CEO, Nexaweb Technologies Inc.

If IT is the business, then why do most CEOs seem to come from the sales and finance sides of the house? CEO search professionals and those who’ve made the leap from IT to general business leadership say ambitious IT executives need direct experience of how other business units are run to be considered CEO material.

Adam Kohn, vice chairman at executive search firm Christian & Timbers, said CIOs becoming CEOs is not unheard of, but usually after a staged process. For example, former Progressive Insurance CIO Glenn Renwick managed various Progressive business units before becoming CEO, while former Walgreen Co. CIO David Bernauer sat in the COO chair before taking the CEO title.

“You want to start expressing your interests early in your career and you will move as you’re promoted,” Kohn advises.

This strategy has worked well for Tim Aubrey, who went from running the data centre of Fairmont Hotels & Resorts to running the company’s internal finances. After working as Fairmont’s vice-president of technology, Aubrey was named senior vice-president of finance in January 2003. The new role, which he describes as “developmental”, was created for him. As with his previous position at the Toronto hotelier, Aubrey reports to the CFO who manages external finance.

“I wanted to broaden beyond IT and I looked at several areas in business,” Aubrey said. “Finance was my top pick and second was operations. Finance is the backbone to any business.” He said having both IT and finance skills is more portable across industries than specific operations experience, such as hotel management.

Aubrey made his wishes known during his four-year tenure with the Fairmont’s IT group, where he introduced high-speed Internet access throughout the hotel chain. Stepping out of IT, even if it means forgoing short-term promotions, should also be considered.

In the late 1980s, Susan Cramm was software applications director at restaurant chain Taco Bell and was being groomed to replace the CIO. She requested to be put on a high-profile special projects team to overhaul the company so she could be exposed to general business issues. “Getting on a special project is a great opportunity to get rebranded (but) don’t volunteer for assignments that are not front and centre of the organization. It’s also risky because they fill your job while you’re gone,” she said.

After a year on the special project, she was given responsibility for financial planning at Taco Bell Corp. in 1989, and in 1990 was named CIO. Four years later, with technical and financial experiences under her belt, Cramm was appointed CFO at Chevy’s Mexican Restaurants, where she was responsible for finance, business strategy, restaurant development, franchising and legal functions. Cramm left Chevy’s in 1998 to set up San Clemente, Calif., Valuedance, which coaches executives on increasing their value of their IT investments.

She asserts that crossing boundaries from tech to general business is risky for companies unless tech execs can prove their business mettle. It was relatively straightforward for Cramm to demonstrate her business savvy because she had worked as a consultant at Touche Ross (now Deloitte & Touche) before joining Taco Bell and holds a master’s of business administration (MBA). The Fairmont’s Aubrey also holds an MBA, but they both agree that level of education is not always necessary. “There’s a lot to be gained from attending general business conferences. It would help you rethink your job role and how you can help the business succeed,”Larry Geisel>Text

“Get an MBA for your own development and not because you want to put it on your resume,” Aubrey said. “If you do it, make sure you do it at the right time. There’s a five-year window in your career that it’s going to be relevant — the midmanager position,” he said.

Larry Geisel, CEO of software vendor Nexaweb Technologies Inc., said obtaining real-life experiences is more valuable than pursuing an MBA. Geisel has served as CIO and CEO at various tech firms, including CIO at Xerox and Netscape, and CEO at White Pine Software, and founded Carnegie Group, Summit Information Systems and Intelligent Information Systems. “There’s a lot to be gained from attending general business conferences. It would help you rethink your job role and how you can help the business succeed,” he recommends.

Geisel believes it is relatively easier for IT pros within tech firms to become CEOs in their industry, rather than in nontech sectors where it might be difficult to shake off the geek label. But even in the tech space, there’s a big transition to make from supporting the technology to selling it. Geisel said his biggest learning curve was appreciating the effort required to build awareness for a new product category and take the product to market.

Vincent Oddo worked as a CIO for 10 years in the telecom industry. When he sought a post as senior vice president of operations at Network Telephone, interviewers grilled him on his lack of sales experience. “But I was able to bring up new products and marketing projects that I helped start. As CIO, I suggested lots of things that became successful products,” he said. He got the job and quickly immersed himself in sales. Oddo is now president and CEO of Access Integrated Networks, a carrier in Macon, Ga.

There is one advantage IT leaders have over their business counterparts: they’re wired to analyze and think far into the future through years of figuring out how upcoming technologies could transform their business. “Business people are too focused on the next quarter, they don’t think strategically at all,” Geisel said.

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