Minda Zetlin
Contributing writer

The CIO’s new role: Orchestrator-in-chief

Dec 04, 202312 mins
Business IT AlignmentC-SuiteCIO

CIOs have unique insight into everything that happens in a company. Some are using that insight to take on a more strategic role.

Mature business woman having a discussion with her team. Woman leading a meeting in an office. Business woman presenting her ideas in an office. Group of professionals planning a project.
Credit: Jacob Lund / Shutterstock

CIOs today find themselves in a unique position to survey everything taking place across their organization, find opportunities, resolve conflicts, set priorities, and help shape strategy. In other words, they are uniquely situated to function as their companies’ de facto orchestrators-in-chief.

“It’s really only the CIO and the CEO who have this perspective,” says Irving Tyler, distinguished research vice president with Gartner’s CIO Research team. “The CIO has a deeper perspective because it’s in the execution aspect, not just the bigger-picture strategic perspective.”

But making the transition from traditional CIO to chief orchestrator takes more than perspective. It requires finesse, relationship building, a deep understanding of the organization’s strategy — and the ability to take a hand in creating that strategy from the get-go. It also requires a willingness to seek out new responsibilities, and possibly a new title. CIOs who want to take on this role must be willing to take the initiative and speak up about the opportunities and threats they see from their unique vantage point — even in C-suite meetings.

In other words, this career elevation is not for the faint of heart. But CIOs who act as orchestrators can create value for their organizations in ways that go well beyond what traditional CIOs can deliver.

In recent Gartner research, C-suite executives from all lines of business reported that “technology remains probably the biggest factor in achieving new business outcomes,” Tyler says. As a result, these C-suite executives are having more one-on-one meetings with their organizations’ CIOs — and that’s creating new opportunities, for LOB leaders, the enterprise, and CIOs themselves.

“CIOs are now moving from one executive to the other,” Tyler says. “That is enabling them to even further increase their overview of the entire enterprise. And because of the strength of these relationships, the CIO can now start to say, ‘Wow, what you’re trying to do needs to be integrated with the supply chain, or we need to work with HR to look at our talent strategy.’”

“We are sort of like glue,” says Elizabeth Hoemeke, CIO of digital payments platform One. Every other department depends on IT to integrate systems, provide data, solve problems for customers, and so on, she adds. “We’re either being asked to provide things or we’re being asked to do things, so we sit in a kind of lifeguard chair, watching all the different groups doing all these different things. There’s give and take that comes from that relationship with each individual department.”

How can a CIO use that unique vantage point to help mold strategy for their organization? Start with some of these steps.

Build one-on-one relationships within the C-suite

Because so many departments outside IT are hiring their own technology professionals and procuring their own cloud-based software, Gartner researchers wondered whether some functional leaders now feel they can get along perfectly well without IT. But their research showed the opposite is true.

“In fact, when we talked to these leaders, they told us the number-one factor to them being successful was a very strong partnership with their CIO,” Tyler says. “One very simple measure of this was how often they were meeting. The greater the frequency of their interactions with the CIO, the greater success they were having.”

John Cannava, CIO of security company Ping Identity, tries to start these relationships on day one. “When we have new leaders join the organization, we take it upon ourselves to help onboard them,” he says. “We feel like we’re in a better position than most functions to be able to provide an end-to-end perspective on what the current state looks like. So either I or someone on my team will take them through. ‘Here’s where we currently are. Here are some things we are planning to do, and we’re looking for your input.’”

John Cannava stylized

John Cannava, CIO, Ping Identity

Ping Identity

Those conversations build trust at a time when a newly arrived executive is trying to learn the lay of the land and how to be successful at Ping, he explains. “We’re helping them understand what other initiatives are going on and the context they need to be aware of. I really like to start that relationship early, rather than when something goes wrong, so you’re not trying to build a relationship in the fog of war,” he says.

Beyond that, Cannava and his team conduct a twice-a-year roadmap review. “We work with each of the executive leadership members and ask, ‘What are your major priorities for the next 6 to 12 months?’” Using that information, IT creates a prospective technology roadmap for each functional area. Then Cannava and his team assemble all that information and share it back to the entire executive team. “They all get to see what’s going on. And in that way, we’re putting ourselves in the seat of being the orchestrator, by virtue of being the ones presenting that information and providing that forum. So it’s a little bit of judo there as well.”

Help set priorities

At the start of the year, the CEO of financial services firm TIAA asks each of the business unit and departmental leaders to name their five “big bets” — their most important initiatives for the coming year. Needless to say, every initiative mentioned by each top executive has a large technology component. “When it’s my turn, I have a top 35, not top 5,” says Sastry Durvasula, chief information and client services officer. As the leader of IT, he may have his own big bets, such as digital transformation or artificial intelligence, he says. “But everybody’s priority is a technology priority.”

Sastry Durvasula stylized

Sastry Durvasula, CIO and client service officer, TIAA


So IT must do what it has always done. Faced with competing technology demands and finite resources, CIOs must figure out what truly needs to be done first to meet the most important business goals. “That makes the voice of the orchestrator,” Durvasula says. “We are ready to prioritize things.”

Become a clearinghouse

The more the CIO can function as a centralized source for technology resources, the better, says Ping Identity’s Cannava, who sees this transpiring in three phases, depending on the maturity of the organization. In Phase 1, the CIO is the clearinghouse for current technology projects, taking on the traditional role as in-house consultant.

In Phase 2, the CIO becomes the clearinghouse for data within the organization. “In many cases, we are the keepers of the keys to datasets,” he says. “We have the ability to bring datasets together, and those insights could drive what the agenda is for the business. They could show us where we have the opportunity to improve our go-to-market. So having that access to the insights driving business intelligence initiatives has allowed us to expand our seat at the table.”

In Phase 3, the CIO also becomes the clearinghouse for emerging technologies. Because, he says, to truly unlock the potential of all that data, you need artificial intelligence. And that raises some immediate questions for CIOs who want to be orchestrators. “Is IT the driver of the selection, implementation, and delivery of those things? Or is IT setting standards allowing the business to move at its own pace of adopting AI? Are we selecting add-ons to our existing platforms, or buying purpose-built tools, or generic platforms? Those are all really hard decisions we’re being asked to make right now,” Cannava says.

Be transparent — and ask for help

Hoemeke put this approach to good use when, after a merger, she set out to consolidate all of One’s systems on Microsoft Azure — an 18-month project. “I had to get my whole organization on board with this huge shift,” she says.

Elizabeth Hoemeke stylized

Elizabeth Hoemeke, CIO, One


She knew the company’s customers — insurers who use One for payment processing — would be affected because the changeover required a 24-hour planned pause in that processing. “When you start messing around with people’s products that are integrated with their core systems, they start to get nervous,” she says. Although the company sent customers multiple notifications to alert them to the migration and the coming outage, not all customers understood how directly they’d be affected.

Hoemeke wanted to be as transparent as possible — without burying people in hard-to-understand technical details. And so she asked for help from her business colleagues. “I partnered with our customer success team,” she says. “We had identified about 10 or 12 clients that were particularly anxious, and we started an every-two-hour communication that went on for 21 hours straight.” Marketing worked with IT to design this communication plan, and the delivery teams sent the message to their clients.

The end result was a successful project that was completed with very few hiccups and no irate customers. “It’s all about the planning, and involving your stakeholders,” she says now. “Even if you don’t think someone is a stakeholder, include them anyway.” Beyond that, she says, “Invest in the relationships. Technology people have a tendency to be a little bit arrogant — you know: ‘This is technical work, I don’t need anybody and I don’t need any help.’ But at the end of the day, we did need a lot of help.”

Consider a title change

This may sound extreme, but it could be helpful, especially for CIOs who are looking to expand from a more traditional IT role. To the question of how CIOs could become orchestrators of their companies’ technology strategy, Marc Tanowitz, managing partner, advisory and transformation, at West Monroe Partners, says that at large enterprises, that role is more typically filled by a transformation office, headed by a chief transformation officer or chief digital officer, often hired from outside.

What about the CIO? “At a minimum, they’re creating the business and technical architecture that has to be complied with, so that when our clients go through these digital transformations, they get the promised benefit of this world of connected data that they can use and analyze,” Tanowitz says, adding that while CIOs might be well-suited to orchestrate back-office and middle-office functions, when it comes to front-office functions, they need a lot of help and input from marketing. “I don’t think the CIO’s perspective is typically informed by the dynamics of the market,” he says.

“I think the world of digital has opened up a much wider aperture around what’s possible and where technology makes an impact,” says Rick Johnson, chief digital officer at window and door manufacturer Marvin. Before joining Marvin about a year ago, Johnson was CIO of packaging company Sonoco. The CDO title does make a difference, he says, explaining that the word “digital” has become paired with “transformation.”

Rick Johnson stylized

Rick Johnson, CDO, Marvin


“The chief digital officer role provides greater purview to impact and lead the transformation effort, not just as a partner on the side helping to make that successful, but actually shaping the direction it takes,” he says.

Don’t shy away from the challenge

At what stage of an initiative is the CIO or IT invited to join the discussion? “If they’re bringing IT in at the end and they’ve already selected a product, then IT is a very tactical resource in their minds,” Cannava says. “If they’re bringing me in when they’re thinking about an opportunity to improve a process or drive revenue, then I’m winning. That means they trust my business acumen and they understand we’re an enabler across the business.”

For this to happen, CIOs must be ready to step out of the shadows. “The real key for CIOs to be successful at those relationships is don’t just show up and say, ‘Here’s the list of things everybody’s doing.’ Show up and say, ‘Here’s what’s happening, and here’s what I think we should do right now,’” Gartner’s Tyler says.

For example, if the marketing department is trying to improve customer retention, and the operations team is trying to reduce cycle time, those two efforts are related, Tyler says. They might benefit from a combined initiative, and the CIO can add value by pointing out that opportunity. “But the CIO has to be proactive,” he says.

“You have to take chances, right?” he adds. “These are high-stakes kinds of things. You’re a senior executive now, reporting to the CEO. You can’t be timid and wait for the ask — you have to step forward and demonstrate that you have some thoughts to share, and some ideas to put on the table.”