Article - IT

The CIO of 2023:
What CEOs expect from their IT leaders

By Alex Wood|28th October 2022

When you stop to consider just how much the C-suite has changed over the past two decades, few would argue it is the Chief Information Officer (CIO) who has changed the most.  

The role today is almost unrecognizable from the one it was – and for good reason. No longer are CIOs confined to the IT department or back-office.  

Today, in this fast-paced and increasingly disrupted, digital-first world, the CIO innovates, they strategize and they work across the entire organization – from both a business perspective and a technological one. 

From improving customer experience to finding and retaining the best digital talent, what matters most to the modern-day CIO matters most to their company. 

The question is: what matters most to the CEO? And what do they want from their IT leaders in 2023? 

Here, GDS Group Presenter and Content Creator Alex Wood takes a look at the changing profile of the CIO and why they’re fully-deserving of their new-found status in the boardroom. 

‘The all-inclusive package’

In many ways, the CIO of today is a bit like an all-inclusive holiday package. At least that’s how Nina Tatsiy, who is a Regional CIO at British American Tobacco, sees it. 

“[If you] search for ‘what is the changing role of the CIO’, Google will deliver 12.9 billion searches on this topic,” she told audience members during GDS Group’s recent EU CIO Summit. “For comparison, when you Google ‘resolving world hunger’, there are 11.4 billion search results. So, you see, this topic is widely discussed. 

“I think we are a little bit obsessed with our own roles, actually. It’s a bit worrying, but it also says it’s difficult to define and it’s so rapidly-evolving. [CIOs] have become responsible for the digital, ecommerce and social directions of a company. That’s what I’m observing now – it’s all-inclusive.” 

It’s Nina’s firm belief that the CIOs of today are going to become the CEOs of tomorrow. “What is our place at the table of the management board?” Nina asked the virtual audience. 

“It is very challenging to be there because you have to really understand everything that’s happening commercially. You have to be able to actively contribute to the commercial discussions. The more and more I think about it, CIOs have to move away from the function of IT to be transformation leaders. Ultimately, they will become the CEO of the organization.”

“We cover all aspects of the company, we deal with internal and external customers, we have a view of how to optimize and transform and I strongly believe every CIO should be targeting the CEO position.”

Nina supplemented her view with a study by Forbes, which was conducted back in 2016. 

Although the findings are now several years old, they provide a fascinating insight into the varied functions of the CIO – and how it can be divided into four, clear and distinct roles. 

These include: 

  • Transformers – the folks who are leading an organization’s digital charge, creating ‘labs’ and seeking both internal and external innovators 
  • Advocates – these are CIOs who promote digital concepts to their organizations, and launch pilot projects/experiments 
  • Servicers – the type of CIO who provides support and advice for digital initiatives when called upon, but they’re not proactive in creating or leading digital efforts 
  • Plumbers – CIOs who are mainly focused on keeping systems running, up to date and compliant. They think about the present, not the future 

Of the CIOs Forbes spoke to at the time, 13% indicated they are ‘transformers’ within their organization – meaning they consider themselves to be full partners to the business on its digital journey. 

Another 43% described themselves as ‘advocates’, meaning while their organizations haven’t fully embraced digital, they’re leading the way in evangelizing new approaches through efforts such as pilot projects or exploratory efforts. 

A significant segment of those surveyed, however, indicated their work is still mired in the traditional ways of IT.  

Over a third – 37% – chose ‘servicers’, meaning they may be involved in developing an organization’s digital capabilities but not in a proactive way. Meanwhile, 7% of IT leaders surveyed put ‘plumbers’, meaning the main emphasis of their jobs is running traditional IT tasks. They’re plugging leaks and unclogging the drains of day-to-day issues (to continue the analogy). 

Key takeaways from GDS Group’s EU CIO Summit

‘Do we need to re-think the C-suite?’ 

Fast forward to today and it’s clear those four ‘personas’ still exist, though significantly more CIOs would say they fall into the transformer and advocate categories than in 2016. 

In the UK, for example, 9 in 10 CIOs say their role and responsibilities have expanded beyond technology. More than 75%, meanwhile, say they have a greater impact on their company’s overall fortunes than other C-suite positions and, globally, 88% said their role is “the most critical component of my organization’s continued operation”.  

These findings were the result of a global research study by Lenovo in August earlier this year. 

But while these statistics support the view that modern-day CIOs are now very much the ‘mission control’ of their organizations, not everyone agrees with Nina’s view that they’re the natural progressors to CEOs. 

In fact, some transformation leaders have even questioned whether modern-day organizations need such ‘legacy’ roles. 

“I like the idea of you going in the CEO direction,” one senior executive, from Verizon, said following Nina’s presentation. “But thinking about all of the technical aspects of the CIO, CTO and CDO, I’m just wondering if those segmentations aren’t a little bit legacy-type thinking? 

“Should everything that has to do with technology and building platforms not be aligned to the vertical you’re in? For example, a specialist in supply chains or factory automation or the traditional office-type connectivity stuff.  

“Do you think it would make sense to re-think this structure?” 

Nina responded: “My message was that, as a CIO, you are already across all of these functions and areas of expertise – and that’s where I see the opportunity because IT is part of every function nowadays. 

“As a CIO, you have to learn about all of these different functions and so you have an opinion and you know how to improve it. It gives you a view of how to be cross-functional. I’m not saying it’s an automatic move to become CEO – I’m just saying it opens up that space.” 

What’s next for the CIO, then?

From the plumbers of yester-year to the CEOs of tomorrow, it’s clear that the role – and responsibilities – of the CIO have evolved and expanded dramatically, and they will continue to do so in the future. 

Of course, the global pandemic helped drive this – triggering a seismic shift in the way we work while accelerating digital transformation and innovation at an unprecedented rate. 

This pace of change, coupled with a more sophisticated security threat landscape, is precisely why the CIO is no longer bound to the rigid confines of an organization’s IT structure.  

In fact, to expand on Forbes’ list of personas, perhaps it might be worth adding a fifth: conductors. A special category reserved for the multi-skilled CIOs of 2022 who, amidst a cacophony of noise, make sense of the complexities around them, lead initiatives, connect teams and ensure harmony across the whole enterprise. 


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