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From Technology Leader to CEO – Why the IT Function Creates the Next Best Leaders in an Organisation and How to Win the Top Job

Why the CIO is the next CEO. A woman in her forties, who is the IT Manager, is receiving a crown and  accolades from her peers in an office.

The role of Chief Information Officer (CIO) has undergone a significant transformation. Once regarded as a technologist responsible for IT operations, the modern CIO has emerged as a strategic leader driving innovation and growth through the power of information and technology. As CIOs take on more strategic responsibilities, the path to becoming a Chief Executive Officer (CEO) has become increasingly viable and attractive.

This article delves into the journey from Technology Leader to CEO, exploring why the IT function nurtures exceptional leaders who can successfully steer organisations to success. We will examine the qualities that illustrate why CIOs are the next best leaders in an organisation and the challenges that face successful candidates.

If you’re seeking the top job, these are the talking points that the board will want to explore.

Part 1: The CIO as the Next CEO: How your current role is training you for the top job

1.1 The Evolving Role of the CIO

The role of the CIO has significantly evolved over the years. Historically seen as a technical expert managing IT operations, the modern CIO is now a strategic business leader. Today’s CIOs have a comprehensive understanding of the organisation’s goals and objectives, and they actively contribute to shaping the company’s strategic direction in partnership with an incumbent CEO.

1.2 Controlling and Enhancing Information Benefits

Controlling and enhancing the use of information is at the heart of the CIO’s responsibilities. The CIO oversees data management, analytics, cybersecurity, and digital transformation initiatives to harness the power of information as a strategic asset.  Their job is to link business strategy to real-world practice, an ideal proving ground for the translation of idea to execution as a CEO.

1.3 Understanding the Organisation’s Moving Parts

One of the key reasons CIOs make excellent CEO candidates is their comprehensive understanding of all the moving parts within an organisation. By managing technology infrastructure and collaborating with diverse departments, CIOs gain invaluable insights into various business processes and interdepartmental dependencies.

1.4 Strategic Leadership and Innovation

Modern CIOs are more than just technology experts; they are strategic leaders with a vision for the future. Their ability to envision innovative solutions and drive digital transformation initiatives sets them apart as visionary leaders capable of steering organisations through disruptive market forces – a proving ground for future CEO’s.

1.5 Mitigating Risks and Ensuring Compliance

In an era marked by data breaches and cyber threats, the CIO’s expertise in cybersecurity becomes crucial. CIOs implement robust security measures, ensuring compliance with industry regulations and data protection laws.  Combined with reporting to the CEO and to the board on regulatory and compliance matters, the CIO is well-versed in risk management by the time the opportunity to step up to CEO comes around.

Part 2: Why CIOs Make Good CEOs: Unleashing the Power of Technological Leadership

2.1 Visionary Leadership

CIOs possess a visionary mindset that extends beyond the realm of technology. They have an innate ability to envision how technology can drive business transformation and create a competitive advantage.

2.2 Understanding the Nexus of Business and Technology

CIOs have an exceptional grasp of both the business and technology aspects of an organisation. Their experience in managing complex IT infrastructures while collaborating with diverse business units and catering to multiple stakeholders gives them a unique perspective.

2.3 Strategic Decision-Making

CIOs are accustomed to making critical decisions that impact the entire organisation. They have honed their strategic decision-making abilities while navigating the challenges of technology adoption, managing budgets, and mitigating risks.

2.4 Embracing Data-Driven Insights

Data is the lifeblood of modern business, and CIOs excel at harnessing its potential. CIOs leverage data and analytics to gain valuable insights and make evidence-based decisions.

2.5 Fostering a Culture of Innovation

Innovation is at the core of every successful organisation, and CIOs are at the forefront of driving technological innovation. They encourage a culture of continuous learning and experimentation, leading teams to explore cutting-edge technologies and seek creative solutions to complex problems.

2.6 Navigating Cybersecurity Challenges

In an era marked by cyber threats and data breaches, CIOs have developed a keen understanding of cybersecurity. They are well-versed in the measures required to protect sensitive data and ensure regulatory compliance.

Part 3: From CIO to CEO – The Challenges of Taking on the Top Job (your awareness of these challenges and evidence of planning to overcome them will assist you in the CEO selection process)

3.1 Shifting Mindset from Tactical to Strategic

One of the most significant challenges for CIOs stepping into the CEO role is transitioning from a predominantly tactical and technology-focused mindset to one that is all-encompassing of the business and focused almost exclusively around delivering on long-term strategy.

3.2 Embracing the Broader Business Landscape

As a CIO, the scope of responsibility is typically confined to the IT department and technology-related matters. Stepping into the CEO position requires understanding the entire business landscape.  Some days or weeks will need to be dedicated to internal and external intelligence-gathering to form effective insights on how to deal with the competitive landscape.  Establishing ongoing information-gathering processes is critical to keep the new CEO at the forefront of the market’s volatility.

3.3 Shaping and Communicating the Vision

CEOs are responsible for setting the company’s vision and direction, rallying employees, investors, and other stakeholders around a common purpose. Crafting a compelling and achievable vision requires effective communication skills and the ability to articulate complex ideas in a way that resonates with diverse audiences.  For CIO’s used to talking about technology using complex concepts that are understood by most conversation participants, this can be a challenge.

3.4 Balancing Short-term and Long-term Goals

As a CIO, the focus is often on meeting immediate technology needs and project deadlines. However, as CEO, you must balance short-term financial targets with long-term strategic objectives that ensure the company’s sustainability and growth.  This dichotomy of focus can be frustrating, but it is part of the role.

3.5 Overcoming Resistance and Perception

Some organisations may be hesitant about promoting a CIO to the CEO position, as concerns may arise about the individual’s ability to lead beyond the realm of technology. CIOs need to demonstrate their leadership capabilities, build trust, and overcome any perceptions of being solely tech-focused.  Communicating a clear plan that is seen as whole-of-business and putting some early, non-technology-focused wins on the board will go a long way towards fostering the correct perception from the board to the front line.

3.6 Nurturing an Agile Leadership Style

CIOs who become CEOs must adapt their leadership style to accommodate a wider range of responsibilities and a diverse set of stakeholders. Embracing an agile leadership approach allows CEOs to respond effectively to rapidly changing market dynamics.  The particular characteristics of an agile leader are:

  1. Empowerment: They empower their teams to make decisions and take ownership of their work, promoting a sense of autonomy and accountability.
  2. Collaboration: Agile leaders emphasise collaboration and open communication, fostering a culture of trust and transparency within the organisation.
  3. Adaptability: They embrace change and encourage their teams to be flexible and adaptive, responding proactively to new challenges and opportunities.
  4. Continuous Learning: Agile leaders promote a culture of continuous learning and improvement, encouraging experimentation and embracing failure as an opportunity to learn.
  5. Servant Leadership: They prioritise the needs of their team members, enabling them to perform at their best and removing obstacles that hinder progress.
  6. Vision and Alignment: While promoting flexibility, agile leaders ensure that the team is aligned with the overall vision and goals of the organisation.


The journey from CIO to CEO represents an exciting opportunity for experienced IT professionals to leverage their unique skills and expertise in leading organisations to success. With a comprehensive understanding of the organisation’s moving parts, visionary leadership, strategic decision-making abilities, and a data-driven mindset, CIOs possess the essential qualities to drive transformative change as CEOs.

By overcoming challenges, shaping and communicating a compelling vision, and embracing an agile leadership style, you can demonstrate the qualities required to appoint you to the top job. Being prepared to discuss the challenges of the transition and demonstrate planning to overcome them will assist you to secure the CEO’s role.


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