Executive search firm Heidrick & Struggles' CEO & Board Practice in 2011 analyzed the careers of Fortune 500 CEOs and found that 30% had a strong foundation in corporate finance, and that 20% had started out in sales and marketing. Most of the individuals surveyed were promoted to the role of CEO after assuming the role of a chief operating officer (COO) or corporate President, where they developed an in-depth understanding of company operations. As reported by Forbes, the study concluded that most large companies seek CEOs who can formulate strategy and understand the financial ramifications of business decisions.
If you're a C-level executive in a "back office" role such as human resources, IT, or customer service, this isn't particularly new information, nor is it likely to discourage you, since most back office C-level executives are committed to what they do and do not necessarily aspire to become a CEO. What matters is your ability to carry out your responsibilities.
For instance, there is no shortage of companies that adopt the mantra that "people are our most important asset," yet few organizations place priority on the human resources function as a strategic advisory voice to the CEO and the board on company talent development and workforce skills readiness.
Customer satisfaction and the "customer experience" are touted as major emphases in today's competitive global marketplace, but customer service functions — and executives — continue to bring up the rear when it comes to getting their share of the corporate budget.
And if you're a CIO, 40% of 300 business executives who attended a Gartner Symposium in 2012 reported that IT (and CIOs) operate as their company's "engine room," and only 7% of the same audience believed that IT was well integrated into the business.
It naturally follows that the challenges for executives in these less impactive C-level positions are to establish credibility and value in what they deliver to the business, and to gain the attention of the CEO and the board. Here are three ways to do so.
1: Be an enabler
Macquarie University developed research in 2011 that concluded that 60% of business line managers believed that the HR function limited their ability to achieve goals. One line manager commented that HR only told him what he couldn't do, instead of providing him with options for solving HR-related problems. IT faces similar perception challenges.
In some organizations, IT is viewed as a regular naysayer to technology ideas that is preoccupied with compliance enforcement. In the line manager's (and the CEO's) world, feet are held to the fire when revenue and production targets are missed, and profit and loss results don't come out the way they should. Business is fast moving, and often there are only limited windows of time in which to make things happen.
2: Learn the business and deliver
Executives responsible for back-office functions gain more credibility when they demonstrate business acumen and an ability to deliver immediate relief to business problems. Three possible examples include: when an HR executive installs a training and employee retention program that develops and retains the best talent in the industry; or when a CIO of an ecommerce business develops a mobile apps suite that extends the revenue potential; or when a customer service VP develops a program that is so outstanding that customers (and social media perceptions) steer more business to the company because of its service reputation.
Because line managers live and die by their quarterly results, they are less likely to understand the other elements that a business must provide to its stakeholders, such as a well-respected corporate brand, and the confidence and trust that get built when those who do business with the company know that it hires quality employees, and meets or exceeds the IT security and compliance measures that are expected of it. Executives heading up back-office functions need to build awareness of these areas throughout the C-suite, because companies can't afford data breaches and the loss of goodwill, or intellectual capital hemorrhages when key people walk out the door, or underperforming sales during the holiday season.
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Mary E. Shacklett is president of Transworld Data, a technology research and market development firm. Prior to founding the company, Mary was Senior Vice President of Marketing and Technology at TCCU, Inc., a financial services firm; Vice President of Product Research and Software Development for Summit Information Systems, a computer software company; and Vice President of Strategic Planning and Technology at FSI International, a multinational manufacturing company in the semiconductor industry. Mary is a keynote speaker and has more than 1,000 articles, research studies, and technology publications in print.