CIO role: 4 essential organizational needs for what's next

Consider this version of Maslow’s hierarchy of basic human needs, adapted to the CIO. IT leaders can use this framework to elevate work - even at a time of global disruption
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If you’ve ever taken a college psychology course, you may recall learning about Abraham Maslow. Maslow, who died 50 years ago this year, developed the hierarchy of needs theory, which holds that people are motivated by five basic needs: physiological, safety, love, esteem, and self-actualization. Each category of needs must be satisfied for the next to be reached on the course to personal fulfillment.

What does this have to do with CIOs? More than you might think.

With the rise of digital transformation and all of its enabling technologies – the cloud, software as a service, artificial intelligence (AI), high-performance networking, DevOps, and more – the CIO role has taken on new expectations and opportunities to drive innovation and revenue.

This means that while the CIO still tends to traditional aspects of the job, such as maintaining systems and assuring cybersecurity, they must also partner with others in the C-suite to drive new, value-generating business models. And that demands a new hierarchy of approaches and priorities to achieve success.

[ Get answers to key digital transformation questions and lessons from top CIOs: Download our digital transformation cheat sheet. ]

This is especially true during a time of global disruption, when it is crucial for CIOs to work with other leaders to make strategic decisions that will help their companies emerge stronger in the future.

As a Gartner report put it, “Neither a wait-and-see approach nor defensive cost-cutting strategy will power winners through adversity. When a crisis arises, organizations need leaders who know what direction the enterprise must move and can instill confidence in their team to get there.”

Mandell's hierarchy of CIO needs

With that in mind, I’m offering a version of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs adapted to the CIO. It provides a framework for how IT can elevate its work and be a vital contributor to self-actualization in a business sense: profitability, revenue growth, happy and loyal customers, market leadership. Call it, if you will, Mandell’s Hierarchy of CIO Needs.


In Maslow’s hierarchy, this means essentials like air, food, water, and shelter. In IT, it’s the CIO’s age-old mission of “keeping the lights on” – delivering IT reliably, efficiently, and cost-effectively across the organization, much like a utility company provides electricity. While the CIO’s role has grown into much more than that, their traditional duties remain as indispensable a requirement as biological needs are to humans.

If you’re not keeping operations going smoothly – if you can’t keep the network up or respond to help desk tickets or fend off security breaches – you don’t get to move on to interesting strategic projects such as producing a new app that creates an outstanding customer experience. So you start here, at the bottom of the pyramid, with the IT equivalent of physiological needs.


Everyone requires a feeling of order, predictability, and control in their lives – even in IT.

According to Maslow, once a person’s physiological needs are satisfied, the needs for safety and security become prominent. Everyone requires a feeling of order, predictability, and control in their lives (even in IT!). For a CIO, this means moving beyond keeping the lights on to engaging in interesting and positive conversations about the what, why, how, who, and when of various projects.

This is how you ensure that limited IT resources are devoted not just to delivery but to the most important priorities for the business. And when expectations and decisions are discussed and understood, CIOs build trust with team members.

In the often-chaotic world of IT, trust equals safety.

One specific area where trust and safety can play out is AI. Respondents to the Harvey Nash/KPMG CIO Survey 2019 said they believe about 10 percent of their company’s workforce will be replaced within five years by automation. CIOs need to show how automation will take over tedious, repetitive tasks, enabling IT employees to focus on more interesting work… and solve new problems.

[ What’s ahead for the CIO role? Read CIO role: Everything you need to know about today’s Chief Information Officers. ]

Love and belonging

IT glues a company together horizontally, which makes it a natural for the “belonging” step – i.e., driving IT not as a siloed function (and one considered to be “overhead”) but as an integrated part of the business.

Modern CIOs must project themselves as real partners in the company’s business strategy. Perhaps you are innovating, whether it’s with your own company’s products or the right partnerships, to try new things to gain a competitive edge. And if you’re really good, you figure out how to contribute to revenue.

At the end of the day, whoever helps make the money usually is really the one adding the value. So that’s where you’d like to wind up.


People need to feel acceptance and respect from others. It is no different for IT. But some IT departments can be passive and let the business lead them around. The reality is that IT has the expertise to see where things are going. They need to have confidence and earn confidence across the organization. The CIO and IT teams exist to make a range of different stakeholders successful, and from that comes esteem.

After satisfying the previous four steps, a CIO can reach the promised land of self-actualization: a highly respected, integrated function that drives value for the business every day.

[ Get exercises and approaches that make disparate teams stronger. Read the digital transformation ebook: Transformation Takes Practice. ]

Sharon Mandell is the Senior Vice President and Chief Information Officer leading Juniper’s global information technology team. In this role, she leads the ongoing enhancement of the company’s IT infrastructure and applications architectures to support the growth objectives of the company.

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