CIO study says IT leaders could one day be CEOs

The evolution of the CIO's role could elevate IT staff to more senior positions

Canadian CIOs have all the key leadership competencies they need if they were motivated to one day take on a CEO job and running an entire enterprise, based on research findings presented at an industry event on Thursday.

The results of a report called "CIO To CEO: Barriers and Success Factors" was among the highlights of the 2010 Peer Forum hosted by the CIO Association of Canada. Developed by the industry association and Ryerson University, the report is a white paper that brings together several theoretical models around leadership, research based on a questionnaire and in-depth interviews with both chief information officers and chief executive officers. It also explores the evolution of the CIO role and offers advice for those young professionals aspiring to take on the position one day.

Key to the report were the findings from a Leadership Dimensions Questionnaire (LDQ) that was completed by 36 Canadian CIOs and nine CEOs. The researchers followed this up with detailed discussions with CEOs about their assessment of IT leaders' potential to run a business. The LDQ looked at a range of skill sets and competencies that are required of CEOs, including environmental factors of an individual's industry or employer, their work experience and responsibilities, as well as the personal attributes around relationship-building and communication.

"There was no difference," between the scores of CIOs or CEOs, said Ron Babin, associate director of the Ted Rogers School of IT Management at Ryerson University. "CIOs are just as smart, they have the managerial dimension. They don't lack the ability. It's just dependent on the drive and personal appetite (for the CEO role). So we have the raw material."

According to those surveyed, 59 per cent said personal attributes were the strongest set of factors in those who went from CIO to CEO, compared to work experience at 24 per cent and environmental factors at 14 per cent. The top 10 elements of factors also included an individual's strengths as a change leader, whether their organization was a mature user of IT and if they had a mentor to helped them progress in their career.

Cathy Koop, director of research and advocacy at the CIO Association of Canada, said even if they were thinking of moving well outside their IT background, those surveyed had to had to be good at the "CIO basics" of running IT projects on time and on budget.

"Before they tried to expand into other areas of the business, they took care of the foundation," she said, adding that many of them were courageous risk-takers. "They did not shy away from challenges. They sought them out. In many cases they chose the projects that nobody else wanted."

Dr. Peter G.W. Keen, founder of Keen Innovations and an author on IT strategy, suggested a big part of becoming an affective leader in IT is ensuring staff are ready to take over in the CIO's place. In years of talking with CIOs, he said, very few had developed any kind of succession plan.

"Your weakest link tend to be your direct reports," he said. "It's been a case of branding outwards -- very ambassadorial. But you need someone who can actually run the ship."

Although Babin said knowledge of areas such as finance or marketing did not seem to be a major factor in taking on the CEO role, most CIOs who have made the leap furthered their business knowledge."All went back and got their MBA," he said.

Koop added that successful CIOs have moved into business operations and then back into technology, or pursued stint in consulting. "There's been that mix of technology, business and entrepreneurialism."

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Shane Schick

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