Can the CIO become tomorrow’s CEO?

By: Babette Ten Haken

Can today’s Chief Information Officer (CIO) become a company’s Chief Executive Officer (CEO)? The continuous impact of digital disruption on IT infrastructure and functionality makes the role of CIO more complex today than ever before.

As Marc Benioff stated at the 2016 Forbes CIO Summit: “We are in a new world where the CIO is redefining their role and the partnership that they have ….. with the CEO today.”

Clearly, the role of Chief Information Officer is in transition, catalyzed by the growing importance of big data and predictive analytics in competitive strategy. The digital competitive global business ecosystem is self-selecting CIOs who have the bandwidth to work productively and profitably with the C-Suite.

The blueprint for tomorrow’s Chief Information Officer is being rewritten on a daily basis. The State of the CIO 2016 report posits that “IT executives who have strong relationships with business stakeholders fare better as they deal with cybersecurity, and challenges to their control.” With that mandate, tomorrow’s CIO becomes an organizational innovator and the steward of both organizational transition as well as transformation.

Which of the current Chief Information Officer leadership archetypes lead to the C-suite?

The State of the CIO 2016 report continues to define three current CIO leadership archetypes: functional, transformational and strategic. Functional CIOs remain focused on operational efficiency. Regardless of size of business, the CIO report found that 45% of current CIOs are actively involved in transformational activities focused around implementation of new IT systems, architectures, change leadership and alignment of IT with business process management objectives. Strategic CIOs focus on C-Suite partnerships, identifying digital revenue pathways, targeting organizational agility and focusing on customer experience.

The strategic CIO leadership archetype appears most closely aligned with C-Suite leadership personas. However, the blueprint for tomorrow’s CIO still is a balancing act between execution of strategy and innovation initiatives versus stabilizing functional and operational initiatives.  51% of all 571 IT leaders polled continue to monitor execution of strategy, but these activities are not at the top of their current priority lists. Rather, immediacy and urgency in crisis situations trumps strategy. Disaster recovery and cybersecurity breaches take up much of today’s CIO bandwidth when these threats become realities.

These CIOs would like to assume an increasingly strategic role in the future. However, the current nature of today’s digital business ecosystem focuses them, at best, on taking a more transformational role as they target growth- and process-oriented activities over the next 3-5 years.

Reality check time: How many of today’s CIOs were hired to be tomorrow’s CIO let alone the CEO?

The bottom line: the future role Chief Information Officer requires a herculean effort to be all things to all people. The type of skillset complexity is mind-boggling.

There is a sense of idealism when creating the specifications for tomorrow’s CIO. The three leadership archetypes are continuously intertwined. They are caught in a struggle finessing and balancing the current state of their organization’s IT infrastructure versus the continuous wave of digital disruption. Tomorrow’s CIO must focus on the functional side of the organization as well as the collaborative, communicative and strategic side of the equation, while simultaneously leading transition and business process transformation.

How realistic is this vision?

According to CEO Marc Benioff, tomorrow’s CIO is supposed to be the master of digital transformation and strategic vision. They will lead all three areas simultaneously. They will be lined up to become the next CEO.

That’s a tall order.

At the Forbes 2016 CIO Summit earlier this year, Benioff envisioned that “The CIOs are going to become the CEOs because to become the CEO, you’re going to need this [digital] capacity…More and more you’ll see the CIO becoming the chief executive officer because the board … is getting a lot of exposure to the CIO and then the board sees that CIO … has that vision, has that idea and knows the digital transformations that we have to make to get back to growth. And the growth is going to come from the delivery of these next generation services. That’s the CEO’s job.”

Yet the reality of the working IT ecosystem in healthcare, for example, tells us otherwise. The role of healthcare CIO is shifting due to analytics and the creation of new job strata to oversee these processes.  For example, many healthcare CIOs are not directly involved in the new field of population health management analytics “because the CIO doesn’t have the bandwidth to deal with it.” How many other IT functions will be similarly affected due to digital transformation and disruption?

Tomorrow’s Chief Information Officer turned CEO will be a gradual, transitional process.

Chances are that the CIOs who do become CEOs will lead technology-intensive firms, rather than traditional big business, healthcare or retail companies. The need for functional operational IT leadership skills versus strategic visionary CEO mindset, passion and drive continue to pull today’s predominantly analytical CIO in two opposing directions.

Perhaps the clearest transitional path for tomorrow’s CIO to the CEO position will be catalyzed by the collaborative, hybridized workforce they hire to drive organizational transformation and agility while stabilizing business processes and operations.  It could very well be that tomorrow’s CIO will be hired for a hybridized skill set that currently is not found in today’s CIO core competencies.


About The Author

Babette Ten Haken

Founder & President, Sales Aerobics for Engineers®, LLC

Babette Ten Haken is a catalyst, corporate strategist and facilitator. She writes, speaks, consults and coaches about how cross-functional team collaboration revolutionizes the industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) value chain for customer loyalty, customer success and customer retention. Her One Millimeter Mindset™ programs draw from her background as a scientist, sales professional, enterprise-level facilitator, Six... Read more