- The move from chief information officer to CEO could become more common as tech leaders gain new authority in the C-suite, but there are few examples for current CIOs to learn from.
- Yvonne Wassenaar went from CIO of software analytics company New Relic, Inc., to CEO of IT automation firm Puppet. She saw an opportunity as more companies don’t just leverage technology “but fundamentally become technology companies.”
- Wassenaar credits her broad experience, strong network, and experience serving on boards of directors as the three criteria that prepared her for the CEO role.
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The jump from chief information officer to CEO is a rare one, but such a move could become more common as the role gains new authority within the C-suite.
Until recently, CIOs were largely regulated to overseeing IT teams in charge of managing back-office technology and helping employees with computers issues. But as more companies pursue digital overhauls, the role is now one of the most critical to the organization.
The transformations underway across corporate America are also spurring more boards to seek directors with tech backgrounds, giving information chiefs more exposure to leadership and putting them on the track to be considered for the top spot.
That means journeys like the one Yvonne Wassenaar took from CIO of software analytics company New Relic, Inc., to CEO of IT automation firm Puppet are likely to become increasingly frequent.
“More and more companies are not just leveraging technology, but fundamentally becoming technology companies,” she told Business Insider in a recent interview.
Wassenaar ‘s trajectory serves as one of the few examples out there for information chiefs interested in pursuing a similar career path. Prior to Puppet — which works with companies like Staples and the New York Stock Exchange to automate IT tasks like data security and cloud management — she was the CEO of drone operator Airware. Wassenaar also sits on the board of directors of research firm Forrester.
She shared the three steps that ambitious CIOs should take right now to be considered for future CEO roles.
Intertwine technical prowess with knowledge of the business
As CIOs move further out of the back-office, they are increasingly responsible for understanding how core functions of the business operate, whether that be sales, supply chain operations, or HR.
Tech leaders are taking a number of approaches to managing this, including broad surveys of employees and customers during the early days on the job and finding internal advocates they can work with within business units on specific projects.
For Wassenaar , it meant making career moves to similar roles in sectors outside of IT. “That movement back and forth at different levels in my career was incredibly powerful,” she said.
Wassenaar also earned an MBA from the University of California, though it’s not a path she would necessarily recommend for up-and-coming CIOs today. While the programs provide great networking opportunities, exposure to a breadth of different areas of expertise, and the time to refine critical analytical and executive skills, those benefits can now be gained elsewhere.
“Business school had a clear return on investment when I went,” Wassenaar said. Now, “the value proposition is less clear.”
Many companies, for example, have internal leadership programs where tech employees are given exposure to different business units. And with a rush of new startups and the leadership potential there, information chiefs can also get a crash course in many different areas, like finance and production, that can serve as a basis for a future CEO role.
Join a board of directors
A critical step for CIOs looking to make the jump to CEO is joining a board of directors. But while such a move may have been more difficult in the past, Wassenaar says now is a prime opportunity.
“There is an increasing interest at the board level to have more technology-savvy, data-savvy, cybersecurity-savvy people sitting in the boardroom,” she said.
Having that experience can help CIOs better understand the business and “what it means to be in the CEO chair.” Getting a position on a board, however, can be difficult. The first step, according to Wassenaar , is to understand the value you would bring and establish an identity around that.
The key is to answer the question: “If I were running a company, why would I want somebody like me in there?” For some organizations, that could be experience in cloud technology. For others, it could be that they are on the verge of acquiring a string of smaller tech companies and need someone to help manage the mergers.
“It’s a continual investment into cultivating and building a network so that when that opportunity comes up and they’re looking for someone with that thing that you’ve built your brand around, they put the two pieces together and that’s where the opportunities start,” Wassenaar said.
The next step is shifting your mindset from being in an operating role to a strategic advisor. “That, interestingly enough, is probably one of the hardest shifts,” she added.
One way Wassenaar suggests CIOs can begin to make that transition is to think more about the questions you want answered and spend less time mapping out a 10-step process of how you’d achieve a certain goal.
Build an extensive network, but don’t just focus on other tech leaders
Ultimately, the key to getting on a board (or eventually obtaining the role of CEO) requires an extensive network of contacts. “Who you know and how they speak of you is really, really critically important,” said Wassenaar.
In her case, she relied on a web of connections that included venture capitalists and other corporate executives to make sure “when a CEO opportunity came up I was somebody who made the list.”
One common mistake among CIOs, however, is failing to expand your network beyond other tech leaders. It was a “key differentiator” for Wassenaar .
“If I want to become a CEO, it’s very important that you know your mentors, your sponsors, the key people in your network who are privy to when those types of opportunities come around,” she said.
That also includes your current employer. When Wassenaar was working in the office of the chief experience officer at software firm VMware she was upfront with her boss that she wanted to eventually lead a company. So when a job came around that allowed Wassenaar to continue on that path, it came as no surprise.
“It’s not bad to be honest with the people that you work with, what you want to do, and your commitment to them on that journey to get there,” she said. “You’d be surprised at how often by being that transparent, they can be very helpful.”