Twitter CEO Announcement Spotlights Rare Executive Move

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It is unusual even among tech companies to go directly from a tech chief to a chief executive.

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CTOs and chief information officers are now more visible within the C-suite as technology has become an important part of businesses. Still, they must have the right combination of personality, leadership skills and experience before they can occupy the top spot—making the direct transition from tech chief to CEO unusual.

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“Going straight from CTO to CEO is a very dramatic change on the surface,” says Tim Crawford, CIO strategic advisor at Los Angeles-based consulting firm AVOA. “Those two, at least historically, have become very different. Very different priorities, very different skill sets and focus areas.”

The transition usually makes sense within tech companies when the tech chief has substantial experience with other aspects of the business and has the right leadership skills, Crawford said.

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In an email that Mr Dorsey posted to his Twitter account on Monday, he called Mr Agarwal “inquisitive, investigative, rational, creative, demanding, self-aware and humble”. He added: “He has been my pick for a while now because of how deeply he understands the company and its needs.”

Mr. Agarwal joined Twitter in 2011 as a software engineer and became CTO in 2017. According to his bio on Twitter’s website, he holds a PhD in Computer Science from Stanford University and a bachelor’s degree from the Indian Institute of Technology, Bombay.

Ray Wang, founder and principal analyst at Constellation Research Inc., said Mr. Agarwal has proven himself in various elements of the business, including fine-tuning Twitter’s advertising platform and helping launch several new paid services.

“He has shown that he can really do with the team he has, and that is very important,” says Mr. Wang.

There are a few examples of change from CTO to CEO. Verizon Communications Inc. Hans Vestberg, President and CEO, was the company’s Chief Technology Officer until the 2018 promotion.

But it is common for a CTO or CIO to take on the role of an intermediary, such as the chief operating officer, before becoming the CEO, say experts.

In a 2019 study by executive search firm Korn Ferry,

51% of technology executives surveyed said they wanted to become CEOs during their career. But only 12% said it was the role they wanted next.

Gerry McNamara, Korn Ferry’s vice president of practice for technology executives, says technology executives know they need additional experience to be ready to run a company. Especially important for an incoming CEO is experience with profit-and-loss responsibilities, he said.

Intel Corp. CEO Pat Gelsinger was the chipmaker’s CTO between 2000 and 2005 before becoming president and COO of EMC Corp. He became the CEO of VMware Inc. in 2012. He returned to Intel as CEO in 2021.

Microsoft Corp. Chief Executive Officer, Satya Nadella has previously held leadership roles in both the enterprise and consumer sides of the business, including Vice President of the Microsoft Business Division and Executive Vice President of Microsoft’s Cloud and Enterprise Group.

Similar career paths are being explored more frequently in tech companies, according to John Keller, managing director of executive search and leadership consulting firm Rennes International. He says that’s because those tech heads are usually “at the center of where a company needs to go.”

According to Mr. Keller “you’re going to see more and more of this happening”.

Outside of technology companies, the journey from tech chief to chief executive officer is less common, but still occurs.

American Express Company President and CEO Steve Squire served as the company’s CIO from 2005–2009. He then became Group President and Vice President of Global Services before taking over as CEO in 2018. Greg Carmichael was the fifth third Bancorp’s CIO before becoming COO and eventually CEO in 2015.

According to Emmeline Kuhn, who co-leads the operations and information technology practice at executive search firm Leithwaite, such changes are becoming more plausible as technology plays an increasingly important role in other types of businesses.

“Technology is the core of every business moving forward,” said Ms. Kuhn.

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