The Excitement and Opportunity in the CIO Renaissance Era

When I became a CIO a few years ago, I felt pretty good about my advancement into the upper management of my company. So I told my father, expecting to get an “attaboy” or a virtual pat on the back. So imagine my surprise when he said to me, “Why do you want to do that? You’re too young to be a CIO.”

Now, at that time my dad was president of Avnet, so I figured he may have known something I didn’t. Of course, he wasn’t being critical of me or my decision; his experience with CIOs was that they were tactically focused, spending most of their time in their office making sure that the servers were running properly and service-level agreements were being met. As he figured it, that would be fine for an “older” executive without my youthful energy, enthusiasm and inquisitiveness, but he felt I shoot higher–for a strategic executive role where I could make a big impact, not just ensuring the lights stayed on. I agreed with him on that part, of course–but that’s what I thought I was doing.

A few years later, I read an article that put my dad’s comments into perspective. Thomas Davenport, who has become an important voice in the changing role of information technology, wrote an article in Forbes with the ominous title, “Why No One Wants To Be a Chief Information Officer Any More.” Davenport’s point was that, in too many organizations, the CIO’s role was limited to technical evaluations, telling business stakeholders why they couldn’t have their own servers and software, and toeing the line on compliance and governance.

Like my dad, Davenport based his viewpoint on keen observation of how CIOs often spent their time–on tactics, rather than on transformation or strategy. But, while I place tremendous value on the ideas and perspectives of people as wizened and experienced as my dad and Davenport, I believe we’re in the midst of a period of tremendous and exciting change for CIOs–a CIO Renaissance Era, if you will.

In this CIO Renaissance Era, the CIO is a mover and a shaker. He (or, thankfully increasingly, she) is a business executive, looked on as a peer within the C-suite with the top players in finance, operations, marketing, sales, legal, and every other part of the business–and not exclusively as the mad monk of technology. Today’s CIO is not the chief technologist, even if responsibility for the technology architecture and roadmap rolls up to them. They don’t limit their input to IT infrastructure or software issues any more than the CFO limits their input to taxation or SEC filings.

Now, I can detect your faint murmurs as you read this: “Uh, excuse me, but haven’t we been reading and talking about the ‘CIO-as-business-leader’ for about, oh, 30 years?”

Yes, ever since the heady days of CIO visionaries like Max Hopper of American Airlines, we’ve listened to panel discussions at conferences or read publications and blogs about the transformation of CIO from tech wiz to business icon, not just weighing in on business strategy but actually crafting it. And yet, even I have to admit that the CIO’s journey to the corner office has not always gone smoothly.

So, what’s changing now? Why are we finally poised on the threshold of the CIO Renaissance Era?

First, the emerging primacy of IT solutions to not only solve business problems, but also to spot and exploit new business opportunities is opening up new lanes for the CIO to travel. Increasingly, the CIO is being turned to by their colleagues, customers, and partners to develop new sources of business value based on the transformative and strategic use of technology. I’m not just talking about things like e-commerce, social media, and marketing analytics: Those were really important “in their day,” which was CIO Renaissance Era 1.0.

The CIO in 2019 and beyond, however, is forging new ground, based in large part of groundbreaking technologies like blockchain, machine learning, quantum computing, and more.

Another reason why the CIO’s transition to business leader has been so long in the making for so many executives is that IT folks tried to force this to happen before their organizations were truly ready to accept them as equal business partners. Many of my predecessors learned that just taking some business workshops at Stanford or completing work on their MBA didn’t always open up the doors as an equal partner with other business executives. And, to be honest, CIOs didn’t always “walk the walk” when it came to acting like a business executive, often lapsing back into technical jargon and excitedly volunteering for that mind-numbing database integration project after the big merger.

Now, however, is the perfect time for the CIO to step forward and be recognized as a business leader. The necessary and occasionally messy marriage of technology, customer experience, compliance, governance, and competitive differentiation needs a new user manual, and traditional business leaders realize that they need people who can and do walk comfortably in both the technical and the non-technical worlds to bring it all together.

In the modern version of the CIO Renaissance Era, the CIO is proactive, assertive, innovative, and collaborative. He or she uses their unique combination of technical acumen and soft skills to lead their organizations into new markets, slay new competitors, and cultivate new client relationships.

Which brings me back to that conversation with my dad.

I now realize that my bosses at the time did see me as a “new age CIO” before I saw it in myself. Up until that time, I was all about technology. I got pushed into a role that I didn’t realize I wanted or was ready for. Fortunately, I had good mentors, along with the good sense to trust my instincts on a lot of things rather than simply lapsing back into my comfort zone of technology.

Today, I’m in a position where I can make sure that the things I’m working on are useful to the entire enterprise at the most strategic level possible. After all, I may know more about blockchain than anyone in my company, but that’s only important if I can lead the way to using blockchain to give my organization a competitive edge.

Ryan Fay is global chief information officer at ACI Specialty Benefits, a global leader in employee benefits solutions.

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