Rajeev Ronanki on making the leap to CEO

CEOs increasingly depend on technology as a central means of staking competitive positions, and that shift has made CIOs increasingly well-suited for the job.

To be sure, a small but growing group of CIOs have already made this jump. Consider Tim Buckley, at Vanguard; Tim Spence, at Fifth Third Bank; or Jason Buechel, at WholeFoods. Yet such transitions are still the exception rather than the norm. As many as half of all tech executives aspire to become CEO. But few make it to the end of that historically ‘non-traditional’ path. 

Rajeev Ronanki is one of them.

“I’ve always aspired to run my own company,” says the Los Angeles resident. “I always told myself, ‘If I want to be CEO, I need to start doing the job now.’”

From the outset, Ronanki saw that technology’s pace of change would require a new type of CEO, one that considered how profoundly the business landscape would be influenced by emerging technologies. 

After a successful run as a partner and offering leader at a global consulting firm, Ronanki served for five years as SVP and chief digital officer of Elevance Health, formerly known as Anthem, a Fortune 50 enterprise with annual revenues exceeding $150 billion. Earlier this year, the UPenn alumnus penetrated the upper strata of the C-suite, accepting the position of CEO at Lyric, where he continues to reimagine the future of healthcare by harnessing the power of AI. 

Build your ‘CEO playbook’

According to Ronanki, achieving the CEO goal role requires IT execs to take a two-pronged approach: refine and polish your existing tech executive expertise while actively seeking opportunities to hone new skills that will prepare you for the realities of the next level.

Luckily, as a high-performing tech executive, you already developed a lot of CEO skills, says Ronanki. “You’re used to aligning stakeholders on a vision, rolling out solutions that delight your constituents, and translating all of that into a financial lens.” All it takes now, he adds, is being able to apply those skills across all functions, not just IT or digital.

This will mean having enough depth in each function to know how to orchestrate it in concert with the overarching business strategy. To do that, you will need to pounce on new opportunities, says Ronanki, recalling the pivotal experiences that shaped his ascent to the top seat. As a partner at a global consulting firm, he jumped at the opportunity to become an offering leader. Not only did this cement his appreciation for the criticality of customer satisfaction, but it also taught him the importance of brand, employee engagement, and building high-performing teams at scale, which are all table stakes for head honchos.

“Be prepared to take on roles that don’t necessarily change your title,” says Ronanki, in reference to the often nonlinear path to CEO. For Ronanki this meant taking on a P&L ownership role at Carelon, Elevance Health’s services arm, where he brandished his ability to impact top and bottom line economics by spearheading the development of a platform to digitize interactions between consumers and healthcare providers. The platform, which improved experiences for health plan members as well as the company’s margins, was also offered up to the broader market, carving out a new, technology-driven revenue stream, the holy grail for tech chiefs seeking expanded responsibilities in the C-suite. 

Ronanki’s ability to efficiently forecast revenue and margins, two additional skills he sees as paramount to leading a company, served him well in this role. “To do this well, you really need to know how the business works, and by extension, how political, economic and societal forces will impact it,” he says.

Even if you can’t get a P&L role, you can still challenge yourself to demonstrate that growth and margin improvement are linked to technology inextricably, says Ronanki. He explains it’s often hard for tech leaders to “draw the line between the growth of a company and the company’s technology strategy.” Those that best articulate the relationship between tech and growth to their peers in the C-suite and to the board will enjoy elevated stature.  

That said, making your peers and board believers starts long before you are considered for the top job. “Building alliances is critical for CIOs,” says Ronanki, adding that it’s true regardless of whether you want to be CEO. He suggests sharing your aspirations for greater responsibility early, and figuring out how you can help your peers achieve their goals. Doing so “has a tendency to align people’s vision, and from here it becomes much easier to rally everyone around a point of view that leads to the company’s success. And once the company’s success has your fingerprints on it, the titles will align.”

Tailwinds for optimism

Even early in his career, Ronanki thought businesses had it backwards. They should think not only about building technology around a business, but also building a business around technology. Today, as complex technologies such as AI, quantum computing, and blockchain take flight, the ante has been raised, and many speculate that, in as few as 10 years, CEOs that don’t understand AI and data will no longer be fit for the top job in any industry.  

As you approach the once impenetrable, now cracked, door to the corner office, don’t let your title limit your contributions to the main objectives of the company, says Ronanki, adding that CEOs, now more than ever, need a right-hand when it comes to developing a tech-first strategy.

“Every industry is going to be disrupted by tech,” says Ronanki, the author of You and AI, the bestseller that explores how exponential technologies can solve the problems that plague the American healthcare system. “CEOs used to be able to get away with just having deep business subject matter expertise, but I think technologies like AI are triggering a broader rethink on what it means to be a CEO.”

Looking forward, Ronanki believes tech-savvy CEOs will stop trying to embed technology into the rigid, functional silos that exist in large enterprises; instead they will wrap the company — and the entire operating model — around technology. “Traditional CEOs don’t like the concept of a tech-first operating model because it requires a massive amount of change, but my view is that if you don’t make that change, you won’t be able to compete.”

Business IT Alignment, Digital Transformation, IT Leadership