Thoughts on the ‘not a CEO material’ remark on Dr. Vishal Sikka
Recently, the news of Infosys' Dr. Vishal Sikka stepping down as CEO took the business world by storm. What struck was the comment made by some board of directors that he was not "CEO material but CTO material". The actual reason, as it turned out, were his growing differences with the board.
In an age where every company is a tech company, a CTO taking over as CEO seems like a natural progression.
In December 2016, Nilesh Sangoi, CTO of Meru Cabs, a taxi aggregator company based in Mumbai, took over as CEO of the company. It immediately pushed the tech focus of the company to the forefront. With Ola Cabs and Uber front-running as tech companies, it re-established Meru's status as a tech-backed taxi player. In the coming months, Meru was seen to introduce competitive pricing - a move seen to win back customers lost to other taxi players.
Take the case of Chris C. Kemp, who in 2010 became the first CTO to be appointed in the history of NASA. He quit NASA in 2011 and founded Nebula, Inc., a cloud computing company that offers an Infrastructure as a Service (IaaS) private cloud system. Kemp who was a serial entrepreneur had launched several ventures in the past. The transition from a CTO to a CEO role wasn’t unexpected.
Another example is Yahoo’s former CTO Raymie Stata, who also played a key role in building the company’s tech strategy and drive crucial projects such as Hadoop, before resigning to join at the helm of VertiCloud, a start-up offering a cloud-hosted platform for big data processing.
However, the truth is that the ascension of the CTO to a CEO position depends on an organization’s overall vision.
In a Mckinsey & Company article titled ‘How functional leaders become CEOs’, the author Michael Birshan, Thomas Meakin, and Kurt Strovink point to the fact that the “case for a functional CEO is strongest when his/her expertise is core to a company’s critical business challenges. Organizations in the midst of a major digital transformation might benefit from a CTO in the top spot, and a CMO-turned-CEO could be just what the doctor ordered for a company rethinking its brand portfolio. Similarly, companies undertaking a growth plan based on M&A or a major cost-reduction effort often looks to CFOs.”
In the last four years, our knowledge of 'technology as a differentiator for business' has only intensified. And so has the role of the CTO or the CIO, which continues to grow in importance and establish its stronghold in the C-suite. Rarely does this stronghold result in acquiring the top job. In a Mckinsey & Company survey quoted in the same article, former CFOs represented two-thirds of the CEOs – clearly indicating where the bang for the buck is.
In the case of Dr. Sikka, the board during his appointment in 2014 had given him a long-term mandate. Dr. Sikka in an interview after a few months of his appointment laid down his priorities starting with implementing complex intelligent applications, data sciences and analytics to spur growth, while emphasising on the importance of intellectual property and software. Under his direction, the company launched programs, such as zero distance, unveiling of AI tool Nia, automation push, and outsourcing initiatives among others.
Therefore, the ‘not a CEO material’ remark on Dr. Sikka by a board member is a reflection of the bias that has long-existed in the tech industry that fails to recognize well-deserving CIOs or CTOs a chance to lead.