Why CIOs are the new strategic business leaders

Companies are increasingly seeing their IT chiefs as high-level business advisers. What are the skills that have enabled them to escape the tech silo and assume truly strategic leadership roles?

The role of the IT chief is changing fast. Recent research by CIO.com indicates that, within three years, more than half of corporate tech chiefs will focus less on overseeing functional work and more on developing strategies for the whole business.

While the CIO’s stock was already on the rise before the Covid crisis, the move from basement to boardroom has been fast-tracked by the pandemic. When the first lockdowns were imposed, it was CIOs who drove the urgent shift to digital platforms and services. As a result, their organisations are increasingly viewing them as strategic advisers, inevitably blurring the lines between the IT function and the wider enterprise.

The growing strategic importance of the CIO is highlighted by recent increases in the rewards offered by the role. A survey by recruitment firm Mondo indicates that the average CIO salary has risen by 21% year on year in the US, for instance.

So what accounts for the greater emphasis on strategy? More crucially, what does it mean to be more strategic as a CIO?

Developing a strategic vision

Omid Shiraji is a consultant CIO who works for several local authorities, including Westminster City Council and the London Borough of Newham. He also sits on the mayoral Smart London Board, a digital data advisory body for the capital. This role, he says, plays into the changing nature of the CIO.

“There are hundreds upon hundreds of lines of business in local government, all doing different things. It’s important to know how various organisations intersect and how technology enables those different elements to work together. A CIO must focus on outcomes and their value to the business. They must be able to talk the right kind of language to different people with different perspectives,” he says. “That’s really different from what the CIO role has traditionally been.”

At Newham, Shiraji’s role is focused on the council’s strategic direction. “There’s an economic growth strategy, a job strategy, a patient strategy and a council transformation strategy. It’s all to do with digital data, so I advise on that,” he says.

At Westminster, meanwhile, “there is a clear ambition to be the smartest city in the universe”. The questions occupying Shiraji’s mind here include: “How do you build an ecosystem of partners, suppliers and citizens to work with the council to solve problems? How do you fundamentally rethink what you’re delivering to residents, because it might not be what they need? And how do you set yourselves up with the teams and the ways of working with the tech to tackle those things?”

He continues: “You’re not buying a solution or deploying a new system. You’re bringing together a bunch of people with a range of digital skills and you’re showing the organisation how to work in a different way.”

Tech with a purpose

Shiraji believes that the CIO’s rise to prominence in organisations has been inevitable, given their increasing reliance on digital tech.

CIOs who understand “how technology can be applied to solve business problems and who can speak that common language will emerge into positions where they can help organisations to think and act in different ways”, he says. “CIOs can see every activity from the top across the strategic level. They are best placed to be having those conversations.”

Yiannis Levantis, group CIO of Unipart Group, agrees.

“CIOs have found themselves getting deeply involved with most or all functions of their businesses, gaining a rare breadth of commercial understanding from a unique vantage point,” he says.

Restricting yourself to ‘supporting the business with technology’ is no longer an option. The CIO needs to be an imaginative generator of commercial ideas

As the role becomes less about leading a function and more about developing strategy, there will be an inevitable shift in the kinds of skills required of a successful CIO, Levantis predicts, adding: “Being more strategic means that restricting yourself to ‘supporting the business with technology’ is no longer an option. The CIO needs to be an imaginative generator of commercial ideas who can collaborate – or lead – on the creation of new business models and revenue streams.”

As a multinational manufacturing, logistics and advisory company, Unipart Group has a 200-strong IT team in the UK and India that serves several blue-chip clients. Levantis has the task of expanding the group’s offering in IT services beyond the bounds of logistics to create a standalone business.

“CIOs of the future – or, rather, the very present – should operate as business executives with a technology angle. This requires them to have qualities focused on business creation and growth. For instance, financial planning skills and a working knowledge of contract law will become increasingly central to the role of a strategic CIO.”

A focus on relationships

Stuart Whittle, CIO of law firm Weightmans, believes that the role is also becoming much more concerned with relationships.

“The CIO must prioritise building partnerships inside the business and with their service suppliers instead of focusing on a gaining deeper understanding of machine code,” he argues.

Whittle has played a leading role in his firm’s most recent strategic review and guided it towards being a data-driven business. The advantages have been evident, he says.

“As part of the new strategy, we’ve transformed historically manual, hand-cranked work into increasingly standardised processes,” Whittle explains. “The benefit is that we can reduce our clients’ legal expenditure and change the billing structure to more of a fixed-fee model instead of the traditional hourly rate.”

He continues: “The other advantage of working hard to develop integrated solutions for repeatable, predictable processes is that we have been able to enhance our lawyers’ workflows, saving them time and money, sweat and tears.”

How will a typical IT chief be operating in a few years’ time? Shiraji says that he has spotted “a big shift” in the types of people who are becoming CIOs.

“A lot of them aren’t technologists by background,” he reports. “Many are simply great leaders. They’re humble, they understand humanity and they demonstrate clarity and integrity. They understand the importance of how people work together and how tech can be applied. They might not know how to code or write application programming interfaces, but they do understand the power of technology.”