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How to transition from CIO to business executive

Midmarket CIOs aren't made business executives overnight -- such a move requires career planning. Here's a five-step roadmap.

Let's be honest. Some CIOs might have more successful careers staying technical, while others would blossom in a more business-oriented leadership role. Nevertheless, many midmarket CIOs continue to eye with envy the business executive suite.

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And it's a good time to plan a move. Connie Adair, CEO of Taylor Winfield Inc., a Dallas-based retained executive search firm, once told me: "As budgets improve and IT continues to penetrate every area of a company, the CIO position is becoming a viable 'career steppingstone' [to business executive or other C-level roles]."

Yet Adair's comments include a caveat: "It is still the most difficult transition to be accepted." So I've laid out a five-step roadmap to get there:

1. Manage expectations. Set your sights on a realistic crossover role, such as Internet business general manager. A CIO can leverage his or her technology savvy since it's a core business skill in this position, while bringing strategic vision for the product line. Other crossover roles include vice president of consulting services, technology sales, operations and business development. Talk with at least five people who hold each of those roles and ask what the criteria and skill sets are for success.

When you think about roles, you should also ask yourself what turns your smile on. (Hint: This is the most important element.) Start refining your decision-criteria list. How will your criteria change from years one through five to years five through 10? If you do have enough to start, draft an initial personal brand 'promise' or update the one you've established in the past. The bottom line: What do you want to be known for as an executive in the next five to 10 years?

2. Draft an options roadmap. A classic error executives make is thinking about only one job at a time. Consider at least two jobs in the future. Define a high-level scenario based on a flow chart that defines several options. CIOs are excellent architects of IT roadmaps, but in my experience they are the shoemaker's children when it comes to their own careers.

There's a lot of research on CIO tenure, but I think you should proactively re-invent yourself every 18 months, either by evolving your role within the company or by looking at the next level of responsibility with another company that fits the next step in your overall five- to 10-year plan.

Think about critical issues from the point of view of the CEO or GM. How can your integrated business and technical thinking create breakthroughs and double your value?

3. Set your plan in motion. Now it's time to develop your action plan for moving from CIO to business executive. There are many more steps than we can cover in this article, but consider this your launch plan and apply your project management skills.

Consider adopting a business mentor. Make sure to give him or her feedback on how you've applied what you learned. Keep observing, learning and piloting new business ideas. If you have an MBA, apply your business knowledge in all critical decisions. Adopt the same success metrics that your CEO or general manager uses.

At least once a week you should become the CEO. That is, delegate the technical leadership decisions for one to two hours a week, and go to your off-site Starbucks office. Think about critical issues from the point of view of the CEO or GM. How can your integrated business and technical thinking create breakthroughs and double your value? Stick to the once-a-week plan because you can't do this once a month and hope to hold a new mind-set.

If you don't have an MBA, consider working toward one. Since many of the CIOs I work with don't have MBAs yet, here are a few ideas to build your business chops:

  • Read a top business book each month and apply the knowledge to real-life situations or with colleagues in other companies. Consider a business book discussion group -- can be an asset for a teleconference discussion when your colleagues are across a wide geography.

  • Develop a business speaker series for CIO communities of practice. Expand your speakers/panels to have CEOs and business executives talk about business problems and how they see IT contributing. Speakers might get the advantage of facing a talented technical advisory board in the room, and CIOs get a chance to absorb business problems.

  • Take a look what open or online courses you can access at your local college or university system, or even nationally. For those in Silicon Valley, for example, the Stanford University Entrepreneurial Thought Leaders series is a gold mine.

  • Start using business cases and scenario planning as part of your approach to planning and decision making with your team or CIO colleagues. Look at blind spots for other executives in the organization and find a way to 'translate' solutions to business language.

4. Network, network, network. Keep expanding your network of personal alliances. I work with a lot of people who say the career value of the MBA (or the Executive MBA) is almost exclusively the network. A good book on networking is Never Eat Alone by Keith Ferrazzi, which has a structured plan and isn't pompous. Don't ever underestimate the value of trusted contacts in introducing you to opportunities and search partners.

5. Stay engaged. Create an accountability and checkpoint plan. Consider finding a confidential CIO partner in another company who is also looking to move to the business side. Thus, you can be 'study partners' working through initiatives and political strategy in order to gain trust and visibility inside your companies. Create a monthly and quarterly 'off-site progress meeting' with yourself or your confidential buddy -- and stay on track!

Jean Fuller, CEO of Fuller Coaching, an executive coaching firm working with technology companies in Silicon Valley, helps senior executives drive their career success inside their current company and plan transitions that meet their success objectives. Write to her at

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