While high-level project managers are routinely promoted to CIO, the CIO transition to CEO isn’t as easy or automatic. The biggest hurdle for CIOs wanting to become CEOs is understanding the high-level executive role, explained Randy Nelson, president of Houston IT search firm The Wendover Group and former CIO of Millennium Chemicals.

I talked with tech leaders, as well as TechRepublic members, and sought their advice on how CIOs could best prepare themselves to make a leap to CEO.

Mind-set change needed
While it may seem mainstream at this point that IT’s role is to enable and support business goals, surprisingly, many CIOs haven’t fully digested the concept, making their goal of becoming CEO out of reach.

“IT is a driver of business strategy,” said Nelson, “which means the CIO is communicating and working closely with every business function—sales, marketing, supply chain, purchasing, and CRM management, just to name a few.”

David Smith, VP of Technology Futures, an IT forecasting company in Austin, TX, said a mind-set change is usually needed.

“CIOs are used to solving problems, and CEOs are used to creating value,” he explained. “That is a big difference. Most CIOs are data-driven. They are extrapolators rather than intuiters.”

The trick is to change current thinking so that information turns into wisdom, he added. “All CEOs must be wisdom-driven, which is one of the biggest stumbling blocks preventing CIOs from becoming CEOs. Typically, they don’t care about it.”

Smith heralds former GE CEO Jack Welch, IBM CEO Lou Gerstner, and Wal-Mart CEO Sam Walton as examples of wisdom-driven CEOs. Gerstner, for example, once admitted that he didn’t know how to turn on his PC. Walton didn’t see any purpose to using a PC and thought it was a waste of time. While technology expertise is clearly a boon for any CEO today, it’s not the only critical skill set required.

“A CEO with a strong IT background turns on that PC as soon as he walks into his office,” said Smith, “proving his orientation is different than a wisdom-driven CEO.”

Transition ease depends on industry
Nelson pointed out that the transition to CEO is easier in more customer-driven industries—such as business, entertainment, and financial services—than in “capital-intensive industries” that do not have many customers, such as manufacturing, processing, chemical, heavy equipment, and defense contracting, which are not likely to have CEO openings for CIOs, he added.

“In fact, many companies do not even have CIOs because they don’t think they’re necessary,” Nelson explained.

To prepare for the CEO perch, a CIO’s reach has to extend way beyond his own company—a big change of focus, as the CIO role historically focuses on the company’s internal concerns. But thanks to the Internet and e-commerce, today’s CIO role is far more complex, which provides good training for the CEO level, said experts.

“Now, CIOs must deal with the outside community, which includes investors, VCs, and organizations like Chambers of Commerce,” said Nelson.

Nelson offers the following five tips to help CIOs make the move to CEO:

  • Don’t confine your search to one kind of company or industry. Use a wide-ranging approach so you have more reach.
  • Talk to as many people as possible—which should include VCs, regional investment bankers, colleagues, headhunters, and association heads—to determine opportunities.
  • Don’t present yourself as an IT manager/tech leader but as a general business manager.
  • When you present or approach a prospective company about a possible CEO role, bring concepts and business ideas applicable to their business.
  • Demonstrate that you have “boardroom presence”—that means being a confident and articulate speaker and a good salesperson. As Nelson pointed out, CEOs are the official company spokesperson.

Learn from those in the know
Of course, talking with CEOs who served as CIOs, as well as those currently trying to make the transition, to learn from their experience is always valuable. Watching the career moves made by known entities, such as former CIOs HP CEO Michaell Capellas and Wal-Mart CEO Bob Martin, also might give some CIOs a good idea of what the path to CEO might be like in their companies.

Capellas is in charge of HP’s global business groups, worldwide sales, supply chain management, and e-commerce operations. His career is a stunning case history of how an aggressive executive catapulted through the corporate ranks to the top job. Working backward, Capellas held the following jobs: executive positions at Oracle, SAP, and Schlumberger; CIO of Compaq; COO of Compaq’s strategic planning; chairman and CEO of Compaq Computer Corporation; and Compaq’s CIO when he joined the company.

Martin didn’t have as many jobs as Capellas. His career began as director of MIS with Dillard’s Department Stores, followed by several positions with Wal-Mart, which included working as executive vice president. From his CIO position, he then served as president and CEO for Wal-Mart International.

But sometimes, no matter how much you may educate yourself on what to expect, the road to CEO may be a rocky one. TechRepublic member Antoine Pirson describes his efforts to land a CEO gig as “an uphill battle.” After four years of trying, he offers these lessons learned:

  • Working with headhunters is a waste of time, said Pirson, as he’s found they’re not willing to give most CIOs the opportunity to prove themselves. Their interest lies in trying to find a perfect match (mostly electronically) between the job requirements and your experience.
  • Work hard to get promoted from within your current enterprise. If the chairman is recruiting, the CIO could likely have a chance, especially if it’s a technical company where technology is the product. Otherwise, said Pirson, the CIO candidate for CEO doesn’t stand a chance because the “financial or marketing” experience is missing.

As in many work-life situations, said Nelson, good timing, which no one has any real control over, is often a factor in making career moves. By networking and talking with peers and other tech leaders, CIOs aiming for the coveted executive chair can obviously increase opportunities.