Insights How the CIO to CDIO transition represents a larger move in tech

How the CIO to CDIO transition represents a larger move in tech

This week I had the tremendous opportunity to moderate a panel discussion between the Chief Digital and Information Officers (CDIOs) of Clarios, Regal-Rexnord, and Schreiber Foods on the move from CIO to CDIO. All three leaders were incredible at sharing in a transparent, vulnerable, and interesting way the challenges that they went through. Leaving the discussion, I was struck how the change in leadership responsibilities is really representative of a much larger change in expectations in tech… ones that every tech and business person needs to be thinking about. A few key thoughts for this week:

What is a CDIO anyway?

The CDIO is essentially a combination of two functions, the traditional activities of the CIO and the emerging responsibilities of the Chief Digital Officer. The traditional CIO’s responsibilities often tended to focus more on running existing “IT” infrastructure and less about transforming the very nature of the business around tech. Those responsibilities sometimes were in product groups within the business itself or didn’t exist at all. The CDIO’s function is to engage technology across the entire business, inclusive of infrastructure, apps, data, and the heart of the mission of the business.

WAIT… couldn’t the CIO already be doing this?

Yes… and many CIOs were (and are) taking on the responsibilities of a CDIO. I’ve often observed two types of CIOs. The first type is focused on the traditional responsibilities of the CIO. In those cases, they are very infrastructure and operations focused. They “keep the lights on”, worry about things like Azure, Office 365, ERP, core business systems. They can struggle to gain credibility in the business beyond core “IT” functions. In many cases they report to the CFO or COO rather than the CEO. This isn’t to say it isn’t a valuable function, it just isn’t as transformative to the business itself when struggling to gain traction outside IT.

The second type of CIO is already thinking ahead and has obtained a broader mandate. They might not have the title of CDIO, but they are already managing “up” into the business and working as a transformative agent. They may still struggle to gain ground because their mandate isn’t officially as broad, so they need to ensure they build collaboratively. It’s no surprise that these CIOs usually report to the CEO and are actively engaged in most business conversations. I’ve seen these CIOs typically heavily delegate their infrastructure responsibilities to spend the majority of their time on “above the line” needs of the business.

So, if CIOs can be doing this already, why create a CDIO?

As many leadership teams sought to respond to the need for technology transformation at the heart of the business they categorized their CIO in one of the two buckets we discussed. If the CIO was mainly “IT” focused, they likely moved to hire a Chief Digital Officer/CTO or just heavily leaned on business-oriented product owners to drive technology transformation.

The Chief Digital Officer strategy can be very successful but requires a tight partnership with the CIO to avoid land-wars. The problem is that disunity typically exists in such an environment, especially in the context of areas like the data estate, application architecture, relationship to traditional “IT” systems, and the disparity between the obvious “cool kids club” and “traditional IT”. This isn’t to say there isn’t a natural divide… there is… but to have both roles report to the CEO without a tech leader to create harmony can be a struggle.

The Business-Oriented Product Owners approach is also very common. Many businesses have “IT” that does the corporate functions, but then product groups have their own vertical towers. In multi-disciplinary businesses this is necessary even when a CDO or a CDIO exists. In fact, it’s by design. However, to do it without a central-digital-tech-leader tends to lead to some level of disconnect between the business’s tech strategy and the lines of business themselves. It can mean that all of the areas of business are left to their own devices. It also means that businesses can do what is right to generate revenue, but might not hold themselves accountable to the greater mission of the business. A CDIO needs to be accountable to the corporate business and shareholders, not just an individual business line.

So, the CDIO exists to bring a business-tech leader to the executive team that can maintain the traditional CIO functions, but also enable and govern the diverse digital needs of the business. The CDIO works with product owners, business domains, and traditional IT to create value across the organization by driving revenue or operational savings. It doesn’t replace functional product owners, applications leaders, or business unit VPs, but instead complements them to cohesively create digital engagement and responsibility across the organization. This is also something that every CIO should strive for, regardless of whether they have the title or not. There is a saying, “do the job before you have it”. In this case, an argument could be made that the CDIO is just the evolution that the CIO function should do anyway.

So, I’m not a CDIO or a CIO… What does this have to do with me?

It turns out… a lot! The transition of leadership teams wanting more from their CIO or the technology aspects of the business is not limited to executive leadership. Every IT and business professional needs to ask themselves, “how am I using technology to amplify the mission of the business?” The days of an IT professional hiding in the back room and not being business-relevant are over. This is why I’m so excited about technologies like AI… not because they are the latest kid on the block, but because they represent an awakening of the business truly understanding that technology needs to be integrated into its mission. A few key things came out during the session that struck me from the three CDIOs and a few of my own thoughts:

  1. Every technology professional should seek to be engaged in the strategy of the business and part of making it real
  2. An engaged technology professional has a growth mindset and is never sitting still. I was talking with an architect after the session and he said, “every year I try to do a different thing”. I really respect that perspective, as it’s a person trying to consistently challenge themselves
  3. Focus on learning emerging technology and connecting its relevancy to the mission of the business. A “person that can do that will go far”, said one of the leaders
  4. Seek to create value that can be measured and be the one to define the measurement proactively
  5. Transformation of the business is hard. Sometimes you need to be the “elegant agitator” as one panelist said. This is really about meeting the business where it is at, then helping to walk it to a new place
  6. Bring your team along for the ride. I was talking with a leader after the session and they said, “so many people try to lead, but then focus their energy on themselves. The true leaders focus energy into relationships and making others great”.
  7. Disruption is a constant journey. The hardest organization to disrupt is yourselves. The best leaders are not afraid to challenge the existing conventions to get something done.
  8. Don’t be afraid to say “no”. A huge point made by a panelist was when he decided to stop an effort. There is a fine balance between being a “no” person, but you can be a “no…and” person, that redirects to a better destination.
  9. Radical candor. I was at a client today where a request was made, “as our partner, we want you to be very direct with us when you need an adjustment made in our approach”. We have a saying, “clear is kind”, but even more, being clear is necessary for success. Respectful, yes… but clear.

Final Thoughts

The real story here is about the move from CIO to CDIO. The title transition is more of a symbol and clarification of new intent than anything. The goal of a CIO (or CDIO) should be to position themselves as a leader that crosses all areas of the business and has the entire business’s goals at heart. Get the mandate to transform the business, regardless of title. This is the same message for all roles in IT. Frankly, if you are working in a tech organization that doesn’t support the transformative role of tech, you need to look for one that does, or create the change where you are.