Does Your Organization Need a CIO Upgrade?

Does Your Organization Need a CIO Upgrade?

The failure of the CIO is a failure of boardroom digital leadership.

The world is changing. As is the enterprise. Digital is moving center stage, but it appears that the IT function is not.

Could it be that the CIO is so inward looking that she is unaware of the seismic transition taking place as the industrial era tectonic plates are crushed beneath the plates of progress?

It is fashionable to beat up CIOs. Why are there so few in the boardroom? Why aren’t they leading the digital charge?

I spent quite a few years berating the CIO community to raise its game. But more recently, I realized that this well-intentioned pressure was a little unfair. The reality is that many boardrooms aren’t completely up to speed on the implications of the digital economy.

Boards are not sure what it is they want their CIO to do. They know the CIO has to keep the network, applications, and devices running. But is that all that is expected?

Consequently, since the inception of IT, most CIOs were recruited as Chief ‘IT Manager’ Officers. Despite the fact that the ‘I’ in CIO stands for information. More importantly, this was what most CIOs actually wanted to do, and it played to their skillset.

The confusion around what CIOs are in the digital age is similarly perplexing for many CIOs. How do we move forward? To start, we still need good IT managers, particularly in organizations with a portfolio of legacy systems and/or a smorgasbord of heterogeneous technology platforms.

However, technology management is becoming simpler by the day, particularly with the increase in virtualization and cloud. The next wave of organizations, which will eventually flush out the existing Fortune 500, are being built from the web out, and will not carry this technology baggage. So CIOs, be warned, the nanobots are eating your empire.

Before we take radical action, it is worth calibrating your existing CIO. Organizations and fellow C-Level executives must ask the following questions in respect to the CIO:

  • Do you really trust your CIO?
  • Can the CIO communicate in a language that the leadership team understands?
  • Is the CIO truly committed to the organization’s success?
  • Does the CIO know the difference between a user and a customer?
  • Are the CIO’s KPIs the same as your organization’s KPIs?
  • Does the CIO focus on cost or value?
  • Does the CIO allocate 20 percent or more of the budget to innovation?
  • Does the CIO want to be a genuine business leader?
  • Has the CIO leapt on leadership opportunities?
  • Is the CIO respected by the leadership team and by employees?

If the answers to the above are largely No, then you have, at best, an IT manager. If you have an IT manager, then the question is whether he is good at IT management, or is he poor at IT management? Being poor at IT management means there is little prospect of evolving into a true CIO. This suggests he has a broken career compass. It’s time to bid him farewell, as he zigzags into the sunset.

But what if the organization answers Yes to at least half the CIO calibration questions? You may have boardroom potential on your hands. A key question to ask is whether he wants to join the leadership team? Forget it if he is not interested. Some people prefer to get on with doing stuff rather than dealing in the arcane arts of the boardroom.

But if the CIO is ‘game on’ for becoming a digital leader, then the organization needs to take the following steps:

  • Be clear that the leadership team understands what digital really is. (Clue: It’s more about people than technology).
  • Offload those CxOs who are mentally trapped in an industrial era mindset, for example, “Strategic decisions are the preserve of the boardroom”, or “We will stick to the plan regardless of the conditions”.
  • Agree with all parties what is expected of the CIO, and how technology management will be managed, given that it will be a very small percentage of the remit.
  • If your HR function gets digital, then have them work with you to create a development plan for your CIO. Involve and give the CIO ownership of the plan.
  • Involve your CIO at all board meetings. Not out of politeness, but because there are few matters that do not have a digital component.

Over time, expect your CIO to move from being an active participant in strategy design to being the leader of strategy.

New technologies have the power to disrupt industries. So it makes sense to have a leader who can see ‘change the business’ opportunities before they become ‘save the business’ catalysts.

The failure of the CIO is a failure of boardroom digital leadership. This leads to the fact that the organization is not adjusting to an increasingly digital world.

This boardroom dysfunctionality is conveniently pinned on the CIO, who in many cases, signed up to manage IT and not lead the digital transformation.

If upgrading your CIO is not an option, then a ‘swap out’ is the next best thing. But don’t prime the recruiters until your leadership team is crystal clear on what they need a CIO to accomplish.

Get this right and you will be appointing your future head of strategy, and may even in the process have addressed the CEO succession plan. Get this wrong and you and your leadership team will find yourselves drowning in an inescapable (big) data cesspool, looked upon by your grinning competitors.

Ade McCormack is a near futurist, digital strategist, keynote speaker and author. He is a columnist focusing on digital leadership. He has written a number of books, including one on the future of work, (Beyond Nine to Five – Your Career Guide for the Digital Age). He has also lectured at MIT Sloan School of Management on digital leadership.

For more information on Ade, please visit

More Information: The next wave of the Internet creates unprecedented opportunities for countries, cities, industries, and businesses to become digital. Learn more how you can be ready to become digitized.


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