CIOs win new C-suite respect in digital era

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These days, every company is a technology company, and because of that shift, traditional leadership roles are changing. Korn Ferry’s head of CXO Optimization, John Petzold, will be exploring this topic at the upcoming MIT Sloan CIO Symposium taking place on May 24 in Cambridge, MA. 

We asked Petzold how CIOs can navigate changing C-suite relationships, what to do about power struggles over technology, and where the chief digital officer fits into the picture. 

CIO_Q and A

The Enterprisers Project (TEP): Your panel at MIT Sloan CIO Symposium raises the question, “Who is really responsible for technology when every company is a technology company?” Is a technology power struggle happening at most companies?

Petzold: We saw extensive power struggles when organizations started the digital transformation journey, as roles were ambiguous and not clearly defined. Today, we’re seeing less of a power struggle and more of a “bouncing ball” of responsibility as organizations build out digital capability within multiple functions at the same time. Those who lead functions like human resources, finance, and marketing are much more adept at sharing information, and CIOs and CTOs are taking more responsibility to ensure data seamlessly moves back and forth across domains to maximize business impact, providing greater accessibility to information for informed decisions. After all, according to our research, connectivity within an organization is a primary predictor of success in the digital era.

Technology is a strategic asset that continues to grow in importance as the backbone of business. The pace of change can be overwhelming at times and the breadth of responsibilities includes everything from business resiliency to customer intimacy. This makes the role of CIO or CTO one of the most complicated, if not the most complicated, C-suite positions. This leader must master the broadest array of skill sets across a broad array of operational and strategic challenges to drive exponential change. Thus, the role requires incredibly agile and adaptable leadership capabilities as the strategic importance of the function continues to reach new heights.

TEP: Now that technology decisions are driving business strategy, how are relationships between the CIO and others in the C-suite changing? 

Petzold: Relationships are changing for the better. Other C-suite members have a much greater understanding of the technology function and how it impacts business performance and revenue growth. In addition, as digital transformation matures, the collective efforts of technology leaders are viewed to be more strategic and critical to business results and customer intimacy. Because CIOs are responsible for both a growth and a risk management agenda, they can find common bonds with other C-suite executives who traditionally focus more heavily on one side of that equation or the other.

The CIO’s role has moved up in importance, from leading a function to playing a key role in the strategic direction of their organizations. Boards and CEOs rely on CIOs more than ever before. Today, 35 percent of Fortune 500 companies have a sitting or former CIO or CTO on their board. CIOs are increasingly being asked to serve on executive committees, and, according to a recent Korn Ferry study, 56 percent of Fortune 1000 CIOs report directly to the CEO. Boards and CEOs now share the responsibility for the technology function and the CIO is seen as their key strategist and core partner.

As for other members of the C-suite, CMOs realize that to achieve a customer-centric approach, they must work hand-in-hand with CIOs to successfully implement an omni-channel digital approach. And as CIOs become more strategic and business centered, they have a greater understanding of the key business challenges across the C-suite.

TEP: How do you see the role of the chief digital officer evolving as the mandate shifts from “going digital” to being “digital-first” in all aspects of the business? 

Petzold: We’re in middle of a shift to “digital first” and, consequently, we’re seeing tremendous evolution in the composition of an effective CDO. CDOs who helped spearhead the transformation process with operational changes such as platforms, infrastructure, and mobile technology were more narrowly focused. CDOs were additional technology leaders driving large scale transformation. Today, the CDO role is much more strategic and closely tied to revenue growth, as everyone and everything associated with a company is impacted by technology. Companies are shifting their thinking as to “what good looks like” for a CDO, from agents of immediate digital transformation to executives who can shepherd them on the longer road to digital sustainability.

As CIOs become more strategic and business centered, they have a greater understanding of the key business challenges across the C-suite.

We’re also seeing a shift in how organizations set up the CDO function. CDOs are hired to bring change to companies, but as the lines blur with the CIO, the new technology leader brings diversity of experience, technical acumen, and customer-facing abilities. Many companies are collapsing these roles under the CIO, which represents an emerging set of skills. This new hybrid is a critical leader of the future.

TEP: What is your advice for CIOs who are navigating power struggles in their own organizations?

Petzold: The most successful CIOs care less about power and more about impact and results. They serve as facilitators and consensus builders who can bring leaders together to identify purpose and vision.  As business and technology problems grow increasingly complex, the best CIOs are humble leaders who take in a great deal of learning from their networks. They are comfortable with ambiguity and are agile thinkers who can manage a myriad of challenges. We expect the positive momentum to continue as there is a much greater appreciation for the technology function and CIOs and CTOs are getting the support they need. The best way to succeed is to share responsibility instead of dividing power.

Carla Rudder is a community manager and program manager for The Enterprisers Project. She enjoys bringing new authors into the community and helping them craft articles that showcase their voice and deliver novel, actionable insights for readers.