What is the CIO’s role today? Redefining transformational IT leadership

When your children, friends, or acquaintances, ask what you do for a living, how do you, a CIO, answer them? “I am the future of our business” sounds a bit megalomaniacal, and “I manage the technology function” does not begin to do justice to the impact of your work. 

Since my team and I spend all day every day helping companies define their technology leadership needs, I have a vested interest in creating some clarity around the CIO role. So, I did what I always do when I am in need of information: I asked a bunch of CIOs. Here’s what they had to say.

How technical does a CIO need to be? 

Last year, I was recruiting a CIO for a large global services business whose IT organization employed more than 600 people. My client, the CEO, was very happy with our lead candidate’s ability to influence, lead, think strategically, establish business partnerships, and execute. Just before moving to an offer, my client asked, “But is he technical enough?” I assured him that our finalist was technical enough, but I thought to myself, “What does that even mean? Will this C-level executive be asked to write code?”

John Hill, CIDO of MSC Industrial Supply, spends less of his time thinking deeply about technology and more about bringing organizational digital agility to MSC. “CIOs do not need to be technology experts,” he says. “Today’s CIOs are the designers of organizations that can keep 25 balls in the air; and they know how all those balls fit into the digital vision years from now.”

When I do “talk tech” with CIOs, I find that we are no longer actually talking about technology. What we tend to talk about now are “platforms.” But what are these platforms and why are they so important? For Wafaa Mamilli, CIDO of animal health business Zoetis, platforms are at the heart of her role. “My job as CIDO is to lead a team that uses platforms to power our existing businesses and create new lines of business,” she says. “My role is less about technology and more about finding the next area for revenue and value generation.”

The ascent of CIO as value creator

Mamilli brings up an important point about the changing role of the CIO. After so many years of “IT is a cost center,” it is refreshing to see so many technology leaders describe their role as value creation and even business model change.

As Sanjib Sahoo, chief digital officer of Ingram Micro, sees it, “Once a company has transformed from traditional IT to a platform-driven business, the technology leadership role must shift to value creation,” he says. “The technology leaders of the future will have the technology depth and business acumen to be the bridge to value. Maybe the CIO, CTO, or CDO becomes the chief value officer, but whatever the title, the focus is not on developing an AI engine or bringing a new tool to market. It is in improving EBITDA and the experience of everyone involved in the journey. The focus is on business model change, not just another technology tool in the bag.”

CIOs at the center of digital transformation

Even as I write this, I realize that my first three quotes are not from chief information officers, but from chief information digital officers. These “digital” executives typically manage the IT organization, but their title signifies something more. As long as we are asking some fundamental questions about the CIO role, let’s poke at this “digital” concept a bit. What is digital and what does it mean for the CIO?

Regardless of whether you have digital in your title or not, as CIO, you have significant accountability for creating a digital business, but you do not own digital the way you own IT.  “Digital is not an IT function,” says Irvin Bishop, CIO of Black & Veatch. “Digital is sales, marketing, finance, legal, and operations — everything. I spend significant time evangelizing, carrying the digital torch, and collaborating with my business partners on how to shift our investments from run, to grow and transform.”

Deepak Kaul, CIO of Zebra Technologies, reinforces the critical role that CIOs play in driving digital literacy: “Digital transformation is not a one-time event,” he says. “By the time we are done implementing one wave, there will be a new one. CIOs are evolving from technologist and strategist to catalyst. Future CIOs will be evangelists of digital dexterity.”

The CIO’s evolving data role

Data falls into a similar category as digital. CIOs are responsible for building an enterprise data and analytics capability, but they do not own data as a function. If that is the case, where should the data and analytics function sit? Some companies put it under finance, others marketing, and others operations. In this humble executive recruiter’s opinion, most companies will wind up with a hub and spoke model, which Kaul is employing at Zebra.

“In IT, we have traditionally focused on protecting the single source of truth, but our business functions want to experiment with the data,” says Kaul. “So, at Zebra, we created a hub-and-spoke model, where the hub is data engineering and the spokes are machine learning experts embedded in the business functions. We kept the data warehouse but augmented it with a cloud-based enterprise data lake and ML platform. The core customer data stays pristine in the data warehouse, but once the data goes into the lake, the business functions can experiment. This model allows us pivot from a data defensive to a data offensive position.”

The CIO’s new remit regarding business risk

Now I’ve got it. The CIO role is less about technology and more about platforms, value creation, data, digital literacy, and business model change. But wait! What about risk? What about security? What is the CIO’s responsibility for the other side of the digital investment coin?

This is a question that Rhonda Gass, CIO of Stanley Black & Decker, faced head on. For a while at Stanley Black & Decker, the product group led the commercial technology roadmap, manufacturing led operations technology investments, and IT led business technology. “Individual risks in a particular silo might seem minor, but as those risks stack up, they can lead to a major impact on our customers, employees, or brand,” says Gass. “We recognized that the company needed an enterprise view of digital risk, so my team has taken on that leadership role. As CIO, I look across the entire company and drive digital risk management.”

CIOs as catalysts for culture change

Whether focused on digital, data, platforms, or value, all of these CIOs, it seems, are actively connecting the dots. With most leaders laser focused on their own business or function, someone needs to look across the entire business at opportunity, risk, and perhaps most importantly, cultural change. There is some irony in the fact that CIOs, with their technology background, are accountable for much of the people side of cultural change, but increasingly, that is the case.  

For Madhuri Andrews, CIDO of Jacobs Engineering, creating cultural change is at the heart of her role: “My role is both as a consultative partner to the business and as a mentor to the IT organization,” she says. “If I can connect people to the purpose, they will think more creatively. I can go into the weeds on any technology, but my more important role is to ensure that the work we are doing in IT is connected to the overall Jacobs strategy.”

The CIO of the future

So, there you have it! The simple definition of the CIO role is to have accountability for digital, data, cultural change, business model transformation, platform strategy, and value creation. Or as Will Lee, CIO of The Hanover, puts it, “For years, CIOs have worked hard to make IT a utility where, like electricity, it just works. But now, CIOs are shifting from running a utility to being thoughtful business partners focused on business solutions. Our role will be to work with our business leaders to co-create the dream.”

Well, when you put it that way, “I am the future of our business” might not be so off the mark, after all.

CIO, IT Leadership