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From CIO to CEO: a natural progression

Can a successful CIO become a CEO? This is a thing CIOs talk about, and as a former CIO who is now in the CEO role at a growing automation software company, people have been asking me about the path I took to get here.

I have always felt that, to be effective as a CIO, you must focus on the business in much the same way a CEO does. Especially today, when every company needs to behave like a successful software company, the CIO is uniquely positioned to develop, grow and mature the qualities and skills that make for successful leadership of any enterprise. In fact, any IT leader who wants to take on a business role should take advantage of the opportunities they have in their role — and in this moment — to uplevel their skills, responsibilities and experience.

Let's look at what it takes to be a successful business leader. To succeed as CEO, you must:

  • Enhance stakeholder value. Stakeholders are your shareholders, your employees, your technical and business partners, your customers. You have to make their relationship with your company a profitable, mutually beneficial one, manage their expectations, and deliver on these expectations.
  • Set the strategy and direction for the company. You have to set the goals, and have a clear vision for how the company will get there. You need to have a full understanding of the risks and pitfalls along the way, and a good idea of how to avoid them.
  • Communicate. You must be able to convey your vision and the company's strategy to all your stakeholders, and to the wider public. You must be persuasive, and convince people the company is on the right path. You must also exemplify open, clear and effective communication, inspiring others in the company to communicate skillfully, too.
  • Operate with excellence. A company that doesn't practice operational excellence can't compete effectively, can't grow well, and ultimately can't survive. Conversely, operational excellence, coupled with a sound strategy, is a quiet, unglamorous but powerful driver of success.
  • Attract, hire, retain and motivate your people. It can't be said too often: If you're a knowledge-based company — and what company isn't today? — your most valuable assets go home every night. A successful CEO has to create the conditions for recruiting and retaining the best people. And not just the best in your particular field or industry, but the best people sales, finance, human resources, legal affairs, IT operations, customer service, marketing, distribution...every functional area you need to run a successful company.

I'd argue that a CIO, and especially a successful one, has to do exactly these same things. And as CIO, you are perfectly positioned to understand the entire business. Your department serves every other functional area of the company, so you see all the pieces of the business. You know the details of what it takes to run every functional area well. You have to set a strategy for IT that maps to the priorities of the company, which means you have to understand not just what it takes to run every area, but how they all fit together. There is no better place to see and grapple with this comprehensive view than the CIO's role.

In my years as a CIO at a large technology company, I learned very quickly that I couldn't be effective if all I talked about was technology. I could be effective only if I was a good business person, and if I conveyed the goals, the strategy and the direction of the business to my team, and how their jobs fit into the bigger picture. After all, in a technology company of 50,000 people, there are 49,999 people who think they are the CIO — and truthfully, they were better than I was at the technology, with years more experience in IT than I would ever have. My job was show these talented people where we were going, and help them understand how their knowledge and domain expertise could have a real impact on the business, in a time frame that matters.

So yes, as CIO, you can prepare yourself to be a CEO. What it takes is a powerful focus on the business; the ability to communicate the strategy and vision to everyone who can have an impact on the company; a commitment to operating with excellence, and delivering value; and most of all, a deep commitment to your people.

Sanjay Mirchandani is the CEO of Puppet.