by Adam Hartung

Today’s CIO is in a great position to be a future CEO

Sep 29, 2015
CIOIT Leadership

COOs and CFOs do pretty much what they did in the 1980s. But IT chiefs have evolved to become strategic thinkers who can guide their companies to the digital future.

In the 30 years since the CIO title emerged, the position has been freed from the air-conditioned basements and has moved into the C-suite, with a mission to help companies obtain, synthesize, analyze and transport information. CIOs help leaders make better decisions.

In the 1980s, producing information while managing costs was the CIO’s job. At the time, it seemed like the CIO had arrived, but in fact the CIO was seen as a technocrat at the beck and call of “the business.” Very few CIOs had MBAs, or saw a need for one. Most CIOs viewed this job as the end of the career rainbow: professional technologists answering questions for professional business leaders. These CIOs never considered becoming CEOs or board members.

Since then, the CIO role has changed dramatically. CFOs, COOs and general counsels still largely do what they did in the 1980s, but today CIOs have a very different job to do. The CIO of 2015 is more important than ever. Whoever owns this role commands a vision for the entire business. She is a person capable of being a CEO–someone as comfortable talking in the boardroom as she is talking in a meeting about mobile devices or data architecture.

CIOs today address enterprise issues that affect long-term strategy as well as short-term implementations. They balance the risk of business results with the risk of implementation, and they talk in business terms about what is best for the organization. Like other C-suite residents, they are business leaders first, and functional pros second. The ability to successfully implement a project is just the most basic job requirement. Adding business value is why they are at the C-suite’s table.

The desire to introduce disruptive innovations is on every corporate agenda. CIOs today are able to discuss what is game-changing and what is not; what is a no-brainer and what is full of risk; what are short-term wins and what is necessary for long-term competitiveness. It’s not enough to call CIOs “information officers” or “innovation officers”–they’re strategic thinkers who are full-fledged corporate officers responsible for the company’s long-term value.

The CEO and his team, as well as the board, want the CIO to tell them the business implications of technology choices, and to answer questions like these:

What information analytics, especially in big data, are we using to grow revenue? What insights do we have that competitors don’t?

Do we really know our competitors’ costs and customer development efforts? Can we keep competitors at bay and grow?

How do we balance the benefits of globalization with the risk of intellectual-property theft? Are our supply chain vendors our friends, or our enemies? How much can we grow international sales? How do we do that?

Is our mobile effort best in class? Or are we chasing the competition?

How do we ensure cybersecurity and minimize risks? What is our plan to handle the inevitable hack and simultaneously keep customers happy?

What is our plan for improving the customer experience and sales?

Today’s CIO is a future CEO. There’s no other way to think about the job. IT is a function, but its leader is a strategic thinker who can drive long-term vision. The CIO adds as much value as the CFO, because the CIO knows the road map to higher revenue and margins.

Although we thought the CIO had arrived in the 1980s, truthfully the role is just now coming into its own.

Adam Hartung, a CEO at three companies, is a leadership columnist, a speaker and a fellow of the National Association of Corporate Directors.