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Why Don't More CIOs Become CEO?

January 22, 2007 12:00 PM ET

Computerworld - So many companies, so few CEOs drawn from the ranks of the technology elite. What’s going on? A very rudimentary review of empirical data reveals overwhelming evidence of a chronic nonadvancement of CIOs to the top spot — on a global basis.

There are 500 companies in the Fortune 500 and only a handful of former CIOs in the top job. You’ll find a similar situation around the world; check out the leadership of the companies in France’s CAC 40 index, Britain’s FTSE 100, Hong Kong’s Hang Seng and Germany’s DAX.

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. If any readers can shed light on it, I’d love to hear what you have to say.

Do CIOs Have the Right Stuff?

Jack Welch, revered by many observers as the CEO’s CEO, finessed the question of whether one is born with the CEO gene or acquires it, when he told reporters that being a CEO is all about “setting the right goals, reaching them the right way, and doing both in the right amount of time.” Isn’t that what CIOs do with a very complex portfolio of projects?

Many years ago, in their career-launching best-seller, In Search of Excellence, Tom Peters and Bob Waterman said great CEOs have eight basic traits:

1. They have a bias for action.

2. They’re close to the customer.

3. They are both autonomous and entrepreneurial.

4. They achieve productivity through people.

5. They’re hands-on and value-driven.

6. They stick to their knitting.

7. They use simple form and lean staffs.

8. They have simultaneous “loose-tight properties.”

These eight magic ingredients certainly are not out of the reach of most current CIOs.

In the subsequent Passion for Excellence, Peters and Nancy Austin further distilled what they thought were the ingredients of success to two simple bullet points:

1. Do you have personal pride in what you do? Do you feel that you are doing something significant, meaningful and worthwhile?

2. Are you enthusiastic about your job?

Again, most CIOs today could answer yes.

Can iconic sound bites from the CEOs of yesteryear really tell us why more CIOs aren’t moving up to the top spot? Maybe we should consult the words of a CEO who truly transcends time, Walt Disney. Disney, appropriately remembered for his creativity and vision, was also pretty savvy about playing the part of CEO. While he loved people, he came to the conclusion that “I’m not ‘Walt Disney’ anymore. Disney is a thing, an attitude, an image in the eyes of the public. I’ve spent my whole career creating that image, and I’m a great believer in what Disney is. But it’s not me, the person, anymore.”

A big part of being a CEO is what some scholars term the “out-of-body” leadership experience. That is, you have to be bigger than life. You are no longer Joe or Jane SVP; you are something bigger. It is perhaps somewhat ironic that by creating a bit of distance and adding a pinch of the theatrical, we become closer to the business and more likely to end up in the top job.

Thornton A. May is a longtime industry observer, management consultant and commentator. Contact him at thorntonamay@aol.com.

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