Digital transformation: 11 skills CIOs need to get it done

CIOs leading successful digital transformation efforts have a certain set of skills. What are the most important capabilities now?
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There’s no understating it: The right CIO can make or break an organization’s digital transformation. “But don’t interpret that as ‘the CIO does everything,’” says Greg Layok, managing director of technology at business and technology consultancy West Monroe. “It takes several disciplines to become a digital organization, and organizations need a leader who can pull them all together.”

"It takes several disciplines to become a digital organization, and organizations need a leader who can pull them all together."
The most successful digital transformations are driven from the very top of the organization with CEO-level leadership. However, CIOs rank just behind them as key players. “A CIO with the right blend of skills and approach is capable of facilitating or, in ideal cases, accelerating digital transformation throughout an organization,” says Matthew Garthwait, CIO of healthcare technology management company Capital i. “In many cases, the opinion of the CIO is the most heavily weighted voice in a technology discussion.”

11 digital transformation skills that matter

It’s important, then, that CIOs involved in digital transformation efforts have a certain set of skills. The most important capabilities for IT leaders driving digitization today include:

1. Self-assurance

“CIOs need to have confidence in their abilities to pitch their enhanced role to the leadership,” says Yugal Joshi, vice president of digital, cloud, and application services research for Everest Group. “The reason many enterprises ended up creating roles such as Chief Digital Officer and Chief Transformation Officer was because CIOs were too timid and unsure of their roles (as well as too busy in the day-to-day hustle of running the enterprise technology landscape). Strengthening the emotional intelligence skill of self-belief, therefore, is job number one.”

[ Do you know how to spot top digital talent? Read also: Digital transformation: 4 signs of a superstar. ]

2. Digital transformation fluency

"You don't do digital. You become digital."
“CIOs need to have a product management mindset – and also be fluent in digital behaviors and culture. Because you don’t do digital. You become digital,” Layok says. “So much about digital transformation never 'ends.' It’s a mindset shift toward becoming digitally fluent, failing fast, and instituting new ways of working. The CIO has to not only have, but also exhibit those traits.”

3. Collaboration and orchestration

The most successful IT leaders today appreciate the value that other business disciplines and functions bring to the digital table. “If they’re not accustomed to collaborating on that level across their organization, they’ll have a hard time,” Layok says.

In the wake of the pandemic, CIOs must become ever more collaborative leaders, notes Red Hat’s Shabnoor Shah, Open Leadership Global Lead and Executive Coach, Red Hat Open Innovation Labs. “There is a need for a robust digital culture where leaders continue being the key actors and champions. It’s more essential than ever to bring multiple and even often dispersed stakeholders together for enhanced alignment and collaboration. Collaborative processes will have to be skillfully facilitated, at the same time that leaders also address and cope with crucial ethical concerns,” Shah notes.

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

4. Financial strategy

Digital transformation demands a deeper understanding of business objectives and IT ROI to advance.
“One of the most important new skills for today’s CIO is calculating ROI for strategic IT,” Seth Robinson, senior director of technology analysis at technology association CompTIA. While many companies viewed the IT function as a tactical cost center, digital transformation demands a deeper understanding of business objectives and IT ROI to advance.

5. A growth mindset

A CIO who is risk-averse is a poor match for ongoing digital evolution, Layok explains. They must be adept at change and continual learning in order to serve as a leader and exemplar of continuous improvement. “A CIO who embraces, encourages, and thrives on the change that digital transformation brings will have a more positive effect on the process than a CIO who stays on the sidelines, lightly supports, or shuns the program,” says Garthwait.

“In my experience, most CIOs are thrilled to be in a position to have such a broad and positive influence on the organization and are happy to go the extra mile to promote digital transformation.”

6. Deep domain and business process knowledge

CIOs overseeing digitization must understand the key drivers of the business. “A true strategic CIO understands that becoming digital is not just about technology,” Layok says. IT leaders must be capable of identifying continuous improvement in processes, evaluating new operating models, and many more activities that require fundamental business shifts.

“Only CIOs that understand the business benefits that digital transformation unlocks and educate digital skeptics in their organization will successfully achieve company-wide buy-in,” says Kevin McCaffrey, CEO and founder of strategic planning platform Tr3Dent.

IT leaders also need a comprehensive understanding of their organization’s business ecosystem, McCaffrey adds, since partners may be impacted by a full-scale disruption.

Let's explore five more valuable skills for digital transformation leaders:

Stephanie Overby is an award-winning reporter and editor with more than twenty years of professional journalism experience. For the last decade, her work has focused on the intersection of business and technology. She lives in Boston, Mass.