CXO

On the road to CEO: Where should you begin?

Experts say there are no hard-and-fast rules for winning the coveted CEO post, but many inroads can help lead to it. Jennifer Recktenwald looks at the beginning steps IT execs should take to becoming "the chief."


"How do I become a CEO?" is one of the most common questions clients ask Mary Ann Masarech.

At the Stamford, CT-based an outplacement and career transition firm of Drake Beam Morin, Masarech answers lots of career-related questions for IT executives, but the CEO inquiry is a difficult one to address, she said.

There are no hard-and-fast rules for winning the coveted chief executive post, but there are many inroads that can help lead to it, said Masarech, a product manager of career transitions who handles Web-based training and professional development.

“If you find where you want to go, you need to generate and promote your results,” she said. “Prove that you are strategic.”

For many IT professionals, that will mean shedding the techie image.

“Most IT executives can demonstrate that they execute well, but people might question whether or not they can strategize and lead people forward,” she said. “What’s key is finding gaps, capitalizing on opportunities, and getting the experience that will help position you to move up.”

A tactic experts recommend is formulating a product description, or a mini-commercial, so to speak, that an individual can use to tout his or her strengths. As the knowledge base and experience level grows, the description will grow.

“Think about the company and the business you’re in as your marketplace—and you’re the product,” Masarech advised.
Those CIOs gunning for the CEO's job have lots of things to consider:
  • ·        How do I get there?
  • ·        Should I try to succeed the CEO of my company or look elsewhere?
  • ·        Once I've accepted an offer, how do I phase myself out of my current position?
  • ·        Once there, how do I handle the challenge?
We're addressing these questions in a series of articles entitled "Moving from CIO to CEO." In part 1, we examined the challenges a CIO faces. Check back next week for part 3.
Build a broad experience base
James Rutt’s product description would speak volumes.

He left his post as chief technology officer of The Thomson Corporation —an information publishing company with revenues of more than $6 billion—to take over as CEO of Network Solutions, Inc. At the world's leading registrar of Web addresses, he’s responsible for building on Network Solutions’ growing business model and leading the company’s foray into new Internet identity and e-commerce services.

“The main thing that prepared me for this is that I was never really just a CIO or a CTO,” Rutt said. “I always constantly meddled in corporate strategy, marketing, and fundraising. You have to have a much broader experience base around your career. If you’re trying to turn yourself from a pure, dedicated technical manager into CEO, frankly, it’s a pretty wide leap. You have to constantly be working in other aspects of the business.”

In order to propel themselves upward, CIOs must prove that they understand business strategy, customers' needs, competitors’ tactics, and the importance of good communications skills, Masarech said.

“CIOs are seen as having narrow expertise where they may have very specialized capabilities,” she said. “The challenge is demonstrating that they not only do what they do well—IT—but that they understand the bigger picture.

“It’s not enough to say the IT department has implemented a particular system on time or that certain objectives have been achieved,” she added. “[CIOs] need to make sure that what happens under their watch ties into the business strategy. They need to constantly be thinking about the results—and whether those results impact the business in a positive way.”

Rutt agreed.

“The CEO job, by its nature, is very broad,” he said. “Unfortunately, many technical people define their jobs pretty narrowly. And if you define your job narrowly, you’re never going to be prepared to be a CEO.”

Defining one’s job in broad terms “as part of the senior management team and…having informed points of view about all aspects of the corporation” will give an individual the edge for the top post, Rutt said.

Learn how a company works
As CEO of Thomson’s Technology Services Group, Rutt oversaw advanced R&D laboratory work, tools development and information technology consulting, and implementation that grew from a start-up to a 500-employee operation under his tutelage. He also co-founded First Call, an investment information service that was one of the earliest ventures to provide online delivery of complex information products.

“My career is a somewhat unusual one in that I have walked backed and forth between sales and marketing, general management, and technology management throughout my career,” he noted. “It’s hard to stereotype me as a techie, a marketing guy, or a business guy, because I’ve done all three. I think that turned out to be the right combination for Network Solutions.”

An important part of learning how a company works, and therefore how to lead it, is getting to know the key people in every division to see how their work comes together. One way to do that may be to manage dual responsibilities within an enterprise. A growing number of CIOs are taking on additional duties in operations, logistics, marketing, and other areas.

Experts say this helps them develop a broader perspective of another set of the company’s business processes. It’s important, they add, to have an IT staff in place that excels at collaboration and self-management.

Double your duties, double your skills
A host of IT executives have followed Rutt’s lead. Cisco Systems’ CIO Peter Solvik also heads the company’s Internet Business Solutions Group, and NBC’s Russ Mayer does double-duty as CIO and chief quality officer—a job that requires him to analyze, improve, and control processes across the organization.

Masarech said taking on additional duties “offers visibility that you may not have with your daily responsibilities and offers the chance to get that cross-functional learning. It also demonstrates that you’re willing take on new things, you have initiative, and you’re willing to go beyond your technical expertise.”

Leading cross-functional work groups, like managing multiple divisions, can give CIOs the exposure needed to move up the ladder.

“They have to identify projects where they can take a leadership role…to prove that they can manage through influence and authority,” Masarech said. “Cross-functional teams tend to be highly visible. That could mean a project that requires a lot of contact with the company’s customers or with research around the industry or the competitive marketplace. As a leader, a CEO needs to have a handle on all the function lines of the business.”

A number of executives are adding to their duties by serving on boards of outside companies, nonprofit groups, or civic organizations. A 1999 study by Russell Reynolds Associates, an an outplacement and career transition firm, found that 44 percent of CEOs surveyed serve on at least one other board. The key to translating that experience into success is to achieve visible results.

“We tell [our clients] they need to talk about a particular problem they solved. Maybe they had to marshal a lot of resources together to make it happen,” Masarech said. “If they’re able to do that in a civic organization, it can be more complex than their own company. Figuring out how to grow a nonprofit and keep the values consistent with the original founders’ ideals is very much a parallel challenge to raising revenue for a company.”

Many IT executives make lateral moves to the operations division of a company before becoming CEO. Compaq President and CEO Michael D. Capellas, for instance, moved from CIO to COO before taking the top spot. “There’s much more perceived value in making that type of lateral move than in the past,” Masarech said. “It used to be perceived as negative. The career ladder is much more of a matrix now. To get where you want to go, it’s not a straight line.”

Learn from the leaders and experts
Having a support network made up of trustworthy, experienced individuals, is also a building block to becoming a chief executive. The group could include board members, presidents of major competitors, suppliers, and search firms.

“Our experience with our clients is that over 60 percent of them find their next job through networking,” Masarech said. “It’s really important that you have a network of individuals who understand what you can do, and having a mentor can be incredibly valuable.”

Be wary, however, of relying on just one person to take you to the top, she cautions. “You have to be sure that you’re attaching yourself to the right person. If you’re being mentored by someone who suddenly falls out of favor, it’s guilt by association. That’s where having a broader network and being on those projects where you can learn from the leaders may be a better strategy, because you’re not just tying yourself to one person’s success.”

The school of hard knocks
While learning opportunities are always available, many experts are reluctant to recommend specific courses or programs to the CIO who wants additional training or education. In many cases, the necessary lessons come from work experience, and fewer IT executives are opting for more formal education these days.

“The MBA isn’t the ticket that it once was,” Masarech noted. “The hands-on business experience can be more valuable. If you get involved with the right project, then you’re going to be able to acquire those concepts and skills on the job.”

In an effort to pinpoint their shortcomings and determine any learning gaps, many CIOs work with executive coaches. They can recommend the leadership courses and seminars for aspiring executives and work individually to polish their skills. Masarech said many of Drake Beam Morrin’s clients need help with their communication skills. “The CEO is a very public figure, within the organization, with the board, the parent company, and within the marketplace,” she said. “You can’t underestimate the importance of communicating effectively to those constituents.”

Network Solutions’ Rutt and his contemporaries have played their cards right by taking on additional duties, searching for learning opportunities, finding the right mentors, and, of course, working hard.

“It really comes down to demonstrating an eagerness to learn,” Masarech said. “You can’t have a sense of entitlement. I think positioning yourself in projects where you can learn from experienced people is the most important thing.”
If you're considering a move to CEO, tell us about your experience by posting a comment below. If you have a story idea you'd like to share, please drop us a note.

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