by Martha Heller

The future is bright for digital CIOs

Apr 25, 2018
CareersCIODigital Transformation

Digital transformation is creating many opportunities for CIOs. Learn what they are and how to advance your career as a digital CIO.

digital transformation 1
Credit: istock

Over the past few months, I’ve responded to a number of interview and webinar requests about the impact of digital technologies on the CIO role and the skills that tomorrow’s transformational CIOs should develop today. I’ve decided to corral my sprawling thoughts into one short Q&A for your convenience and reading pleasure.

What does it mean to be a “digital CIO”?

To be a digital CIO is to understand that digital is a team sport. It is not something that one executive, no matter how influential, can drive alone. A digital transformation so thoroughly changes the foundations of the company that everybody, including the CEO, CIO, COO, and heads of marketing, supply chain, and HR, all need to drive that transformation together.  

Key to this transformation are agile cross-functional teams that come together to develop a new business capability or solve a business problem. The job of the CIO and the rest of the senior management team is to staff and incent these high-performing teams and get out of their way.

How can CIOs position themselves as key members of a digital transformation team?

Every CEO in every company is thinking, “Digital is changing the very foundations of our business, but we’ve underinvested in IT. We have to act now to invest in new technology. Do I have the right leadership team to guide and capitalize on those investments?” My advice to CIOs is to step in and lead on high value, customer-centric initiatives and avoid saying, “IT is my function and my only responsibility.” CEOs need executives who can lead in technology and marketing and operations, and get outside of the bounds of their own organization. The CIOs who work hard to know the business better than anyone else, and can step across functional boundaries to lead, will be the CEO’s most valuable executive. 

What is the career path for digital CIOs?

CIOs who sit on these successful digital transformation teams have a number of career options ahead of them.

  • One is to stay in the CIO role, but move on to another company that is ripe for digital change.
  • Another is to stay with the company, but move into a COO role. The levers that traditional COOs have used to create operational efficiencies are not nearly as powerful as operational technologies that leverage artificial intelligence, big data, robotics, and the Internet of Things. Who has skills to deploy emerging technologies for operational efficiencies? It’s not the traditional COO. It’s the CIO. We are starting to see CIOs who have played a leadership role in digital transformation move formally into the COO position.
  • A relatively new career trajectory for the “digital CIO” is chief product officer. When a company’s products and services start to involve a heavy software engineering component, where does IT stop and product engineering start?  Companies are beginning to blur the lines around IT and product development, which gives CIOs the opportunity to merge technology and product, and to lead both.
  • Let’s not forget the chief customer officer role. So much of digital is about customer centricity and engagement. Who in the company is using technology to ensure that the customer journey is streamlined and frictionless? CIOs have a lot of experience deploying customer engagement technologies, and we are starting to see the chief customer officer role as an evolutionary path for CIOs.
  • Finally, I know many CIOs who are currently serving as their company’s head of shared services. They maintain responsibility for IT functions such as vendor management, information security, and architecture, but they also lead in non-IT functions such as procurement, facilities, HR, and legal.

What can CIOs do now to set themselves up for success tomorrow?

They can develop deep expertise in the following areas:

  • Change management: Leverage technology for innovation whether in billing operations, on the plant floor, in employee productivity, or in sales and marketing. CIOs who will thrive as digital leaders will use technology to make the company more efficient and drive revenue. The more of those transformational programs CIOs have under their belts, the better positioned they will be for all of the exciting evolutionary paths I describe above. And remember: the key to transformation is adoption. CIOs need to find ways to share accountability with business leaders to ensure that people actually use the technologies they are investing in.
  • Technical depth: I used to think that what made CIOs great was their business knowledge. But as we’ve been moving into all of these new technology areas, I’ve come to realize that technology depth is equally as important. CIOs who have a deep understanding of the stack and how all of those systems and platforms work together are going to be the most differentiated and powerful executives of tomorrow. If you are a CIO, you probably have some technology in your background. Don’t be too quick to let it go.
  • Financial knowledge: The most impactful executives in the company meet regularly with the board. When you’re in the boardroom, much of the discussion is financial. The more you can take everything that you’re doing and put it into terms that the board understands, the more powerful and respected you will be.
  • Customer engagement: Every company has customers, and every CIO has access to those customers. Spending time in your market will give you the voice of the customer. Once you have that, you are “as one” with your business partners.
  • Data analytics: Oh, yes, and then there is data. You can lead a business executive to data, but you can’t make her use it. It is one thing to put in data reporting tools and data lakes, and all the rest of it, but it’s another to drive the cultural change that allows your executives actually to use that data. Lately it seems that every CIO search we do has “leverage data for business opportunity” at the top of the requirements list. Data is changing the world; use it to change your company.