Why CIOs Don’t Become CEOs

“A leader is one that knows the way, goes the way, and shows the way.” —John C. Maxwell

Last week, I sat down for an afternoon coffee with a seasoned Chief Information Officer (CIO), Jim. (Name changed for the purpose of this blog.) He and I are connected to some of the same people but had never formally met. Over the years, I’ve heard such great things about him, especially how he focuses on team members first. I was anxious for the meeting and grateful for his time—I learned quite a bit in that hour and a half.

One of the things Jim said that really piqued my interest was a passing comment about CIOs becoming CEOs. He said, “I resolved a long time ago that the CIO job would be the pinnacle of my career.” It caught me off guard because, if I’ve ever met a CIO with the presence and experience to run a company, it was Jim. But then he followed up with,

“CEOs so rarely understand the CIO role … how can you ever get promoted if your boss [or Board] doesn’t even know if you’re doing a great job or not?”

It’s no secret that as a CIO I was interested in becoming a CEO. As such, Jim’s revelation really got my attention. We’ve all seen the stats, which clearly state that less than 2% of CIOs become CEOs, while 79% of CIOs have an interest in growing into a larger role. However, I’ve never found a succinct answer for why CIOs rarely breakthrough to the next level. I thought Jim might be onto something.

This conversation reminded me of a CIO conference I attended. There was an audience of well-respected technology leaders representing well-respected companies. Our closing keynote speaker was the President of one of the attending brands. (I guarantee you would know the brand.) His talk was meant to reassure us that the work of IT was vital and, in his case, moving his organization forward. Instead, he bragged to the audience, “My IT guy is here. I don’t know exactly what he does, but I know we’re spending $30 million a year on technology and innovation.” During the Q&A session, one outspoken CIO had the guts to ask, “How can you spend $30 million on anything and not bother yourself with what your ‘IT guy’ is doing?” He wasn’t alone in the crowd with this thought.

When I reflect on that President’s words, two questions come to me. First, in this market, is it professionally and socially acceptable to plead ignorance about technology? I ask because we routinely hear about digital transformation and how it is changing business (inside and out). We also see how the most relevant and quickly growing public companies focus on innovation. If I ask most CEOs, “What’s the biggest challenge(s) in your organization today,” (s)he is readily able to provide a laundry list of improvement opportunities … most of which have some connection to technology. So, why is it acceptable to not know more?

Second, if a CEO is disconnected from the job of the CIO, what’s the likelihood that technology-enabled change has half a chance of succeeding in his/her organization? CIOs rarely push change that originates solely in his/her office. Rather, it’s more common for some new innovation to solve a pain point or seize an opportunity that originates in other, non-IT functions. To rally people in the organization for a change, the CEO has to offer and reinforce a compelling WHY that connects team members to purpose. If (s)he doesn’t, why would team members believe the work is important?

We all know CEOs must be highly effective at identifying opportunities to improve an organization. I’m just saying that in most cases, those opportunities need to be solved with some combination of people, process, AND technology—in concert. And when a solution requires an organization to change, it’s critical the CEO takes accountability with the other leaders to enable and activate people for that change. And this most certainly requires a high level of collaboration with the CIO.

In 2016, you’d probably never hear a CEO proclaim that the CFO’s job was a mystery or that good money was being invested by the function of Finance with unknown outcomes driven by misunderstood activities. That would be viewed as categorically irresponsible. Rather, CEOs regularly collaborate with CFOs to ensure the financial health of the company.

It just makes sense to do the same with a CIO given that technology is such a large part of day-to-day operations and touches almost every single team member and process in the organization.

Don’t get me wrong; I’m not saying all CIOs are ready to become a CEO. The expectations of good leadership for CIOs are the same as any other executive leader. You have to be transformative across functions and have a bias for action. Most importantly, you have do the people-related groundwork that’s required to build followership. If you can’t do that, the CEO position shouldn’t be the goal. But a final consideration for CEOs: identifying those attributes in CIOs doesn’t require you to be an engineering savant or how to write code. Therefore, it’s probably not okay to not know what your IT guy is doing or if they’re doing a good job.


Chris Laping is Co-Founder & CEO of People Before Things, LLC, a boutique consultancy that helps executive and project leaders prepare people for technology change. He has also written a bestselling book, People Before Things: Change Isn’t an End-User Problem, which explores the role leaders play to pave success in change and transformation. To join the conversation, follow @CIOChris and @pplb4things on Twitter.

Four-Letter Word

"It always seems impossible until its done." Nelson Mandela

Back in 2008, I signed up to run the Colorado Relay with co-workers and friends to raise money for charity. If you are unfamiliar with the race, it's an epic run through the mountains of Colorado that covers 200 miles and approximately 12,000 feet of elevation change. 10-person teams have to cover the territory and each runner on the team has to run 3 separate legs in a 24-hour time period. It may sound brutal, and that's good because the fact of the matter is, it is brutal!

Since it was my idea to sign my friends up for the race to begin with, I thought it was only appropriate to accept the responsibility for running the toughest leg, Georgia Pass. Kicking off right outside of Breckenridge, this leg is 13.5 miles long and includes in ascent of 2,500 feet and a descent of 2,000 feet at the end. Most of the run is on a singletrack trail through the woods with nasty switchbacks and obstacles along the way. This particular year was more challenging because there was significant snowfall the week leading up to the relay.

I knew this was going to be a tough leg when the race organizers declared, "We are unsure of the snowfall at the top and whether it's safe to run, therefore we're sending a group of Marines to the top to give us an assessment." All that was going through my mind was that the Marines were hardly a good test for whether something was doable or not, and I was ready to drop to the ground in a fetal position and begin sucking my thumb. It turns out that the Marines thought it was fine so we were cleared to run.

In total, it took me 3.5 hours to finish the leg, which is approximately double what it takes me to run a half-marathon. It was by far, and still is to this day, the toughest mental and physical challenge I've ever experienced. There were definitely moments I didn't think I was going to finish, and those moments would get temporarily blocked as I stumbled on ice-covered stones on the trail.

The only strategy that worked for me was to think in small increments.

Every half-mile, I'd celebrate the small win and would remind myself, "You only have to make it the next half-mile." I repeated this over and over again until I staggered out of the woods, slightly injured and completely worn out.

I'm sharing this story because I heard a segment on the radio that reminded me of that running experience. The DJ teased the spot by saying, "Coming up next, a four-letter word that makes people more productive at work when they use it!" Of course, during the 2 minutes of commercials I tried to exhaust my working knowledge of every four-letter word I knew. (To be honest, it was kind of therapeutic to cuss out loud and for no reason in the comfort of my car with no one to hear me.)

The DJ interrupted my cuss-a-thon with information about Leslie Sherlin, a psychologist and neuroperformance specialist. She has done some research that shows that using the word DONE in the workplace helps you more productively get through your to-do list. A neurochemical shift occurs in the brain that releases Serotonin, which is known as the body's feel good chemical. Here's a link to the full Fast Company article.

Finding more opportunities to use the word DONE at work increases your own productivity ... and you get a cool, little natural buzz, too!

So how do you do that? One obvious but effective way is to break your projects or tasks up into bite-size chunks. Just like my run on Georgia Pass, you can make your way over the mountain by celebrating small victories and then targeting equally small wins for the future. I've always believed in the expression, “Think big, start small, iterate fast.” It really applies here.

One thing I've noticed in my executive career is that people are tougher on themselves than I normally need to be when providing feedback. They forget to pause and celebrate their small victories. In some cases, they become so overwhelmed with the mountain they need to climb that a simple fall puts them in a state of surrender. Is this the case with you? How do you approach big projects or tasks? Do you think about them a half-mile at a time? If not, try it today. Try using the word DONE, and see how it makes you feel. Look, here's your first DONE of the day ... you are now DONE with this missive. Didn't that feel good?


Chris Laping is Co-Founder & CEO of People Before Things, LLC, a boutique consultancy that helps executive and project leaders prepare people for technology change. He has also written a bestselling book, People Before Things: Change Isn’t an End-User Problem, which explores the role leaders play to pave success in change and transformation. To join the conversation, follow @CIOChris and @pplb4things on Twitter.

Brilliant Jerks

“We don’t devote enough scientific research to finding a cure for jerks.” —Bill Waterson

I came across a meme this week that really got my attention. Admittedly, I usually ignore stuff like this, but I opened up LinkedIn and there it was—staring me in the face and practically begging me to read it. Perhaps you’ve seen it, too. It’s a photo of Reed Hastings, CEO of Netflix, with the quote, “Do not tolerate brilliant jerks. The cost is too high.” Before I go much further, I don’t personally know Reed nor have I ever worked at Netflix. (You see, this is the reason I don’t usually care about memes—it’s hard to confirm they’re true.) As I researched the quote on Google, I realized there was quite a negative stir in the marketplace regarding Reed’s term. The truth is, I don’t care. And I don’t care if I’m late to the party on this conversation. I love the phrase, and I think it’s 100% true.

It was 2006, and I was new to consulting. The company I worked for attracted a high-tech startup as a client. My role as a Principal was to manage delivery, keep our customer happy, and provide leadership to the project team. The client’s chief executive, TJ, was my point-of-contact, and I was to collaborate with him on an important initiative. Talk about a brilliant jerk!

From the day we walked into his office, he treated us like trash. He never once made eye contact. Frequently, when any of us asked him a question, he would flip his hand in the air while saying, “I don’t see why that’s important. This is what I think is important …” To make matters worse, he made a clicking noise between sentences that was meant to be audible punctuation. As it related to the clicking, he once told me, “People can’t keep up with me so I help them understand when I am shifting to another idea.” Apparently we were all dipsticks and lucky to have someone as sensitive as him worrying about whether we were keeping up!

TJ was really innovative. He and his company had an interesting product which could disrupt the entire payments industry. His team of engineers were some of the smartest people I’ve ever met. There were many times I had to pinch myself because I wasn’t sure how I could add any value to what they were working on. But TJ was a brilliant jerk, and no surprise, his company never experienced a breakthrough moment.

As Kristine and I have been launching our new company, we’ve been focused on growing something that’s built on values. Very early in the process, we decided on a “No Assholes” rule that would be applied to our clients and anyone we hire. I know that may seem crass, but imagine how it feels to be demoralized by people who believe they are intellectually or financially entitled to treat others poorly.

Another reason we’re focused on this value is I know I haven’t always done well on this front. I have to admit I had a blind spot for this from time to time and was routinely lured by intelligence or creative talent. As a leader I ended up learning tough lessons about jerks. Sadly, they hurt everyone around them.

Patrick Lencioni, one of the most important thought leaders in organizational health, warns all leaders, “Keeping a relatively strong performer who is not a cultural fit sends a loud and clear message to employees that the organization isn’t all that serious about what it says and believes.” I wish I read that quote back in the early days of my leadership roles.

Have you ever worked with or been impacted by a jerk? Is there a slight chance your own actions and behaviors might be similar to that of TJ’s? You probably don’t need me to tell you that tactic doesn’t work. Tolerating jerk-dom is like a speeding ticket waiting to happen. Brilliance and creativity can be a speeding car that appears to get you from point A to point B really quickly. However, when you get a ticket, go to court, pay a fine, and attend traffic school, it turns out you didn’t save any time at all.

I hope you make it a great week. Avoid the jerks. You don’t deserve to be treated poorly regardless of someone else’s intelligence. More importantly, don’t be one—it’ll get you nowhere and really fast!


Chris Laping is Co-Founder & CEO of People Before Things, LLC, a boutique consultancy that helps executive and project leaders prepare people for technology change. He has also written a bestselling book, People Before Things: Change Isn’t an End-User Problem, which explores the role leaders play to pave success in change and transformation. To join the conversation, follow @CIOChris and @pplb4things on Twitter.