Twitter’s New CEO Is A Succession Unicorn. Board Experience Best Preps Tech Execs For Top Spots.

Twitter recently announced that its CTO Parag Agrawal will replace CEO and co-founder Jack Dorsey. The news quickly sparked widespread debate about tech leaders’ fit for future chief executive openings.

Although technology is now central to most business models, CFOs, COOs and divisional presidents remain the most popular promotion choices. Despite digital transformation’s increasing criticality, many CIOs still face real or perceived gaps in strategy, operations and finance credentials.

To clear that CEO candidacy hurdle, prospects can take a novel path — corporate board experience.


The need for greater tech expertise on boards is well documented. An MIT study found that “among companies with over $1 billion in revenues, 24% had ‘digitally savvy’ boards, and those businesses significantly outperformed others on key metrics — such as revenue growth, return on assets, and market cap growth.” Active CIOs and CTOs provide a logical solution to this key governance void.

In addition to offering boards timely technology insight, CIOs also benefit their primary employers by developing richer understanding of strategic planning, funding decisions and corporate oversight.

Adam Stanley, former global CIO at commercial real estate services firm Cushman & Wakefield, agrees. Stanley credits his concurrent experience on railcar lessor GATX’s board for broader business perspective, sharpened senior leadership skills and elevated executive presence.

“I think the board helped my company role and my company role helped the board,” Stanley recalled. “Because of my experience on a board, I started asking more challenging questions of my colleagues [at Cushman & Wakefield]. For example, I started talking about everything we do in technology from the board lens. So every time we talked about how much we’re spending and where we’re spending it, we tied all of our initiatives to revenue enhancement, economic value and risk management.”

“Being on the board side promotes talking about shareholder value, growth and fiduciary responsibility – that experience helps CIOs to be more strategic than ever before. It also helps CIOs understand that funding decisions consider far more than ROI or NPV at the individual project level,” he added.

Stanley also felt more empowered in senior leadership discussions. “It raised my confidence with c-suite peers. I started to ask questions the same way directors question business leaders,” Stanley emphasized.

Connecting strategy, processes and finances are timeless CEO expectations. Intriguingly, for tomorrow’s top jobs, it’s timely board experience that could fast track key tech talent for the opportunities that await.

Three good reasons

Parag Agrawal’s remarkably swift rise from software engineer to CEO was impeccably timed at a social media company with a departing co-founder. Such well-aligned circumstances are rare and infrequent.

Rather than agonizing about whether talented tech leaders can make the leap to CEO, companies would benefit greatly from encouraging CIOs to serve on boards. First, such selection provides external validation of their CIOs’ capabilities. Those who merit board seats warrant promotion consideration.

Second, the “top-side” view of c-suite strategic, regulatory and financing decisions equips CIOs to perform better in their current technology leadership positions. Board experience enriches understanding of cross-functional collaboration, corporate stewardship and investor pressures.

Last, board service prepares CIOs to work more effectively with their own corporate directors. Invaluable external corporate governance experience provides the necessary background for stronger audit committee oversight, swifter IT funding and sounder strategy execution.

Next in line

Recent market upheaval and technological advancements necessitate that all companies scrutinize post-pandemic c-suite succession planning. The critical question isn’t whether the next great CEO is working in our IT department today — it should be how do we develop the next-generation c-suite that tomorrow will require?

Counterintuitively, the answer may be waiting in someone else’s boardroom. Who’s thinking ahead?

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