CIO to CEO
Business savvy and soft skills pave technology leaders’ way to the top spot.
Travis Markley knew the path to the CEO suite wouldn’t depend on his programming acumen or information technology (IT) skills.
Instead, throughout his career as a tech leader, Markley meshed his digital know-how with a sweeping knowledge of the business, an appreciation for members’ and employees’ needs, and a deep understanding of organizational drivers to become CEO at $620 million asset Hoosier Hills Credit Union in Bedford, Ind., in January after serving as its chief IT officer.
- Technological acumen will take leaders far, but it won’t be enough to create a qualified CEO.
- Tech leaders need a blend of soft skills and business savvy to advance to the highest level.
- Board focus: The skill set of a great CIO lends itself to anticipating the future—a key CEO trait.
Credit union technology leaders are ideally positioned to ascend to the CEO role. They have the executive reins of an increasingly tech-dependent operation and, given the velocity of change in a digital world, many have crafted a record of wrangling difficult challenges and solving thorny problems.
Adaptability is another trait technologists bring to the table, says Markley—a critical attribute given the uncertainty created by the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.
“Technology leaders often have the capacity to process information rapidly, anticipate changes and needs, and quickly change directions based on current priorities,” he says. “That’s extremely valuable in a crisis.”
Familiarity with the credit union’s technology infrastructure and capabilities is another skill set technology leaders can provide during a crisis, says Becky Reed, president/CEO at $125 million asset Lone Star Credit Union in Dallas and a former chief information officer (CIO).
“Many CEOs without that background have to rely on others to tell them what’s possible,” she says. When COVID-19 struck, “I could rapidly say, ‘I know what we’re capable of doing, so let’s deploy it and get it done.’”
Reed, Markley, and Erin Mendez, CEO at $7.4 billion asset Patelco Credit Union, Dublin, Calif., describe their progression from technology leaders to CEOs, detail skills technologists need to advance, and offer advice on how to navigate to the top.
Be a strategic partner
A white paper by DHR International found that while CIOs were increasingly reaching the top spot in industries across the board, they sometimes fell short in three areas:
1. Having little or no experience in profit and loss and revenue-producing functions.
2. Lacking sufficient leadership experience.
3. Failing to forge strong relationships and develop leadership credibility among C-suite executives and board members.
But CIOs who parlay their experience into a broader understanding of the business, colleagues, and customers are more likely to break through to skillfully lead their organizations.
“The CIO job requires critical thinking skills and the ability to drive efficiency and agility,” Markley says. “All of these lend themselves to the CEO’s role.
“Expectations have changed,” he continues. “Over the course of the last decade, there’s been an evolution in which CIOs no longer preside over an operational unit tasked with keeping the lights on and the computers working. You are required to be a strategic business partner, and you have to know various aspects of the business at a high level.”
Markley set his sights on becoming a CEO as early as high school and deliberately worked on developing a high-level executive skill set throughout his career.
“My niche was being on the business end of technology and being able to bridge the gap between people, process, and technology—and to translate technological concepts to business users,” he says. “If you can do that, you can build measurable, tangible metrics and results, and have a lot of success in the business world.”
CIOs who make the transition to CEO say it’s essential to master skills including interpersonal diplomacy and the ability to boil down complex concepts to digestible and understandable forms.
NEXT: Gain a seat at the table
Gain a seat at the table
In October 2018, Reed became CEO at Lone Star after serving as its CIO. Too often, CEOs view CIOs as “firefighters” working on daily problems, especially at smaller credit unions, she says. They need a seat at the table when leadership makes strategic decisions.
Credit unions don’t just provide financial services, “we’re now technology companies,” she adds.
For the past four years, Reed has served as board chair of Pure IT Credit Union Services, a credit union service organization she co-founded. Pure IT assists credit unions with IT consulting, assessments, and other services.
Constant learning is a valuable attribute in a CIO, and one that can help in making the leap to CEO, she says.
“I’m always learning and trying to figure out better ways to do things,” Reed says. “I understand both the technology piece and the operations side of the credit union. Put those together and you see there are ways to remove friction from the employee and member experience.
“It’s a way of coming up with holistic solutions.”
Diplomacy and collaboration are two of the most important skills CIOs can develop on the way to the top spot.
“As a CEO, you have to practice diplomacy because you’re working with a board, other executives, department leaders, vendors, and peers in the industry,” Reed says. “If you can master soft skills such as diplomacy, empathy, communication, and emotional intelligence, it’s an easy transition to CEO.”
Focus on growth
Mendez became Patelco’s CEO in 2013 after nearly 11 years as chief operating officer at a large credit union, where she oversaw IT and finance. Since then, Patelco’s assets have grown from $3.9 billion to $7.4 billion, and membership rose from 285,000 to 380,000.
She says several traits furthered her advancement, foremost among them keeping a constant eye on business growth.
“You have to translate everything you’re doing to business outcomes and critically think about how those outcomes match your technology solutions,” she says. “You need to be an over-the-top communicator and an effective collaborator. And you have to ensure the technical side connects its value to the business half.
“Your technology team is much more than just about technology. It’s about value creation.”
CIOs must appreciate the central role credit unions play in providing members with financial services through such avenues as application program interfaces and keeping members safe via cybersecurity measures.
“That’s beyond the backbone of what we do,” Mendez says. “The people who create this and bring it to life for the members’ benefit are those who can have the vision to become CEOs.”
Technology’s evolution has forced effective tech leaders to adapt. Early on, technology was centralized in the mainframe and systems were distributed. Today’s emphasis on digital technology has transformed how CIOs must mesh with the organization, Mendez says.
“Digital requires high collaboration and high engagement, much more so than the old centralized world did,” she says. “As CIOs see those changes, they must become business thought leaders. You have to understand a lot more than bits and bytes.”
The ability to combine critical thinking, collaboration, and communication is essential. But becoming a CEO also requires experience in working with the board of directors. At Patelco, the CIO gets substantial board experience through the board’s technology committee.
When CIOs can translate complex technical issues into easily understandable terms that resonate and convey their importance to board members and the CEO, the entire organization wins, Mendez says.
“That is a communication skill I see some technical executives miss, and yet it is crucial in your development if you want to be a CEO,” she says. “Exposure to the board develops a skill of taking complexities down to their essence to engage for a great outcome. Every CIO needs to figure out how to get that type of exposure.”
Build strong relationships
Markley cites the ability to build strong relationships as the most important aspect in becoming CEO at Hoosier Hills.
“Relationships are everything when it comes to business. But they are even more critical in credit unions,” he says. “Our model is driven by our relationships with members and the value of service. Having that in the CIO role is the most important piece to be able to transition to the CEO side.”
Markley says his previous credit union experience allowed him to learn about asset/liability management and how financial institutions work. It’s crucial for CIOs to absorb those broader organizational concepts and strategies, and immerse themselves in the business to move up.
“If you just stay behind the computer and do configurations, you can’t increase your circle of influence and your comfort with the various aspects of business. And you will struggle to move up,” Markley says. “Seek out opportunities to engage in finance, retail, card services, and electronic funds transfer. Engage those topics and learn about those aspects of the business. It will be incredibly valuable.”
Also, develop the vision to see what’s next and be agile in getting there, he advises.
Historically, credit unions haven’t had to be “on the bleeding edge of technology,” Markley says. But that may be changing.
“You need to anticipate what you have to provide not only for current members but also for future members,” he says.
Reed believes CIOs should build credibility and strengthen ties with their CEOs so both can benefit from the relationship. “CIOs have to walk arm in arm with CEOs. The CEO has the vision but the CIO has to figure out the road map to implement it. That experience translates well when you get to the CEO spot.”
As credit unions become more technology-focused organizations looking to serve new generations of members and succeed in a competitive marketplace, Reed says credit unions can reap major benefits from tapping the skills of tech leaders.
“When you have a CEO who really gets it from a technology perspective,” she says, “it’s a powerful combination, and it’s good for the members.”