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How to Ensure That Your CIO Title Doesn't Stand for 'Career Is Over'

Servers in a data center.

Dear Annie: A friend sent me Fortune.com’s article on why no one wants to be a chief information officer anymore, because it exactly fits my situation. I was promoted into the CIO job at a midsize company about six years ago, which was exciting at the time, partly because I was only 30, and also due to some big challenges (moving to the cloud, tightening security, etc.). In the past couple of years, however, the job has turned into a routine maintenance, “keeping the lights on” kind of deal, with the same high stress level but a lot fewer clear wins.

Meanwhile, I’ve been pigeonholed as a tech drone, while the fun stuff, like product innovation and social media marketing, is happening in other people’s wheelhouses. I’ve heard the (unfunny) joke that CIO stands for “career is over,” but assuming that’s not true, what options should I be considering? I’d like to be CEO eventually, but how realistic is that? — Feeling Stuck

Dear F.S.: How realistic it is depends in large part on how relevant your role is to the rest of your company. One way to gauge this is by looking at how often the people working on the “fun stuff” ask you for advice on the technical aspects of what they’re doing, and how much weight they give your input. Another clue, notes veteran tech recruiter Tracy Cashman, is to look at whom you report to. “Some companies value the CIO role much more than others,” she says. “If it’s considered vital, you report directly to the CEO.”

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Cashman, a partner at WinterWyman Executive Search in Boston, has coached plenty of CIOs who are trying to figure out their next move. She points to one recent poll showing that 79% of people with this title were interested in becoming CEOs or COOs. “In some ways, the CIO job is more besieged than ever, with the advent of chief digital officers and even the marketing department moving into what used to be the CIO’s turf,” Cashman observes.

At the same time, with so many enterprises in almost every industry positioning themselves as “technology companies” (think GE, or any automaker), Cashman believes CIOs are in a good position to move up, or laterally to a chief operating officer role, if they have — or can cultivate — certain essential skills. Here are three ways to do that:

Start thinking like a CEO. “Any CIO who has moved up to CEO has contributed beyond technology,” says Cashman. “Every decision you make should take into account how it drives the overall business.” Offering to take on projects outside your usual bailiwick — like making suggestions on M&A activity, or leading an employee retention program — can help.

“Figure out the pain points in the company and try fixing them,” Cashman suggests. “The broader experience you have, not just in IT, but in HR, sales, and so on, the more you start to look like an overall leader.” This requires a knack for diplomacy, since you don’t want to be seen as barging onto anyone else’s turf — or, as Cashman puts it, “If you start telling the CFO how to do her job, it won’t make you popular.” But the CIOs she’s known who have become chief executives have gotten there by finding solutions to problems that aren’t clearly on anyone else’s plate, and that make everyone look good.

Take risks. “Most CEOs did not get where they are by playing it safe,” Cashman says. “But CIOs as a group tend to be risk-averse, which will not get you the top job. The old saying ‘no guts, no glory’ definitely applies here.” A willingness to take calculated risks that could benefit the company, which Cashman acknowledges comes more naturally to some people than others, could propel you out of that “pigeonhole” you feel you’re in.

Learn to delegate. Creating and keeping a strong team, including grooming a possible successor (or more than one), can free up your time to focus on more strategic tasks, says Cashman. “The less you are in the weeds on the day-to-day details of your job as CIO, the less you’ll be perceived as just a ‘tech drone,’ so you can work on building your broader presence as an executive,” she says.

What if you do all this and you’re still not a contender for the top job? “Unfortunately, there are some places where IT is still viewed purely as a cost center,” notes Cashman. If that’s true of your employer, think about jumping to another company. Look for one where at least one erstwhile CIO, but preferably more, has been promoted to CEO in the past — perhaps after having spent some time as COO first.

It’s worth noting that, depending on what they’re good at and enjoy doing, CIOs have been known to make all kinds of different career moves. Cashman has seen former CIOs become chief digital officers, chief innovation officers, “even one here in Boston whose new title is Chief People Officer, because he was an extraordinary manager and mentor in his previous jobs,” she says. “The common denominator is, think broadly about your skills, and how you could expand your role — both where you are now or, eventually, somewhere else.” Good luck.

Talkback: If you’ve ever developed new skills in order to get promoted to a bigger job, how did it work out? Leave a comment below.

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