Pathways to the C-suite: CIO hopefuls look to level up
Andy Farella spent five years rising up the IT leadership ranks at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP) — first as director of business applications and then associate CIO — when he started feeling restless.
“I was dealing with multiple aspects of the organization and involved with big projects, issues, and challenges,” Farella says. At the time he managed 125 people and was leading the technical side of a multiyear, multimillion-dollar ERP implementation. He reported to the CIO and had regular interaction with senior leadership. “I was starting to feel like I could do that job, the CIO role,” Farella says.
He knew he would first need to fill some experience gaps, so Farella wrote a list of all the skills and experience needed to become a CIO, and he started checking off the boxes.
He already understood the infrastructure space from his previous jobs. Check. He focused on the application space at CHOP. Check. He stayed close with IT security and the CISO learning the challenges they had because he knew it was a big part of the CIO’s accountability. Check. He continued to work on his relationships within IT, with peers, across organizations and the business. Check. Innovation, budget management, vendor management — check. When he eventually applied for CIO roles, he used this checklist as a guide for his cover letter.
Four years later, Farella became CIO at NBME, which provides assessments and educational services in the medical and healthcare sectors. “I’m in the room where everything happens for this organization,” Farella says. “The scope of responsibility was the main attraction.”
Not every path to the CIO suite is so meticulously planned or follows a straight line, but opportunities for senior directors and VPs to become CIOs are increasing — partly because of the Great Resignation and retirements, but also because of the changing demands of the CIO role. The good news is — there are many pathways to the CIO suite.
Some tech VPs and directors are acquiring deep knowledge of their industry by staying at the same company for decades, others are taking their IT talents to different sectors to pick up new skills or take on more responsibility.
About 70% of CIOs placed by recruiting firm Harvey Nash come from a technology background, according to estimates. Another 25% come from areas close to tech, such as operations and transformation offices, and 5% come from a pure business background.
Executive search firm Robert Half estimates that 60% of new CIOs have experience in the same industry as the hiring company, and 35% have an MBA.
“There’s room in the CIO world for all of these types. The non-technology people need to learn enough technology to be relevant and to earn trust at the executive table,” says Jeffrey Weber, executive director of the technology practice group at Robert Half. “They have to bring broad perspective.”
These up-and-comers have taken different paths to the precipice of the c-suite, but they share three key attributes that make them prime candidates: strong communication skills, inspirational leadership qualities, and robust networks both inside and outside of their organizations.
One company, one goal
Though rare these days, some up-and-comers have excelled at one company for their entire career. Jill Bowen, IT director and chief of staff to the CIO, marked 26 years with chemical manufacturer Dow in January and has never felt the need to leave. “Dow is a big company and there are so many positions to learn and explore,” she says.
She began working for the company in high school as part of its cooperative education program, interned with Dow in college, then earned a bachelor’s degree in marketing and management and was offered a full-time job.
She spent the first 10 years in various customer service roles “where I got to interact with the customers and understand the order-to-cash process and understand how Dow makes money,” she says. A co-worker convinced her to move into IT.
As an IT implementation specialist, she helped coordinate the IT aspects of mergers, acquisitions, and divestitures, doing implementation checklists and making sure those went off seamlessly. “I applied for a role I didn’t fully understand, but I put myself out there and that was probably one of the biggest turning points in my career,” she says.
She eventually worked on a global, multiyear ERP implementation that took her to Dow locations around the world. From there she went into the purchasing work-process space and was able to grow in various roles helping to define work processes. She eventually found her way back to IT and to the CIO chief of staff position in August 2020.
She credits an entrepreneurial mindset for her rise through the IT organization. “I’ve brought forward different big ideas in my career that have been supported and were game changers,” such as an opportunity to globally streamline and standardize the purchase-requisition-to-purchase-order work process, which improved efficiency, saved money, and laid the foundation for robotics process automation, she says. She also considers herself a proactive communicator with a positive attitude.
As chief of staff, Bowen partners closely with CIO Melanie Kalmar (who has been with Dow for 34 years) on IT strategy. “I’m part of her leadership team. I’m always listening for opportunities and trying to understand the pulse of the organization,” Bowen says.
With a strong group of advocates and sponsors at Dow, Bowen says she’s never felt the need to look outside the company to grab a CIO role more quickly. But she’s still expanding and elevating her professional network through several tech associations in Michigan.
She also has an executive coach who helps her sharpen her leadership skills. “I’m a firm believer that you need to be spending four to eight hours a month on personal development — whether that’s reading or engaging with people that sponsor or mentor you and keeping them up to speed on new things that you’re working on.”
While deep industry knowledge has many benefits, many aspiring CIOs have built technical strengths that translate well into any organization. “Most people that I see stepping into CIO roles from outside an industry bring a set of capabilities into an organization that is behind the ball” in some area, says Barry Brunsman, head of KPMG’s global CIO Advisory Center of Excellence and a principal in its CIO Advisory practice. They could be bringing customer experience capabilities to healthcare or omnichannel knowledge to retail, for example.
That’s how James McFarlane found himself at furniture retailer La-Z-Boy as its senior director of IT business services in 2018. McFarlane had moved up the IT ranks with the State of Michigan and in local government for most of his IT career.
In Michigan, “it was big scope, big projects, big staff,” McFarlane says, with almost 2,000 people reporting to him. “A lot of La-Z-Boy’s technology in retail management, point of sale and omnichannel technology, and ERP were very old. I had experience with legacy modernization and application rationalization,” he says. “Those experiences also taught me to manage budgets, do projects using agile, Scrum, SDLC with legacy modernization. Those are all principles you can take with you no matter what industry you’re in,” he says.
To reach the next step in his career, McFarlane focuses on building relationships with business partners inside La-Z-Boy and peers outside the company. He sits on the board of the National Retail Federation Tech council and meets quarterly with other deputy CIOs from other retail organizations.
He credits a good relationship with La-Z-Boy CIO David Behen for many of these connections. “He encourages me to get out and have a good solid network in place and to learn,” McFarlane says. “We put together a professional development plan every year.”
He continues to sharpen other necessary skills, such as avoiding “IT speak” and articulating business value through operational effectiveness, profitability, and growth. He’s also working on balancing enterprise priorities. “Everyone needs technology right now, and I tend to want to do more than I can, but sometimes we need to say no or put something on pause for the greater good. It’s learning from a strategy standpoint what can we take on and execute successfully.”
Leadership, empathy, and healthy self-promotion
Erik Sabadie earned five promotions over the past 10 years at Rent-A-Center and now reports to the CIO as vice president of enterprise technologies. “I’m not sitting around thinking that being CIO is my goal. I’ve always felt that if I do the right things and take care of the things I can control, then good things will happen,” he says.
Early in his career, Sabadie decided not to become a deep subject matter expert but to pursue a broader path that lends itself more to a management career. “That was a pretty key decision — even coming up in the applications side of the world. If you are managing the application, part of that is knowing how it interacts with the network, the database, with security, all the different IT elements. That forced me into knowing a little bit about a lot of areas, which really helped me long term,” he says.
He also focused on building relationships within the company and leading with empathy — “walking alongside someone through their challenges,” Sabadie says. That includes helping his direct reports get face time with other senior leaders to showcase their talents — a practice he recommends at every professional level.
“I’ve grown a lot in the realm of marketing myself internally,” he says, “making sure I have great partnerships with peers on the business side and that they’re hearing me and seeing me. Making sure I’m the front face of challenges when we have technical issues.”
As he nears the next step on the professional ladder, Sabadie is building his external network and keeping up with external trends. “I’ve got to take it to the next level for that serious CIO consideration,” Sabadie says, but it doesn’t preoccupy him. “If it’s meant to be, then good things will happen.”
Smaller company, big opportunity
Executive search firm JM Search sees a small but growing trend where up-and-comers look for CIO positions at smaller, private equity-backed companies where they can create impact. Farella made a similar move from a large hospital to a small healthcare-related company.
Most often, aspiring CIOs look to these smaller companies for bigger salaries, “a different vibe and their ability to create impact at a much faster pace,” says Ben Millrood, partner and co-leader of the IT executives practice at JM Search.
Right now, only one or two out of 10 candidates placed in these CIO positions are completely new to the role, but up-and-comers are still very competitive, says Bill Hogenauer, partner and co-practice leader in the IT executives practice.
“Those one or two are seen as athletes” who worked under the CIO and did exactly what the client is looking for. “They have the exposure and potential,” Hogenauer says. Up-and-comers like Farella are getting a second look because there aren’t enough candidates who have already held a CIO position, he adds. “There’s a lot to be said for giving those people a shot.”
Executive recruiters say it’s important to establish a set of annual objectives for closing the gap between VP and CIO roles.
“Make sure you’re working for a company where you’re going through 9-box activities (that help identify leadership qualities), succession planning, and formal training to know that you’re on that path,” Millrood says. Have a deliberate, activity-based set of objectives built into your annual plan, he adds. “Don’t wait for it to happen. Take charge.”