CIO role: Everything you need to know about today’s Chief Information Officers

CIO role: Everything you need to know about today’s Chief Information Officers

What does a CIO do in 2019? How has the CIO skill set changed? What’s coming next as the CIO role evolves? Everything you need to know about CIOs - including advice for aspiring CIOs from people who’ve made the leap

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What is a CIO?

What is the role of a CIO?

What are key leadership skills for CIOs?

What is the difference between a CTO and a CIO?

What does a CIO do?

What does a CIO earn? CIO Salary

How do you become a CIO? CIO career path

Chief transformation officers vs. CIOs

Chief digital officers vs. CIOs

How many CIOs are women?

What is the future of the CIO role?

What is a CIO?

The CIO, or chief information officer, emerged as a job title in the 1980’s: This highly technical person would oversee the information technology department’s resources and staff. But in the decades that followed, CIOs themselves rewrote the perception of their role, coming out of the back office to become true strategic business partners, working alongside their C-suite peers. Today, CEOs look to the CIO to drive innovation and revenue-generating ideas throughout the business.

That’s a far cry from a running joke In the early 2000’s: that CIO stood for “career is over.” Today, the CIO in many organizations leads the execution of digital transformation initiatives.

The CIO investigates how the organization can use its technological prowess, speed, and customer service to outperform rivals.

Many businesses see those initiatives - often centered around improved customer experience - as vital to their very survival. The CIO investigates how the organization can use its technological prowess, speed, and customer service to outperform rivals. This typically involves both building a digital platform and adjusting the organization’s operating model.

Many CIOs came up through the ranks in a culture that was known for its “command and control” style. But today, CEOs charge CIOs with working on cross-functional efforts that demand collaboration and a broader leadership skill set, including strong emotional intelligence.

As ServiceNow CIO Chris Bedi puts it, the CIO role currently requires the CIO to embody three crucial personas: communicator, salesperson, and influencer.

“The biggest lesson learned from my first job in the CIO position was how critical it is, more than ever, that the strategy at the CIO level is completely aligned to enable the overall business strategy,” Bedi says. “As we’ve seen time and time again in today’s workplace, technology helps enable new ways of business, collaboration, productivity – the potential and possibilities are endless. However, ‘new‘ is often synonymous with ‘change,‘ and change is often met with trepidation. CIOs must sell the vision that technology will make life better across the entire business.”

[ Do you make thoughtful decisions? Read also: 4 styles of decision-making: A leader’s guide. ]

What is the role of a CIO?

The CIO’s responsibility for digital transformation, along with the rise of DevOps and agile styles of work, means the CIO works in a more cross-functional way than ever before, as noted in our HBR Analytics Services report, Transformation Masters: The New Rules of CIO Leadership. “Fast-moving, cross-functional teams of people from different parts of the organization experiment and innovate together to deliver new products and capabilities at an unprecedented pace. The old leadership rules don’t apply,” the report says.

[ 7 new rules of the road for IT leaders: Get our infographic to learn from CIOs succeeding with digital transformation. ]

As Adobe SVP and CIO Cynthia Stoddard says, “When you work cross-functionally, you can’t control everything. You need to collaborate and work together in different ways. At Adobe, we put aside titles when we’re working across teams to encourage everyone to participate and contribute at the same level.”

Giving up control and embracing failure are key, Stoddard says. “One example of these two mindset changes in practice was our data-driven operating model, where we integrated data across the entire enterprise into a unified data architecture – to run the business, drive predictive data insights, and deliver personalization. It’s always challenging when you have to get everyone on board with definitions, KPIs, governance, and bring together the right level of insight.

“This was truly a cross-functional effort, in which everyone from finance to product teams came together to lay out the vision. People had to give up individual tools and move toward a new way of working. If an idea didn’t pan out in the way we expected it to, we learned from it and applied those lessons to new ideas.”

That type of iteration exemplifies the agile style of work that many digital enterprises have found essential to improving time to market and customer experience.

[ Culture change is the hardest part of digital transformation. Get the digital transformation eBook: Teaching an elephant to dance. ]

What are key leadership skills for CIOs?

While CIOs used to make their careers on their tech credentials, today’s most successful CIOs stand out for other skills, including communication, building bridges between groups, and empathy – all-important at times of big cultural change.

You might call them “soft skills,” but any CIO will tell you these are the hardest skills to learn. (Read also: Goodbye soft skills, hello core skills: Why IT must rebrand this critical competency.)

As Red Hat CIO Mike Kelly has noted, “Good IT teams manage change. The best ones lead change. As the pace of change accelerates today – and at a time when technology is in many respects the asset of a company – organizations are demanding their IT departments demonstrate more leadership than ever before.

“As their teams become more inclusive and collaborative, leaders must shift their strategies and tactics to harness the energy this new style of work generates,” Kelly says. “They need to perfect their methods for drawing multiple parties into a dialog and ensuring everyone feels heard. And they need to hone their abilities to connect the work their teams are doing to their organization’s values, aims, and goals – to make sure everyone in the department understands that they’re part of something bigger than themselves (and their individual egos).

[ Want to build these skills? Get the free eBook: “The Open Organization Guide to IT Culture Change,” featuring advice from 20+ IT practitioners, industry leaders, and technologists.]

“In short,” Kelly adds, “today’s IT leaders need to be culturally competent as much as they are technically competent.” 

Communication skills and the ability to give autonomy go a long way in these change-filled environments. Notes Jay Ferro, CIO, Quikrete: “I work hard to be a leader who can say, ‘You’re here for a reason. I trust you. Keep me informed as needed, but go for it.’

“I know what it’s like to work for leaders like this and I make sure to pass the same privilege and respect on to everyone on my team.”

[ Read also: 10 TED talks to sharpen your communication skills and Top soft skills for IT leaders and how to master them. ]

What is the difference between a CTO and a CIO?

Whether a company has a CIO, a chief technology officer (CTO), or both depends on company culture. Some people hold the CTO title without much difference in responsibility from a CIO. At other firms, the CTO focuses more on external products, especially in technology companies.

Whether a company has a CIO, a chief technology officer (CTO), or both depends on company culture.

For example, Jenny Peng told us about her transition from CIO to CTO at Aptean. “As Aptean’s CIO, my customers were internal – our users and business units. In the CTO role, my customers are external. Instead of improving the bottom line (increasing profitability), the focus is on developing strategies to increase the company’s top-line revenue,” she says.

“Here at Aptean, both CIO and CTO roles are tasked to be technology thought brokers in the enterprise, helping to figure out how to leverage technology to enable the business. The difference with the CTO role is that I am looking to commercialize and monetize technology. In the CIO role, I focused more on optimizing, streamlining, and allowing employees to be more productive with tools to get their job done more quickly and easily.”

Sven Gerjets is EVP and chief technology officer at toymaker Mattel. Here’s how he describes his role: “Like many tech execs, I was hired to wear multiple hats. When I joined Mattel [in 2017], I was tasked with moving the company into the future by shifting the technology organization into a more strategic function, modernizing our business systems, and figuring out how to utilize tech with toys in a more cost-effective and scalable way.”

Bryson Koehler served as chief technology and information officer at The Weather Channel Companies (TWCC) before it was acquired in 2015 by IBM. Today he serves as CTO at Equifax: “At Equifax, one of the most exciting aspects of my job is our work to build a culture that embraces new challenges," he says. "I often view myself as the ‘chief disruption officer’ because I think we constantly have to help our teams feel comfortable disrupting themselves, pressurize the culture, change the way we think and the way we interact.”

What does a CIO do?

While CIOs used to make their careers on cost-efficient and reliable infrastructure, today they make their careers on revenue-generating ideas. As previously noted, many CIOs play a central role in digital transformation.

Listen to how Equifax’s Koehler describes his main job right now: The key word is culture. “Whether you’re in the midst of a transformation or operating in daily maintenance mode, culture change is the most difficult part of any technology leader’s job. At its core, culture is about the way people think, talk, and interact with each other. If that foundation is not in place for the leadership team and your line-level employees, dysfunction, finger-pointing, perceived bureaucracy, and missed opportunities will creep in.

Technology leadership is different today than it was just five years ago.

“Technology leadership is different today than it was just five years ago. Many technology problems that were priorities in the past have become commoditized, simply consumed services. Because there are less underlying technologies to invent and fewer basic technology problems to solve, our unique value as technology leaders is in how we assemble these services to operate more dynamically and provide better uptime, performance, and responses to our customers’ needs.

“Technology leaders of today must balance creating like-mindedness with the ability to promote, debate, and allow different ideas to flourish while also making clear, quick decisions and creating an environment in which everyone supports those ideas as if they were their own,” Koehler says.

In other words, today’s CIOs are not only sharp analysts on the lookout for business opportunities, but also skilled people motivators.

“Every CIO I know is emphasizing the essential value of leadership, communication, agility, and the other non-technical competencies.”

Dan Roberts, CEO of Ouellette & Associates Consulting, argues that those people skills are so critical, in fact, that IT needs to stop calling them soft skills and rebrand them as core skills. “There’s nothing soft about soft skills. Every CIO I know is emphasizing the essential value of leadership, communication, agility, and the other non-technical competencies,” notes Roberts. “CIOs tell me we must put more emphasis on them because these are the skills that drive IT success.”

A CIO’s top concerns today often start with security, in partnership with the CSO. (If you want a refresher on the history of the CSO role, check out this one, at The unique story and evolution of the CSO role.) 

On the emerging technology front, a top CIO concern is how to apply AI and machine learning in sensible and ethical ways.

Then there’s the matter of how to make use of – and protect – ever-growing pools of data. But again, these problems also call on the CIO’s people skills. As Jonathan Feldman, CIO of the city of Asheville, NC, notes, when his team opened up data sets to new internal and external customers, the hardest part was the people management challenges. “Data by itself won’t be used usefully without data engagement. You need to make relationships – with people in your community, with other partners, and with other departments – before you need them.” (Read also: 5 lessons on the people side of data: City of Asheville CIO.)

What does a CIO earn? CIO Salary

The average CIO makes $169,669, according to Glassdoor data.

The average CIO makes $169,669, according to Glassdoor data. (Their estimates are based on 587 salaries submitted anonymously to the site.) Of course, most CIO compensation packages come in much higher than that, including stock, bonuses, and other perks.

Some CIOs rake in $1 million to $10 million in extras, as points out in its comparison of 25 Fortune 500 CIO pay packages.

How does this compare to other IT salaries? According to the Robert Half Technology 2020 salary guide, which rates top IT jobs by salary for 2020 (ranked by national median salary) big data engineer checks in at number one, at $163,250.

[ Which certifications will advance your IT career, pointing you toward a CIO role? Read also: 13 top-paying IT certifications for 2019 and 7 valuable certifications for IT leaders. ]

Want to become a CIO? Let’s explore how to prepare - and look ahead at the future of the CIO role:


Laurianne McLaughlin is Content Director for The Enterprisers Project, delivering analysis and advice for the IT leadership community. Previously, she served as Editor-in-Chief at and Managing Editor at 

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