In the old days, when a CEO stepped down, the Chief Operating Officer was often next in line. Then Chief Financial Officers swooped in as the upstart heir apparent in the C-suite. But with technology currently so integral to virtually every aspect of a firm’s functioning, perhaps it’s time for a new belle of the ball: your Chief Information Officer (CIO).

It’s a no-brainer—or so it would seem. As far back as 2018, Harvard Business Review’s ranking of The Best-Performing CEOs in the World found that 34 of the top 100 CEOs had a degree in engineering—surprisingly two more than the number with MBAs. Yet outside of the big tech firms, companies are slow in promoting CIOs to the top spot. This is despite one study this year showing that 93% of firms have adopted or plan to adopt a digital-first business strategy. “It certainly makes sense for CIOs to be under consideration for the CEO position,” says Stuart Crandell, a Korn Ferry Senior Client Partner in its Board and CEO practice. “They intuitively and practically get how technology can create new opportunities and business models.”

The biggest roadblock for CIOs may be their lack of operational experience. Despite 57% of CIOs reportedly claiming to play a role in defining corporate strategy, a critical test of business accountability comes from managing a profit and loss (P&L) statement—something few CIOs do. Jumping from CIO to a divisional president who successfully runs their sector over a couple of years would be one way to prove their mettle, says Tanya van Biesen, a Korn Ferry Senior Client Partner in its global Board and CEO practice. “CIOs will need to step out of their swim lanes and get some other experience in running a line of business.”

CIOs are also working against the impression that tech professionals lack interpersonal skills. Indeed, a reported 7 in 10 HR professionals said they withheld a job offer from a talented IT candidate due to a lack of soft skills, according to one survey from 2018. And it turns out soft skills still matter. LinkedIn reports that 45% of their premium jobs posted within the past three months reference the importance of communication skills. Further, three in five professionals rate soft skills to be just as important as hard skills. Coaching for soft skills could be very helpful, says Crandell. “A tech leader may be great at communicating with fellow tech people, but they need to be able to inspire a broader audience motivated by different things.”

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Accessing a board role in a different company could be a way for CIOs to develop their general business savvy, says van Biesen. This follows a growing trend in skills-based hiring practices—between 2017 and 2019, employers reportedly reduced degree requirements for 31% of high-skill positions. “People can then come to their own organization and say, ‘I have these strategic skills to bring to the table,’” says van Biesen.

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