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CIOs are ready to step up to the boardroom to drive strategic direction

Group of people sat around a boardroom table, looking a screen that is showing a lot of data.
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This is the second instalment of our two-part series on the role of the CIO. To investigate what makes a CIO successful and how they can drive strategic direction in the boardroom, Cyr Cornberg, Senior Director within BIE’s IT & Technology Leadership Practice, with over 26 years’ experience focusing on interim hires within the IT & Technology market, spoke to three experienced CIOs – Julius Christmas, Group Chief Information Officer at Saga plcNick Skelsey, ex. Director of Technology at Harding+ and Mark Reid, ex. Interim Chief Digital & Information Officer at Anthony Nolan – to get their insights and advice.

Companies are spending more than ever on technology, with the Gartner consultancy forecasting global IT spending in excess of $4.5 trillion in 2023. Given the critical importance of technology and data, it would be reasonable to expect a company’s chief information officer to wield more strategic influence than ever.

Yet it is still relatively rare for CIOs to have a place on the board of directors, let alone win promotion to the role of chief executive officer. What’s more, boards often lack technological expertise and do not always fully understand strategic priorities when it comes to IT or how their company’s money is being invested.

Mark Reid believes that sitting on the board is the best scenario for a CIO as it represents a clear statement of intent from an organisation on the importance of digital transformation to the future success of the business. 

However, the question that CIOs should ask themselves is whether they are in the optimum position to drive digital transformation for their organisation. Although positioning will vary across businesses, the answer dictates whether a place on the board is required for a CIO to be successful. “A successful CIO brings powerful influencing and collaboration skills to an organisation but having to continually battle through structural layers to make your case for change is not a comfortable seat to be in,” continues Mark.

Julius Christmas believes that the democratisation of technology means a greater number of executive stakeholders want to contribute to, and sometimes own, the technology agenda.  “How this plays out, as always, depends on organisational context, priorities and personalities, but for me it’s critical the CIO retains responsibility for the overall technology architecture and roadmap and is comfortable in a role that becomes more about orchestration (tools, partners) and integration than the owner all technology.”

Creating business strategy

Today’s tech leaders are actively involved in creating business strategy. A survey of 1,000 CIOs by Logicalis, the global technology service provider, earlier this year found that 41 per cent have some level of responsibility for business strategy while 81 per cent say they are spending more time on innovation. They are using their technology expertise to deliver innovative solutions that drive value and competitive advantage. More than three quarters (77 per cent) are now spending more time selling ideas into the board.

CIOs are regularly invited to board meetings to update directors on the latest developments. But the question is whether this is enough now that technology drives every aspect of a business. Every interaction with customers or suppliers now depends on technology to be completed. The widespread adoption of remote working has created exciting new possibilities for employers and the workforce. But its success depends on seamless connectivity.

Unfortunately, cloud technology has also created massive opportunities for cybercrime. The global cost of cybercrime is expected to exceed $8 trillion this year, according to Cybersecurity Ventures, the US consultancy. If it were measured as a country, then cybercrime would be the world’s third largest economy after the US and China. The risk profile is constantly evolving, with new risks emerging almost daily, which is why the C-suite needs to be fully engaged with the technology that is at the heart of their organisation.

But the CIO is often kept at arm’s length from the main board, reporting in to the chief financial officer. This can create barriers to the effectiveness of the CIO, because technology tends to be treated as a cost centre as a result, not as a commercial business enabler.

Executives in operations or finance are often considered more likely to have the experience that is necessary at board level, the high-value contribution that CIOs make to their company’s wider business strategy tends to be under-appreciated.

Why is this? There is still a somewhat outdated view of CIOs as being focused on back office service and support. Yet to be successful in 2023, CIOs must broaden their range of expertise to be more strategic. They understand how the data they manage drives business forward, from creating operational advantage and supply chain efficiencies to protecting the whole IT infrastructure.

According to Nick Skelsey, “The CIO has learned to put increasing focus on building relationships that will influence executive-level colleagues, not only to secure the resources needed to deliver against a roadmap, but to inform, educate and challenge so that roadmap is prioritised, realistic and aligned to business goals more directly than ever before.”

Benefits of board-level CIOs

There are three important benefits to having a board director with significant experience of information and technology:

  1. A board-level CIO will deepen the full board’s understanding of information and technology issues. While nobody expects all directors to be technology experts, they must understand the impact of technology and innovation can have for their companies. Bringing a CIO into the boardroom will lift every director’s baseline knowledge level and enable more robust discussions, which will be even more critical in the future as technology becomes the operating system of the business.
  2. A CIO will change board discussion from technology risks to growth and scale. Experienced technology leaders can help companies fine tune their strategies, questioning management about their overall tech strategy, encompassing privacy, data, and security. They can also help the management team understand how new opportunities in technology can bring operational and revenue generating advantages. For example, how technology can be harnessed to improve sustainability across the organisation and reduce its environmental impact.
  3. Promoting the CIO to the board sends a powerful signal to the rest of the organisation that technology and information is high priority, which will galvanise colleagues to promote technological solutions.

Board-level opportunities are increasing for CIOs, not least because of external pressure for change. Stakeholders including shareholders, insurers and regulatory bodies are exerting influence on organisations to demonstrate technological capabilities at the highest level.

You can also read Part One in our CIO series, What makes a successful CIO: A complex mix of skills.

For more information on how BIE can help you build IT leadership talent across your organisation, please contact our team.

Written by

Cyr Cornberg

Cyr is a Senior Director within the IT & Technology Leadership Practice at BIE. He has over 26 years’ experience focusing on interim hires within the IT & Technology market.

Cyr has an exceptionally strong network built over the past 26 years, which includes Strategy, Architecture, Programme Management and Technology Leadership.

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