4 key roles that define transformational IT leaders today

In a world where nothing stays the same, the CIO role has evolved and changed — mainly for the better — as CIOs have gained greater visibility and importance. They are increasingly included in board-level discussions on cybersecurity and tech investments for organizational initiatives and are influencing decisions related to planning, strategy, implementation, and operations.

In fact, many CIOs are hard-pressed to think of an area within the enterprise in which they are not engaged. You might say the role is having something of an identity crisis.

A majority (77%) of CIOs say their role has been elevated due to the state of the economy and they expect this visibility within the organization to continue, according to Foundry’s 22nd annual State of the CIO report. Further, most CIOs (85%) believe their role is becoming more digital and innovation focused.

“For me, it is fantastic the title of CIO keeps getting additions,’’ says Irving Tyler, distinguished research vice president at Gartner. The firm is seeing several iterations of the CIO role, including chief digital officer, chief digital and technology officer, head of technology, data, and innovation, and CIO and vice president of research and development (R&D) and innovation. “This demonstrates CIOs are getting more and more experiences that translate beyond the [traditional] CIO role and it enables CIOs to expand their leadership impact and career opportunities,” he says.

In all such title expansions, the core of the CIO’s abilities continues to be that they can incorporate the right technology into business execution to create and deliver value, Tyler adds. “None of the extensions of the role are absent this reality. This reflects that every business effort is a technology effort,” he says. “Technology is a majority of the ‘genes’ in the functional DNA.”

Many organizations are pushing their CIOs to serve as strategic thought partners to the rest of the executive team, observes Tom Schoenwaelder, a principal at Deloitte Consulting. “They are challenging their CIOs to bring a perspective on how technology can enable the long-term strategy of the enterprise, which requires a deeper understanding of the needs of customers and the business, and insights into the future of technology and its role in enabling these needs.”

The shifting role of the CIO is so prevalent, it was the dominant theme at the recent MIT Sloan CIO Symposium, where a plethora of titles was bandied about, including chief resilience officer, chief regulation officer, chief transformation officer — even chief change maker. With the tech industry’s love of acronyms, perhaps the greatest dilemma will be determining which ones become mainstream in the lexicon.

Here are four roles that define transformational leaders today.

Chief transformation officer

Perhaps the most logical of titles CIOs can assume is that of chief transformation officer, or chief digital transformation officer, given the leadership role CIOs took on to digitally transform their organizations during the pandemic.

Rick Johnson, who has been a CIO since 2011, was appointed the first-ever chief digital officer at Marvin, a manufacturer of doors and windows in January 2023. He says the CDO role there “is inclusive of a typical CIO role.” The vice president of IT reports to Johnson as well as the digital teams and transformation office.

Rick Johnson, CDO, Marvin


What hasn’t changed is the expectation that the CIO should influence business outcomes through use of technology and have a point of view that is credible, Johnson says.

What has changed is that CIOs have moved from being influencers to having direct responsibility for making that happen, he adds. “In the past, the CIO was expected to be a good business partner and bring ideas to the table. As the role has evolved, we take direct responsibility for business outcomes and responsibility for how business operations are constructed and executed.”

In his case, that led to Johnson attaining the transformation role at Marvin and having direct responsibility for the transformation agenda, “which by definition, is how we’ll run the business in the future and the path from getting from here to there.”

If a CIO isn’t thinking about how to transform the business and bringing that perspective into the executive suite or boardroom, “then they’re really not doing what a CIO should be doing,” Johnson says. “If they don’t have that mentality, then they’re an order taker. They’re in the backseat, waiting for somebody to ask them a question.”

The CDO role speaks to transcending the traditional tech role and being tasked with revenue generation as well as using tech to put into products for value creation, Johnson observes. But it doesn’t speak to the transformation piece. Ideally, Johnson thinks his title could be chief digital and transformation officer, but then he hesitates.

“Having a single executive have ‘transformation’ in their title serves to lessen the ownership of transformation by others in the executive suite,’’ he explains. “It takes the senior leadership team to be on board to not only lead in their area but … in a cross-functional and cohesive manner.”

Yet, when Oğuz Sezgin thinks about the responsibilities of his role, his primary focus is “driving digital transformation initiatives that generate tangible value for the organization and pioneering innovative technology strategies.” Sezgin, CIO and digital transformation leader at Koç Holding, an investment holding company based in Turkey, calls himself a strategist who is tasked with identifying and utilizing technologies that optimize business processes, elevate customer experiences, and foster innovation.

Oğuz Sezgin, CIO and digital transformation leader, Koç Holding

Koç Holding

The shift in the CIO role has been prompted by several factors, including the rise of digital transformation, making the need for a strong online presence crucial for organizations, says Sezgin, who spoke at the MIT Sloan CIO Symposium. “So, from strategy to execution, CIOs must be involved in all facets of the organization. I coordinate and manage groupwide initiatives and strategies to advance digital business as the head of digital transformation.”

Other factors leading to the role change are the need for access to high-quality data to make better business decisions, improve customer service, and identify new opportunities for growth, he says. The growing need for security and compliance has also made it essential for businesses to have a strong security posture. At Koç Holding, Sezgin is “responsible for ensuring that the company’s IT systems are secure and that the company is compliant with all relevant regulations.”

This has meant that Sezgin has embraced a culture of innovation and experimentation. He has also prioritized gaining a deeper understanding of the organization’s business operations, goals, and challenges.

“By aligning technology initiatives with strategic objectives, my aim is to maximize the value derived from digital transformation efforts and contribute to the overall success of the organization.” In light of his responsibilities, goals, and vision, he says he would rename his title to “chief transformation officer.”

Regardless of the title, a CIO’s responsibilities remain clear, Sezgin says. “By embracing adaptability, innovation, and strategic thinking, CIOs can effectively navigate the ever-changing landscape, creating a sustainable competitive advantage and fostering growth in an increasingly digital world.”

Chief technology and digital officer

The average tenure of a CIO is three years, and Jamie Smith has been CIO of the University of Phoenix for five years, “so I feel like I’m playing with house money.”

He attributes that to the growing importance of the role and the fact that technology has moved from the back room to the board room. Smith is now very involved in mapping the customer journey and understanding customer experience, and IT has partnered with the university’s marketing department. “That’s not something CIOs would do 10 years ago because companies didn’t value it.”

When Smith took over as CIO, the university “had a massive amount of technical debt,” he recalls. During the pandemic, it made sense to shut down the university’s data center and migrate to the cloud. Over the past few years, the focus has become on how the university should conduct its business and support students while scaling agility, he says.

That has led to a new way of working, and engineering teams have been asked to become product teams as opposed to the “traditional feature factory mentality,’’ Smith says.

It has changed his role, as well. “Originally, I would present to the board on normal things like cybersecurity. Now, increasingly, I’m partnered with the COO on how we’re transforming to meet students and cut the cost of supporting them and applying technology to that,’’ Smith says. “That level of partnership wouldn’t have existed in the past. I’m being looked at as that enabler participating in our operations group. The value of that partnership is very clear and we’re asked to drive strategy, in a lot of cases.”

Smith is also working with the university’s chief strategy officer on how to better apply student data. “It’s not like I’ve just taken on a different department. It’s more of a shift in the focus of the [CIO] role from the delivery of a stable technology environment into much more of a role driving business strategy through technology.”

Smith says he didn’t have a customer experience background, so to prepare for his new responsibilities, he had to dive in and learn from experts. He suspects other CIOs will have to do a lot of upskilling, as well.

“Depending on a CIO’s journey, a lot of CIOs are going to have to significantly hone their skills around business strategy and business cases … as well as stakeholder management in the C-suite because they’re no longer a customer of yours. My peers in the C-suite are not my customers, they’re partners,” he says.

This has led Smith to conclude that if he were to rewrite his title to reflect his current responsibilities, it would be chief technology and digital officer.

Chief empowering officer

When Mike Cleary joined Sentry Equipment in 2017 as IT leader, it was a new role for the global manufacturing company based in Oconomowoc, Wisc. The idea was to have the department seen as something more than a “specialized procurement group” that ordered computers.

While Cleary still needed to get “a good handle on tech,’’ Sentry’s leadership wanted someone who was interested in fostering change, and he eventually moved up to the role of CIO. IT heads up continuous improvement for the organization, and “a lot of what we do is focus on what are the issues within an organization and understand what the challenges are,’’ he says. “So a lot of my time … is spent on understanding and being chief improvement officer and leading those efforts.”

Mike Cleary, CIO, Sentry Equipment

Sentry Equipment

Cleary says what he brought to the table was a push for innovation sessions; not just problem-solving but looking at future possibilities and the role tech plays. This led to a lot of envisioning and showing the art of what’s possible, he says.

Over the past six years, he has upskilled Sentry’s IT department to function as a team of business advisors who constantly engage with department heads, providing proactive guidance and solutions to improve efficiency and reach company goals. 

Through those envisioning sessions and working closely with the business units, IT has now become a trusted business partner. “I’m probably invited to every brainstorming session we have — whether product development or product naming — anything where they want to get people in a room and brainstorm about a problem,” to either add input or be a moderator, Cleary says.

The CIO has a great opportunity to see the many different aspects of an organization and moderate or lead brainstorming sessions to talk about the challenges or problems the business has, he says.

“The president here gave me probably the best compliment I’ve ever gotten,” Cleary recalls. “He said, ‘Prior to you coming onto the board, I never thought of having you in the room,’ so it shows someone who is engaged in the CIO role and the power of it and bringing active listening” and challenging the status quo. “It’s a powerful aspect of my role today.”

The CIO has matured over the years to the point where it’s not enough to just have technical expertise, Cleary says. You need to be a true thought leader who can envision what will help your organization — and you need to be a really good, active listener.

“I’ve also been referred to as the organizational shrink,’’ he notes. “People come talk to me even just as a venting session and [the CIO needs to be] able to take it in and put your organizational leader hat on and steer them in the right direction.”

This is becoming “more of the baseline level of what organizations are expecting from the CIO and I am excited to see that,’’ Cleary says.

With that in mind, if he were to rewrite his title to reflect his current responsibilities, Cleary first says chief empowering officer, to show people what’s possible and guide them, and then chief innovation officer.

“I do think innovation is going to continue to be a really strong aspect of the CIO role and that needs to broaden” to include not just technologies but also how you recruit and retain people and engage with the business units to help them solve problems, he says.

Chief technology results officer

Gartner’s Tyler thinks an appropriate title for today’s CIO could be chief technology results officer, saying that “increasingly, CIOs are not running monolithic factories, where all technology is produced and then distributed out to users.

“Instead, they are franchising technology, creating the ‘secret sauce’ in a newly formed digital foundation of technology and shared technology services,” he says. They are acting to equip and enable all CxOs to fully digitalize their organizations by hiring business technologists and using advanced technologies such as generative AI and low code/no code tools to deliver their specialized results, he says.

“And, like a business franchise, they are establishing the standards for performance, security, reliability, and legal compliance,’’ Tyler says. “In this next evolution, CIOs become less focused on operating technology and more on achieving business results” using any and every technology to achieve business objectives.

On second thought, he says, “Maybe the title becomes chief technology franchise officer.” 

CIO, IT Leadership

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