The Emerging Role of the CIO: Catalyst for Change

 We recently interviewed BlueSky’s Jeff Stout to get his insights on the changing nature of the role a CIO must play in a successful organization. As more and more C-level positions are added to the board room—Chief Social Media Officer, Chief Security Officer, Chief Privacy Officer to name a few—you might think that the role of the Chief Information Officer has become somewhat redundant. While that’s a commonly held view, Jeff has a different take on the role of the CIO.


How have most companies viewed the role of the CIO in the past?

I remember an old saying from my days as a consultant: “If you don’t like your CIO, don’t worry, he won’t be here in three years.” Three years was about the shelf-life of a CIO 10 to 15 years ago. This was mostly due to the fact that other C-level executives and board members didn’t really have a need to understand technology, so they didn’t try. CIOs were generally tasked with overseeing large, complicated software implementation projects that had a high risk of failure. In fact, I’d say the failure rate on those projects back then was about 50%. This resulted in a lot of risk and exposure for CIOs. As a result, the job security associated with the role was minimal because they made easy targets when their high-profile projects failed and the company burned through large budgets with nothing to show for it. Being a CIO back in those days meant walking a very thin line between success and failure.


So what has changed since those days?

 Quite a bit has changed. The role that technology plays in the success of almost any company has increased tremendously in the last decade. Those C-level executives and board members who didn’t have the interest or need to understand technology have been replaced with tech-savvy individuals who embrace the kind of game-changing results that an effective CIO can bring to the business. Today, your typical C-level role needs to have a good grasp of cyber security issues; they need to understand what digitization means for their company; and they need to understand the impact of big data.

CIOs are still leading those big, marquee projects and implementations, but they’ve learned to drastically reduce the risk by using all the tools at their disposal—more effective project management methodologies, hiring the right people for the right roles and using a wide variety of technical solutions to get to the job done right.


So how has that changed how the C-suite and board view and value the CIO?

 The biggest change is that senior management now has a vested interest in the issues that fall within the CIO’s domain. As a result, the CIO is increasingly viewed as a pivotal role that is vital to the overall success of the organization. This spotlight on the role of the CIO means that fellow C-level execs and board members now have a much better understanding of not only the role of the CIO but also the professional and personal qualities needed to fill that role successfully.


So what makes for a strong CIO now? 

Looking back 10 or 15 years ago, one of the key challenges in recruiting for the CIO role was there weren’t a set of standard, generally recognized set of qualities that defined successful candidates. Today things are different. When you’re searching for strong, world-class CIO candidates, look for these qualities:

  • Knows the Intersection: A successful CIO needs to understand how technology AND business work together to build success. This blend of technical savvy and business acumen is critical and should be at the top of your list when vetting CIO candidates.
  • Leader & Teacher: Today’s CIO needs to be not only a leader, but also an educator. Communicating complex, technical issues and connecting them to key business and operational objectives is critical. Going a step further, the successful CIO can explain these complicated relationships to peers in a way that builds understanding and trust.
  • Calm Under Pressure: Those big technical projects are still on the CIO’s to do list and while the risks have been mitigated, there are still the usual tight deadlines and complex implementations. The ability to remain cool, calm and collected no matter what is a core trait for any successful CIO.
  • Breadth & Depth: A successful CIO needs to have both a broad and deep understanding of technical issues, obstacles and emerging trends. It’s not enough to know a little bit about everything. Today’s CIO needs to know a lot about a lot.
  • People Power: Being able to recite organizational mantras like “People are the currency of our business” is nice, however, today’s CIO needs to have skills that go beyond words. He or she needs to be a strong developer of people, not just in word but also in deed. Rolling your sleeves up, mentoring your team and pushing people to do and be their best is a critical part of the success equation for today’s CIO.
  • Creative & Collaborative: You might not associate information, data and technology with creativity and there you would be missing one of the key insights in terms of recruiting the best person for your CIO role. Transforming a business, managing change and implementing complex, far-reaching initiatives requires a significant level of creativity and collaboration. Einstein said “Logic will get you from A to B. Imagination will take you everywhere.” Fuse that creativity with a willingness and ability to collaborate for success and you’ve got yourself a winning candidate.
  • Nimble & Agile: An effective CIO is always looking around the corner, ready to adapt and evolve at the drop of a hat. The days of the slow, plodding march of change are over. Today’s successful businesses remain on alert and ready to move when market conditions, threats or the changing technology landscape creates opportunities that can be exploited.

The Bottom Line

A decade ago, the CIO role was a position that was created to act on agendas set in place by others and lead high-profile, high-risk projects that often failed. Today, the CIO has emerged as an organizational leader and the role has become the catalyst for tech-savvy change in many organizations. At BlueSky, we understand the evolving role of the CIO and the critical part this leader must play in building success.

From all of us at BlueSky, we wish you luck out there on the front lines!