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Why Don't More CIOs Become CEO? 279

jcatcw writes "Thornton May is mystified by the very small number of Fortune 500 companies that led by former CIOs. "Knowing what we know about CIOs — that is, that most are smart, hardworking, supremely aware of how the business works and increasingly savvy regarding the workings of external customers' minds — the failure of more CIOs to become CEO has to be one of the biggest mysteries of our age.""
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Why Don't More CIOs Become CEO?

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  • how about (Score:5, Interesting)

    by argoff ( 142580 ) * on Wednesday January 24, 2007 @01:20PM (#17739572)
    How about, they can be productive, stay on the cool technology, and get good pay with only a fraction of the corporate governance bullshit.
    • Except that most of them eschew cool technology for tried and true, conservative tech. And I wager that much, if not most, of their time is spent dealing with corporate governance bullshit. Especially post-SARBOX and -- to maybe a somewhat lesser extent depending on the business they're engaged in -- as a result of recent changes to the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure with respect to electronic documents and how they are to be handled in the event of litigation.

      At least that's true of most of the CIOs

    • No, how about (Score:5, Insightful)

      by winkydink ( 650484 ) * <> on Wednesday January 24, 2007 @01:53PM (#17740110) Homepage Journal
      the best CEO's seem to be former sales people. They can promote the company and aren't shy about asking customers for money. Many CIO's lack extensive P&L experience as IT, in most companies, is a cost center. Without that critical P&L experience, making the transition to CEO, especially at the Global 2000 level is difficult.
    • Sure many CEOs are smart, hardworking and zero bullshit, but the majority of successful CEOs are more concerned with being figure heads that articulate well and improve investor confidence.
    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by querencia ( 625880 )
      If you're C-level, you've got all of the corporate governance bullshit.

      The real problem is that in most companies, the entire IT organization is seen as a corporate support cost center, like janitorial services.

      Among MBAs, it is an old joke that CIO stands for "Career Is Over." If you're head of products, marketing or sales, you're seen as doing something "core" to the business and its value to customers. If you're CIO, you're seen as managing the IT department and technical product and service vendo
      • Of course, in many large companies today, IT is the core value and a key driver of value to customers (e.g. FedEx). I might expect to see more CIO to CEO promotions.

        You'd think, wouldn't you? What I see is that IT is still the red-headed stepchild of business, and executive committees would much prefer to do business without it. Instead of recognizing that IT is the core of business operations (the part of the company that delivers what the sales force is selling), executives continue to focus on revenue

  • by gurps_npc ( 621217 ) on Wednesday January 24, 2007 @01:20PM (#17739596) Homepage
    As long as board members are choosen from the non-technical, management side, those same board members will pick non-technical peopel to head their company.
    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by mordors9 ( 665662 )
      In other words, successful business people (the types usually on the Boards) often feel that CIOs are geeky types lacking certain social skills that they might feel a CEO should have.
      • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

        by zymurgyboy ( 532799 )
        I doubt it's a lack of social skill so much as a lacking social network compared to the friend pool a typical CEO would have. To get that far up the food chain you at least have to have some political skills, which probably implies social skills as well. This is the director level after all, and not the back office admin level.
    • At the risk of getting modded down for a 'me too' post can I endorse what you're saying. It's a well established fact about job interviews that the interviewers tend to prefer copies of themselves, rather than the best for the post. I'm sure a similar situation will apply here.

      Furthermore there's the nerd factor. We techies will always be seen as 'a bit strange'. When I joined the organisation I'm with now I was give an indoctrination course which included examples of unconcious prejudice. One of the examp
    • by buhatkj ( 712163 )
      more pointedly, depending on the individual culture of the company, a truly inordinate number of upper management types come from either a sales, or accounting background. you don't see a lot of engineers, designers, or customer service people at the top either. in my company there isn't a single VP who wasn't in sales. most of them STARTED in sales, there is one guy who began in collections and moved to sales. goes without saying the CEO was of course in sales too. I have always figured it was based o
  • by AltGrendel ( 175092 ) <> on Wednesday January 24, 2007 @01:21PM (#17739604) Homepage
    It may be that they seriously enjoy working more directly with IT than with the business of the business they are working for.

    We wouldn't be geeks if we didn't enjoy working with the new equipment.

    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      That and because CIOs don't BS enough. CEOs are generally the king of BS in any given organization.

    • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

      by atomic777 ( 860023 )
      I think you're on the right track. Business types look at IT and IT workers as "infrastructure". In other words, we're no different from construction workers in their eyes. Even if you get up to CIO/CTO, you're still an electronic grease monkey.

      Of course it's their loss. Those companies that are a bit more insightful and can see what a CIO/CTO can bring to the table, will be better off for it.

      • Business types look at IT and IT workers as "infrastructure". In other words, we're no different from construction workers in their eyes.

        Prove to me that we aren't.
        • by ahodgson ( 74077 )
          Construction workers have to work to real standards.
          They get paid for overtime.
          Their jeans usually have fewer holes.
          Their job tends to keep them physically fit.
          On the job accidents result in injuries or death.
          They have surprisingly little spare time to read /. ... or, it seems, anything else.
    • I think your close, but it goes a little deeper.

      My dad was a CIO for 3 different companies before he finally had enough and retired. The average "lifespan" of a CIO is 3 or 4 years, eventually something is going to fail and you are going to get left holding bag. He loved the technology end of it, didn't mind the management aspect, but hated the blame game. I think many CIO's are in the same boat, and hence have no interest in going any higher, where they not only loose the technology, but gain more stress,
    • ...the failure of more CIOs to become CEO has to be one of the biggest mysteries of our age

      It's only a mystery to the sort of schmuck that actually aspires to be a CEO.

      Many geeks aspire to be rich, famous, or powerful. Achieving this without becoming a manager - especially without becoming a CEO - is success, you fail when you have to resort to sleazy trades like sales or management in order to acheive your end goals.

  • It's no mystery (Score:4, Informative)

    by prgrmr ( 568806 ) on Wednesday January 24, 2007 @01:23PM (#17739660) Journal
    the failure of more CIOs to become CEO has to be one of the biggest mysteries of our age

    Not at all. CEOs are hired by boards of directors, the vast majority of whom are not comprised of current or former CIOs. It's the same reasoning that has lead to the grossly inflated paychecks and bonuses that we see CEOs getting today: many members of the board have apirations to becoming a CEO. It's a continuation of the "old boys' club" on an even more pervasive scale. Until shareholders start demanding different behavior by voting with their investment funds, the situation isn't likely to change.
  • The numbers game (Score:3, Insightful)

    by AutopsyReport ( 856852 ) on Wednesday January 24, 2007 @01:24PM (#17739682)
    Given that most CEO's come from a financial background (accounting), and the position of CEO typically mandates this knowledge, it's probably one good reason why the transition to CEO from CIO is not as less common than from other positions.
    • Mod parent up. This is exactly why. Businesses are about money, finances, accounting, that's what it all comes down to. The majority of CEOs aren't from marketing or sales as some people on here claim. They are former CFOs or CAOs. Next to that are the COOs. It's all a numbers game. The further you get from the numbers or the core of the business the less likely you are to move up. That's why you don't see many HR types or IT types as CEOs. Their main function is viewed as peripheral. Look at the
  • by CyberLord Seven ( 525173 ) on Wednesday January 24, 2007 @01:25PM (#17739688)
    They don't have the training!

    Most CEOs are former SALESMEN. Check out their careers. You'll see that most, if not all, were in Sales or Marketing at one or more points in their careers.

    Boards NEED someone at the top of the company who understands what Sales and Marketing NEED. After all, no matter how superior your product is *cough*betamax*cough* if it does not sell, your company goes down the tubes. Not the internet tubes, the other kind.

    No big conspiracy here. Just boards doing what they have always done.

    • by jenkin sear ( 28765 ) * on Wednesday January 24, 2007 @01:29PM (#17739768) Homepage Journal
      You're absolutely right.

      CEO's come from a company's profit centers- sales and marketing. COO's come from a company's cost centers- operations, production, and IT. COOs rarely jump to become CEOs. The board that picks the CEO is almost always interested in maximizing profit, never interested in minimizing loss.
    • Not only is your post accurate, at the risk of stealing some of your thunder, it's not even news. My question, why are people still wondering why few CIO's become CEO's?
    • by RyoShin ( 610051 )
      The problem there is that often the Sales and Marketing side of the business doesn't understand just what the Technical side can and can't do, and in what amount of time they can or can't do it. So they start promising the moon, when the Technical side can produce maybe the Rocky Mountains. This creates all sorts of worthless and stupid demands on Technical side. (Many of them wind up on TheDailyWTF [])

      The reason a CIO can't be a CEO is the same reason the CEO you described shouldn't be a CEO- they're too one-
  • They are paid to manage IT, not run a company. It's a big leap from one to the other.
  • Wrong skill set? (Score:4, Informative)

    by OglinTatas ( 710589 ) on Wednesday January 24, 2007 @01:29PM (#17739770)
    Perhaps being intelligent, hardworking, and having a thorough knowledge of the company and how it works are not the most important factor in being CEO?

    The similarity between CEOs and sociopaths has been pointed out before. From a Psychology Today article []
  • by nomadic ( 141991 ) <> on Wednesday January 24, 2007 @01:29PM (#17739772) Homepage
    "Knowing what we know about CIOs -- that is, that most are smart, hardworking, supremely aware of how the business works and increasingly savvy regarding the workings of external customers' minds -- the failure of more CIOs to become CEO has to be one of the biggest mysteries of our age."

    I don't really see it that way. Unlike the CEO, CFO, President, board members, etc., the CIO's focus is internal rather than external. The CIO's "customer" is generally his or her own company itself. Why would a company risk promoting someone who's focus is inward-looking into a position where they have to look outwards as well?
    • by AK Marc ( 707885 )
      I don't really see it that way. Unlike the CEO, CFO, President, board members, etc., the CIO's focus is internal rather than external.

      I see the CFO as being internal as well. They are about numbers and can do their job well without ever having seen a customer or any of the products made by the company. But CFOs make it to CEO.
  • IT is considered a "support function", making it difficult from people from that department to break into the top offices.

    It's why you only see fighter pilots at the top of the Air Force and past carrier skippers at the top of the Navy, etc. You could be a great transport pilot, sub driver or the logistics guy that ran the Berlin Airlift, but you'll never make it to the top.

    Why? I guess you could call it "Institutional Bias".
    • I'd suggest you do more research. Your "facts" about military leadership are off the mark. Even the Marine Corps has an aircraft maintenance man leading their enlisted. Now if that isn't against an institutional bias, I don't know what is.
  • by ehaggis ( 879721 ) on Wednesday January 24, 2007 @01:33PM (#17739832) Homepage Journal
    ...Doom 3 is not considered a mandatory CEO skill.
  • I'd rather... (Score:4, Insightful)

    by Daishiman ( 698845 ) on Wednesday January 24, 2007 @01:34PM (#17739844)

    I'd rather choose a person who know business than one who knows computers to lead a company. True, a LOT of businessmen are incompetent and don't know squat about anything, but at the end of the day you have to see a business through a businessperson's eyes. That means taking into account issues which might not be regularly considered by other experts.

    Look, I'm a computer guy and I despise the fact that many people cannot understand the difficulties in my profession, but I do know that you have to get your shit straight to negotiate with salesmen, accountants, and clients, while projecting the ideas of a company and making sure that all specialties within a company are working fine. Like computer professions, business has aspects that are more art than science, and talented people can squeeze it for all its worth.

  • by Realistic_Dragon ( 655151 ) on Wednesday January 24, 2007 @01:34PM (#17739856) Homepage
    The two most likely answers for all of this kind of question are:

    Because {X} don't want to.
    Because {X} didn't contain enough individuals with the correct aptitude.

    In this case (rarely enough) there is a plausible third answer:

    Because finance directors know where the skeletons are buried and sales directors put them there in the first place.

    But I'm still betting that nearly 100% of the reason is caused by the first two generic points.
  • by Doc Ruby ( 173196 ) on Wednesday January 24, 2007 @01:35PM (#17739872) Homepage Journal
    When I'm in meetings with CEOS, bankers, "investors" and other purely "business" people, with no production merit, they usually roll their eyes whenever someone mentions something technical, or even just relating directly to the technology, as if it were important to the business. These businesspeople have social skills, even if limited to boardroom power games, and sometimes technical skills in finance, marketing, or the law. But they never let their own "techinical" skills or jargon show in these meetings with "outsiders". They have instead learned to dumb down their expertise to talk purely colloquially with nontechnical people.

    Pure technologists rarely learn to dumb down like that. Partly because the knowledge itself is the most valuable, not the person who has it. Partly because tech is a language itself, which suffers from obfuscation and euphamism. So do the other technical communications, like finance and management, but those execs have long ago learned to ignore the imprecision and downright coverups, unless they feel their own power directly threatened by it.

    CIOs are much more like other execs than like other technologists. The most successful ones are those least competent in tech itself, preferring instead to work on social competence like the rest of the execs with whom they deal. But the other execs still don't trust the CIOs, because they are still more likely to tell the truth about the core business, or just something else the rest of the execs don't understand, which would make the majority of the power holders look bad.

    Eventually CIOs will become as disconnected from the technology and its culture as are the rest of the execs from wherever they draw their power. Then CIOs will become CEOs more often, like CFOs and CMOs (though marketing execs hide their pedigree for exactly the opposite reason, confirming the duplicity). Eventually no one will know what they're talking about when they spout expertise, but they will know each other very well. CIOs will win, and the products, the company, and the customers will all lose.
  • by AHumbleOpinion ( 546848 ) on Wednesday January 24, 2007 @01:40PM (#17739922) Homepage
    "Knowing what we know about CIOs -- that is, that most are smart, hardworking, ...

    No argument there.

    ... supremely aware of how the business works ...

    No, they are supremely aware of how one segment of the business works. An important segment, but still a limited view.

    ... and increasingly savvy regarding the workings of external customers' minds ...

    No, that would probably be sales/marketing or operations depending on the nature of the business.

    ... the failure of more CIOs to become CEO has to be one of the biggest mysteries of our age."

    I'd suggest pondering a company that has been an aggressive and pioneering user of IT since 1969, Wal-Mart. Despite being one of the most consistently successful firms with respect to IT, their long term strategy has been that IT is a temporary assignment. That managers are "merchants first", something else secondarily. Now a side effect of this is perhaps to spread IT knowledge throughout management.

    I would argue that business success is largely based upon stategy, and IT is more of an implementor of stategy, not as much a formulator of strategy. IT skills are valuable, but being a people-person, a motivator, a leader, is critical for a CEO. I'd wager that if we took a close look at those CIOs who rose to CEOs we would find a lot of experience outside of IT. One long term stategy for becoming a CEO is to take stretch assignment outside of one's comfort zone, to work in more than one discipline within the company. I expect that CIO was merely the last such assignment, not that someone spent an entire career in IT and became CEO.
  • by RyoShin ( 610051 ) <> on Wednesday January 24, 2007 @01:42PM (#17739952) Homepage Journal
    CIOs have been unable to escalate to the CEO position because they cannot synergize the corporate enterprise environment into a sigma six solution in a manner that evasperates the board and homogenizes the company.

    I'm pretty certain I made up a few words there, but if I said that to a CEO s/he'd likely nod and say "Why, you're absolutely correct!"

    And that's why CIOs can't obtain the CEO position.
  • ......nerds (Score:3, Interesting)

    by XO ( 250276 ) <{blade.eric} {at} {}> on Wednesday January 24, 2007 @01:43PM (#17739976) Homepage Journal
    CIOs are nerds. CEOs have to be able to deal with people.
  • Same reason why the mail boy will never be CEO... The American dream is a lie
    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by kfg ( 145172 )
      Same reason why the mail boy will never be CEO...

      Well, there's David Geffen, but he's kinda unique; and moved from mailboy to sales to founder.

      The American dream is a lie

      Well yeah, the current version of working hard to qualify for a mortgage on a cardboard and foam "house" full of rubbish and hanging on until you can qualify for a reverse mortgage and then all of your dreams of money, power and glory will come true in your "golden years" is a lie.

      And a very useful one to a handful of people for whom you s
  • It's the same reason that CFOs rarely rise to CEO. The CEO is almost always the head of a major profit center before becoming CEO, CIOs and CFOs are cost centers, so no matter how talented the manager might be, they'll almost always be over looked. If you are a CIO and want to become a CEO, either start your own firm or follow the path's of other CEOs.
  • Fear (Score:2, Interesting)

    by ClayTapes ( 904294 )
    Alot of CIO's aren't seen as trustworthy by other management staff. The fact that they control such a vital part of the business that others know nothing about is frightening. Also they tend to be blamed for others' lack of technological knowledge. People think their IT departments are poorly managed.
  • Because they tend to have a conscience and feel bad about screwing people?
  • "...the failure of more CIOs to become CEO has to be one of the biggest mysteries of our age"

    When it comes to CIOs, there are at least two types of individuals involved. [a] Those that did this, that & the other, eventually finding themselves as CIO's [b] Those that did the very same things, came from the same backgrounds, had the same basic skill sets, etc., yet never served as CIOs, eventually finding themselves as CEOs.

    An assumption/expectation that a CIO's next step is to CEO, is analogous to
  • And know better than to jump from the warming plate into the oven.

    President's positions also have a short half-life, if they other reasons don't mean much.
  • >most (CIO's) are smart, hardworking, supremely aware of how the business works and increasingly savvy regarding the workings of external customers' minds

    WTF does any of that have to do with being a CEO?
  • Most CIOs are even more socially backward than most CEOs.

    On the other hand, remember Ted Turner saying the AOL acquisition by Warner was "better than sex". Every company I know suffers from the CEO's lack of technical knowledge.

    Maybe there are some socially skilled CIOs. However, there is VERY little respect for technical knowledge in our culture, so they are not likely to be considered.

    U.S. government violence in Iraq caused more violence, not peaceful democracy.
  • "One of the biggest mysteries of our age?" Give me a freaking break.
  • ...and CIOs are also, each and every special one of them, pretty and/or handsome, excellent athletes, superb musicians, and they have beautiful handwriting!

    (This article is more self-serving than most political rallies....)
  • ... the failure of more CIOs to become CEO

    Clearly it's I before E *except* after C. Duh

  • IMHO most CIOs are just risk averse bean counters who have given us this Microsoft monopoly, completely ignoring Microsoft monopoly. The standard making body is working on Open Document specification and MS is poisoning it by incorporating "reproduce all my bugs exactly the same way I did way back in 1995" as the standar spec. All these CIOs are sitting on their butts, plotting and scheming and playing palace intrigue in corporate HQ. Why should they become CEOs?

    Think about it, if the Fortune 500 compani

  • It's like saying brain surgeons are smart. You have to be smart to fly a plane. So, why aren't all brain surgeons pilots?

  • by mschuyler ( 197441 ) on Wednesday January 24, 2007 @02:17PM (#17740538) Homepage Journal
    CEO's (should be) are outward focused. They steer the ship where, if they are correct, it is supposed to be to return the most value, blah blah. That's their job and their responsibility. It's not just about the product, but also about regulatory and personnel issues, accounting, and competition, all significant hazards to be avoided. Yes, of course it's about "the customer," but not in the belly-button staring sense most customers think. "The customer is always right" means the customer knows what he or she wants to buy (including services and treatment) therefore the corporation must produce products and services and treatment that the customer will buy in advance of their doing so, in the hopes that they will, e.g. iPhone.

    The CIO, on the other hand, is very inward focused or, if recently enlightened, certainly has an inward focused background. It's about code and deadlines and infrastructure support. These are the guys who oil the pumps and valves that keep that whonking 100,000 HP steam engine in the bowels of the ship working. They don't stear the ship. They don't decide where it's going to go. They don't even have to know the mission. They are responsible for making sure it gets there in good shape. In many cases, they don't even have time to go above deck and look outside.

    It is very rare for an engineering officer to make Admiral, even rarer for a supply officer or personnel officer, or, for that matter, a medical officer or JAG. These are all support roles, and if you've done your homework, you KNOW THAT IN ADVANCE. Admirals come from the surface warfare officer community or, in the case of carriers, through the aviation route. It's the same in the army: Schwarzkopf was an Infantry Officer, not a technician, who, incidentally, in the lower ranks is ALWAYS subservient to an infantryman of the same rank.

    If a potential CIO is interested in doing the CEO thing, the best thing for him or her to do is make sure he or she gains significant experience outside the CIO ladder. A significant stint in accounting, personnel, or an "assistant to the CEO" type position will show significantly in the bid to become CEO. Narrowly focusing on just IT will never get you to the Board Room.

    I know many of you don't like this. From an idealistic point of view, it's "wrong." because, as anyone here knows, IT people are the smartest, sharpest people ever to walk the planet who KNOW how the world works, REALLY. They deserve to become CEO, and if they don't, there's something wrong with the system, not them, and certainly not their attitude. But as a Board Member (or head hunter) I'm not really interested in whether you know C++ or even if you have managed to keep the servers online 24x7. (Can you imagine a bid for CEO: "I know C++ and Open Source is the way to go and Linux is cool and Bill Gates is an idiot capitalist pig dog.") The fact that you are a proven manager of infrastructure issues is great. That's what is expected of you. Keep doing that. Swap out my PC any time you want. But I want someone who knows precisely where the ship is going for CEO.

    The bottom line is that there's a heirarchy out there that exists in every walk of life. Laws to fix heirarchy are artificial; the heirarchy is still there. If you are not the CEO then either you didn't want to be (not always a bad thing?) or you screwed up in your perception of what was necessary to get you there. Whining about it is not going to "fix" anything. Perhaps a little introspection will.
  • No seriously. CIO's can't do martini lunches.

    Think that's a friviolous comment? You haven't worked around senior management.
  • ... promotions to managerial positions is the way Nature has found to take morons from the productive chain.
  • Seriously, CIOs generally come with a tech background. To be CEO, you need to know how to make money, because that's what Wall Street demands. And in the real world, your typical publicly traded high tech company isn't really about high tech, it's about profits. You don't often get that kind of experience with a CIO on your way up the ladder to CIO, while the VPs in sales and finance do. Sure there are exceptions, but I don't think we'd need a study to figure out the obvious here. I mean really, how of
    • Making money is not a precursor to being CEO. "Proven track record" usually means being in a similar (or slightly lesser ie Pres,VicePres) position. There are many CEOs in place in 500 companies that have NO record of consistant increases in shareholder value. In fact, I bet you would find a majority of them in the opposite position.
  • The CIO position has been around for less time than the CFO and other positions. CEOs are often taken from people that served EVP/CxO level for a few years, and CIOs are still new. Give it a generation and ask the question again.
  • Even though Wall Street likes to say that CEOs have some quality that is in high demand, we all know that quality can be summed up completely with the word "connections". They have no skills. To be a CEO is to have well placed family members or friends. Look at what happens when a CEO gets fired. They generally temporarily put another employee of the company in charge, until they can find another jackass with well placed family members or friends, they almost never promote from within. You don't get promote
    • Not everyone on a board is affluent and connected. Many boards the CIO position is stocked with the senior IT guy as company transitioned from small to large. Once in the CIO position, pretty much your connections become other CIOs and marketing/research thunk tanks.
  • Because we're too busy making the company work to spend all our time golfing and attending social functions.
  • The answer is simple. It is because 70-95 per cent of a CEO's job involves sales, sales promotion, or just plain promotion (leadership, goal-setting, etc.) CIOs are usually not charismatic enough to do well in the top sales role.

    Note: 70-95 per cent of all statistics are made up on the spot.
    • It is arguable to get CIO you need a lot of charisma because the rest of a board doesn't allow introverted tech weenies into the circle. Affuence is everything.

Houston, Tranquillity Base here. The Eagle has landed. -- Neil Armstrong