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HP Software's community for IT leaders // April 2014
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Making the leap from CIO to CEO

IT recruiter Mark Polansky explains that the career path to a higher office in the C-suite has more to do with a CIO’s behavioral style than external barriers.

The traditional CIO who has come up through the ranks with a technical background doesn’t often make the leap into the CEO office. But one IT recruiter sees that changing. Mark Polansky, a senior client partner at executive search and talent consulting service Korn Ferry, finds that doors to higher ranks—offices that had previously been closed to CIOs—are opening.

As co-author of the Korn Ferry report “CIO to CEO: Aspiring CIOs Should Focus on Critical Behavioral Skills,” Polansky has discovered one major difference in the leadership competency profiles of CEOs, COOs, and CIOs: decision making.

Decision making is the big differentiator
“CEOs and COOs tend to make decisions faster, with less complete information, and they rely more on experience, gut, intuition, and know-how,” Polansky explained. CIOs tend to want as much information as they can get before they make a decision: “Then they want to study it, analyze it. That said, the right people with the right aptitude can move from an analytical decision-making pattern to a more action-oriented decision-making style.” CIOs who want to transition to a CEO position need to develop a faster decision-making style, a leadership style that is more executive than technology leader: “If I have a CIO who’s going to take a week to make a decision that I need made in a day or two, I’m in trouble.”


Mark Polansky
Some CIOs already have—or are actively developing—the business acumen needed to land a CEO gig, Polansky said. Many CIOs, he noted, have “leadership experience in an enterprise-level function called IT. If that person is a very successful IT leader, there are other enterprise-level functions that he or she can manage—whether it’s the back office, facilities, or shared services. There are lots of CIOs who already have those other functions reporting to them.”

Polansky adds that CIOs in enterprises where information is the business itself—or the underlying part of the operation—are more likely to understand the business model, and thus rise up the ranks.

Develop an action plan for career progression
The white paper “CIO to CEO: Barriers and Success Factors” examines 29 CEOs and identifies the key factors that contributed to their ascension from CIO. Published by the CIO Association of Canada and Ryerson University—with contributions from Polansky and other Korn Ferry partners—the paper outlined a concrete path to building credibility:

1. Increase your business knowledge

  • Understand the business. It is key to understand the ins and outs of the business and not merely the technical aspects.
  • Gain the needed business experience by taking on leadership roles within other departments like marketing, finance, or sales, or by engaging in projects with other business units. This experience is essential to expanding your business knowledge and skill set.
  • Improve your knowledge by attending business courses. This complements your work experience and helps “fill gaps in your business knowledge.”
  • Get involved in a wide range of corporate activities and build relationships within the organization with people who will support you as you move up.

2. Develop personal skills

  • Complete a self-assessment and reflection. Before embarking on the journey to CEO, know where your weaknesses are and be prepared to work to improve yourself.
  • Assess and work to improve your emotional intelligence. “Be ready to step out of your comfort zone and practice skills that you require to be a successful leader.”
  • Build a reputation for developing staff and building successful teams. In addition to your own growth, remember to strengthen those around you as well.

3.    Be a business leader

  • Be a change leader within your organization. Look for areas where small changes can solve problems, and make it happen.
  • Improve IT governance, and using these internal processes, work to increase your visibility in the organization.

According to the report, this approach allowed the subjects to become more accepted as one of the C-level executives, thus leading to more opportunities—especially when the CIO role reported directly to the CEO and became more visible to the board. “As shown by the interviewees’ career paths,” the report concluded, “this increased visibility, combined with credibility, tends to open many new doors for CIOs,” allowing successful CIOs to move beyond IT and reach new positions within organizations.

To learn more, download the Korn Ferry reports “CIO to CEO: Aspiring CIOs Should Focus on Critical Behavioral Skills” and “CIO to CEO: Barriers and Success Factors.”

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