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    The rise of the digital CEO

    February 20, 2021

    As cloud and digital have increased in importance to almost every facet of every business, IT is no longer just a department; it is a business function.

    Now, forward-looking companies are promoting digital thought leaders to their top ranks to reflect this transformation, future-proof their companies, and drive growth.

    COVID-19 has accelerated this trend by turning tech leaders into corporate saviors who kept the business running during the crisis. But technology executives have been gaining influence in corporate boardrooms since long before the pandemic began.

    satya_nadellaWay back in 2014, Satya Nadella succeeded Steve Ballmer to become the third CEO in Microsoft’s history. During his prior experience leading the company’s Azure business, Nadella ushered the company into a new era of openness and innovation, growing Microsoft’s cloud computing business, promoting cross-platform collaboration and overseeing the launch of inventive products. Now, Azure is the company’s fastest-growing business, posting 50% year-over-year revenue growth in January 2021.

    In 2018, Steve Squeri was named CEO of American Express. An AmEx lifer, Squeri had served as the company’s CIO from 2005 to 2009.

    In 2019, Sasan Goodarzi, who served as the CIO of Intuit from 2011 to 2013, was named the company’s CEO. Like most CIOs-turned-CEOs, he served in a series of business leadership roles in the interim.

    AT&T seems to have discovered the value of putting technology leaders in charge, as well. In 2019, it named longtime CIO Thaddeus Arroyo (2007-2014) CEO of its consumer business. In 2020, John Stankey, once its CIO and CTO, became CEO of AT&T.

    John_Donahoe_originalAlso in 2020, Nike brought in an executive from outside footwear, ServiceNow’s John Donahoe, as its CEO to drive the company’s digital initiatives. At the time of the appointment, former CEO Mark Parker said that Donahoe’s “expertise in digital commerce, technology, global strategy and leadership, combined with his strong relationship with the brand, make him ideally suited to accelerate our digital transformation and to build on the positive impact of our Consumer Direct Offense.” This strategy focused on getting products more quickly to consumers and direct sales.

    In July, true to Parker’s words, Donahoe built upon the Consumer Direct Offense with Consumer Direct Acceleration, “a new digitally empowered phase of NIKE’s strategy to unlock long-term growth and profitability,” the company said at the time. The accelerated focus has been a hit with Wall Street and has driven year-over-year revenue growth of 8% to $10.7 billion, as of the company’s December 2020 earnings release. More to the point, digital sales increased 84% over the course of the year, thanks in no small part to Donahoe’s background in the enterprise software business.

    In the first two months of 2021, two more industry behemoths have promoted high-profile technology business leaders to the top job.

    In January, Amazon.com called on Andy Jassy, CEO of the company’s Amazon Web Services business, to replace founder Jeff Bezos as chief executive. Few details have been divulged on Jassy’s current focus, but his experience leading Amazon’s most profitable arm will likely have an impact on how he steers the company even further into the digital future.

    In February, UnitedHealth Group named as chief executive Andrew Witty, the leader of Optum, the company’s health IT services arm. Upon his new appointment, according to the Wall Street Journal, Witty told employees his top priorities were “to help ensure we continue to modernize the health system; continue developing and attracting the best talent in our industry; innovate and accelerate our capabilities; and set forth a bold strategy for transforming the way care is accessed, delivered and paid for across the continuum.”

    The executive changes above are not the typical changing of the guard for such massive companies as Microsoft, Nike, Amazon, and UnitedHealth Group. Each of these CEOs had prior experience leading IT, digital, or cloud companies or divisions, and each will use this experience to drive value at the top of their new (or not so new) organizations.

    Both legacy and digital-native companies are bringing technical, cloud, and digital expertise to their top ranks. This trend is likely in early stages and with many industries yet to participate. To help stay on top, it is critical for sales and marketing organizations focused on Fortune 1000 C-suites to be familiar with these new chiefs’ business initiatives and new directions to have better conversations and be better business partners.

    Weston Goldberg is a senior research analyst at Boardroom Insiders. 

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    Weston Goldberg