Leadership for the Future: Why the CIO Will Be Tomorrow’s CEO

In my last Leadership for the Future post, I outlined a few ways that organizational structures will need to shift in the next five to 10 years to adapt to our technology-driven world. With a flatter, decentralized organizational model and more collaborative, cross-discipline teams, tomorrow’s winning organizations will require leaders with experience and skills that can navigate the new challenges this model brings and identify opportunities quickly. Tomorrow’s CEO must also be able to transform vision into innovation and inspire others to monetize this innovation and find new ways to gain market share. 

The CIO is perfectly positioned to take on the role of CEO and employ the steps I outlined in the last post for creating a more effective and competitive organizational structure. Why? CIOs have three crucial skills.  

Experience working with different technologies. Technology has always been tapped by organizational leadership. Former-CIOs likely spent a fair amount of time learning to mix and match different technologies to build the right operational environment. This is vital as organizations look to holistically approach technology and implement solutions across their organization and break down silos.

Experience managing knowledge and talent acquisition in a fast paced environment. No other line of business is exposed to as much change and fast-paced learning as the IT department. Almost every year, tech teams are required to learn new software and hardware to maintain a competitive advantage and ensure up-to-date IT security. A strong IT department innately has an execution mindset, another vital trait for successful organizations in the future.

Experience making risky decisions. CIOs are no stranger to placing bets on new and emerging technologies in order to secure competitive advantage for their organizations. This is important because when the world is changing so fast there is great potential for error. Risk management skills come from experience. For instance, Formula One drivers make fast decisions at very high speed – the need to make these high-speed decisions might cause less experienced drivers to crash. Hence, the faster the rate of change and the more complex the environment, the more important the experience level is for the decision maker.

Plainly stated, a former-CIO will approach the challenges faced by tomorrow’s leaders differently than other members of the C-suite. Below are a few ways that the CIO can foster innovation and growth in key areas including operations, marketing, and finance.

  • Operations: If the CIO is the CEO, he or she will take operational management to the next level in two ways. First the CIO can leverage data and analytics to make operational processes more efficient. That includes changing product business models. For instance, product as a service is a new business model where the source of revenue is not the sale of the product but the sale of the services. There is an argument that every company will become a services company. GE, for instance, is leading in this direction. Second, as a former-CIO, the CEO will understand how to support and foster technology-enabled, fact-based decision making. Most current operations are managed through policy and basically on employee gut feelings. This leads to significant variation in the way decisions are made, which is frequently suboptimal. Information will allow the organization to standardize and optimize decision making. 
  • Marketing: Marketing is very quickly becoming a technology play. Mass marketing, the old-fashioned way, is quickly disappearing. First, we have marketing automation software that allows us to capture consumer data and communicate with consumers in a more personalized and direct manner. Second, marketing analytics is changing our understanding of how and why consumers do things. A former-CIO will approach marketing from a fact-based stand point. The nature of consumer research will change and become more focused on data-mining.  
  • Finance: Any CEO has to watch after the financial health of the company and deliver value. That won’t change with a former-CIO taking the reigns. He or she, however, won’t wait for quarterly results to make adjustments to strategy. Instead, they will manage finance and profit in real time. What do I mean by that? We have technologies now that can track value and profit margin on a per-transaction level, i.e., in the general ledger. That is an amazing innovation that can revolutionize financial decision-making if properly implemented.

This is not to say the CIO can slide directly into the CEO’s seat – just that they are the best fit for the role. To prepare, CIOs should invest in learning all aspects of the organization before implementing sweeping changes. This includes diving into the nitty-gritty of operations, marketing, and finance prior to taking on the role of CEO. Learning on the job will be difficult because of the fast pace of change so they must prepare in advance. Of course, they will have to want to be CEO and have the passion and personal dedication to learning. CEOs are typically groomed for their position, helping them to prepare. CIO’s aspiring to the top position should also expect and accept this support structure.

What are your thoughts on the topic? In your opinion, will the CIO will be the next CEO? Leave your comments below and stay tuned for the next post in my series when I’ll dive back into organizational structure and the key dimensions for tomorrow’s organizations.