want to hear. When he takes the time to use this process, Haar increases the chances of his being heard and understood.

2000 by the Meyer Group, all rights reserved

About The Author

Peter Meyer is the principal of The Meyer Group, a consulting firm in Scotts Valley, California. Peter's latest book is Warp-Speed Growth, published this year by AMACOM. He answers his E-mail. Try him at The author would like to thank the several dozen senior executives and board members who agreed to be interviewed for this article.

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