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CIOs Share How They Made the Leap to CEO

By Kim S. Nash, CIO
September 25, 2013 09:27 AM ET

CIO - Kevin Horner was a damn good CIO.

At the helm of IT at Alcoa for three years--and as CIO of various divisions for 11 years before that--Horner led the $23.7 billion company to numerous honors, including two CIO 100 Awards. He ran IT like a business, showing the cost of the technology and services each internal group consumed. He met with key senior leaders to understand their needs. He did a two-and-a-half-year stint in Europe, gaining global experience. He sat on an outside board of directors.

Horner did the things CIOs are supposed to do to be strategic, to be game-changing, to transcend IT. So in October 2011 when he was offered the CEO position at Mastech, an IT staffing company, he was ready.

Or so he thought. His first 18 months as CEO revealed gaps in his skills and experience.

"I was a pretty good CIO, and still there's a bunch of stuff I was just absolutely missing," Horner says.

The CEO job has never looked more attainable to CIOs. In today's business climate, the monster forces of social media, mobility and analytics technology are moving tectonic plates beneath traditional C-suite roles. CIOs are bumping up against fellow officers as IT becomes the number-one tool for building strategic advantage. A CIO who can make clever use of data and technology to create new revenue may be well-positioned to lead a company.

It's no tidal wave, but it is happening. In July, former Burger King CIO Raj Rawal became CEO of Fresh Diet, a small meal-delivery company. Also that month, Guy Chiarello quit as CIO of JPMorgan Chase to be president of First Data, a $10.7 billion financial services powerhouse. At Cisco, CIO Rebecca Jacoby is one of five executives said to be in line for the CEO job. Companies in real estate, oil, services and healthcare have also appointed CEOs who are former CIOs.

"We may not be commonplace, but there are some kinds of businesses crying out to be run by someone with a big tech background," says Kirby Slunaker, president and CEO of Metrolist, a privately held real-estate listing ser-vice. He used to be the CIO at Visa USA and eBags.

These CEOs show how far a talented CIO can go. Their personal stories also reveal some basic truths about the top job--truths that may make it impossible for many CIOs to cross over. Some revelations were surprising, such as the relentless storytelling that's required to get and keep employees supporting a common vision.

The pressure of profit-and-loss responsibility is intense, especially for CIOs who haven't been exposed to it. Delegating is no longer just a nice idea; it's a necessity. These CEOs felt the full weight of accountability--for strategy, profits, other people's livelihoods--immediately.

And, in the end, CEO is a singular, sometimes lonely job. "You can interact closely with your CEO. But you don't have a full appreciation of what subtleties and demands go with the job until you sit there," Chris Lofgren, CEO of Schneider National, and once its CIO.

Paving the Way

There is some precedent for today's moves. A handful of high-achieving CIOs rose to become CEOs about 10 years ago, as the Web began to rearrange business. Dawn Lepore, for example, was CIO at Charles Schwab at the time and helped invent online trading for everyday investors. She eventually gained the title of vice chairman. In 2004, she quit for the CEO post at Drugstore.com, a pure-play Web company she led for eight years. Now she's a venture capitalist.

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