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Drive Hard, With a Vengeance: Why CIOs Are the Next CEOs

Only one thing has driven more digital transformation in 2020 than CIOs. We spoke with top leaders about why the CIO should be the next CEO.

For the past few years, Chief Information Officers (CIOs) have been important fixtures at many large companies, steering operational efficiencies into business, reducing costs and maintaining security. 

COVID-19, however, has catapulted them to centre stage, accelerating the pace and scale of change. While continuing to maintain their BAU of business security, recovery and continuity, they’re also being urgently tasked with driving business transformation and growth as companies adapt. 

This has made the role of the CIO more relevant than ever as companies work to shape and guide their organisations through and beyond the pandemic.

“It’s the CIO’s time to shine,” says Paul Roehrig, Head of Strategy for Cognizant Digital Business, which drives digital transformation through AI, IoT and digital engineering. “It’s not news that they’re helping drive the business, but their role in the pandemic has gotten exponentially more essential.”

Digital that matters

Digital technology enables remote work, agile responses to crises and even communication on phones and computers. As such, it presents new opportunities for growth and transformation in our current scenario where more traditional, in person, manual ways of doing business are impossible or impractical. According to a recent Deloitte study, organisations in 2020 are seeking out CIOs who are focused on foundational transformation rather than incremental change.

Today’s business leaders expect technology leaders to be change drivers who fundamentally alter the way the company operates does business.

2020 Global Technology Leadership Study

“Not only can they hone strategies for managing the recovery,” Deloitte writes, “but they can also prepare for and lead tech-driven transformation that could help their businesses thrive. 

CIOs may be central to business strategy right now, but this importance won’t decrease in the long term. Roehrig believes we’re at the very early stages of what he calls ‘digital that matters’. This does not mean another app of convenience but technology that fundamentally changes, for example, how we bank, manage our work and relate to each other. At the centre of these business transformations is the CIO. According to the Deloitte report, 50% of CEOs now see the CIO as the key driver of business strategy in the next three to five years.

From CIO to CEO

CIOs have new mandates in the COVID era, and they may be measured on new criteria like whether their workforce is fully productive while working remotely and whether the organisation can serve its customers entirely digitally, according to Box Inc. CEO Aaron Levie.

There are other new things too. The CIO’s scope now includes ensuring employee well-being, scaling capacity for virtual events, and understanding customer needs, says Salesforce EVP and CIO Jo-ann Olsovsky. 

“None of us has ever lived through anything like this,” says Olsovsky. “A big part of our job is to enable our people and be more relevant than ever for our customers, because they have new needs. The CIO is in a unique position to support customer success because we see the entire company.”

She goes on to explain that finance, marketing, sales and other departments typically swim in their own lanes, but IT’s cross-functional perch enables it to impact every corner of the business.

That unique vantage point, coupled with COVID-related opportunities to fundamentally transform the business, could create new paths for CIOs to advance to the level of CEO. The last time such an opportunity came along was 2016, according to Peter High, president of business and IT strategy firm Metis Strategy.

Remember when IT was a cost centre? Neither do I.

Ann Olsovsky
Salesforce EVP and CIO

Writing in Forbes, High says that 2016 was a turning point as some high-profile CIOs (from EMC, Tesla, Starbucks, Facebook and others) went on to become founder CEOs, or CEOs at existing companies. 

Deloitte found that 69% of C-suite executives and board members surveyed identified attributes like change, vision and innovation as the new defining characteristics of successful tech leaders.

This new breed of leaders, it notes, has already stretched its expertise beyond the traditional tech domain to envision new business strategies, drive innovation and execute broad organisational transformation. All of this helps companies charge paths and create a lasting competitive advantage that will continue to lead the way as the pandemic subsides.

“CIOs had already begun wrestling with the challenges and opportunities of the digital economy, and the pandemic has obviously accelerated that imperative,” says Roehrig. “Leaders in every sector are deploying technology to create frictionless consumer experiences, while controlling costs, all in a world that has gotten more virtual literally overnight. We are truly at the dawn of a new era, but the sun is rising twice as fast.”

COVID has accelerated the evolution of the CIO from a support function to that of a business leader – just like it’s accelerated adaptation of low-code technology, video calls and more efficient work-from-home models. No other role has risen to prominence more quickly, and been more indispensable to the business, than that of the CIO in 2020. Essentially, the role has changed forever. 

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Salesforce Staff

The 360 Blog from Salesforce teaches readers how to improve work outcomes and professional relationships. Our content explores the mindset shifts, organizational hurdles, and people behind business evolution. We also cover the tactics, ethics, products, and thought leadership that make growth a meaningful and positive experience.

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