For CIOs, the time to lead is now

Once tasked with “keeping the lights on,” the CIO now plays an outsize role in an enterprise’s success. The latest research from Fieldwork by Citrix traces the contours of a new breed of leader.

ARTICLE | 4m read
November 9, 2022

The world of the Chief Information Officer (CIO) is changing. These executives are more influential than ever, driving organizational productivity through challenging and turbulent business landscapes. Yet they are also hampered by legacy technology, inefficient infrastructure, and technical debt. Despite this seeming Catch-22, they are perhaps better positioned than anyone to drive holistic business improvement. That can only happen, however, if they’re freed from day-to-day technology management.

Traditionally, CIOs built and maintained networks, and generally “kept the lights on.” Today, however, the CIO’s remit is expanding. The position is now more about creating productive working environments where workers can thrive, anywhere and anytime. This new breed of CIO is people-centric but also a driver of automation, and is integrated into the fabric of organization like never before.

New research from Fieldwork by Citrix captures the emerging and sometimes contradictory expectations heaped on the corporate CIO: their mandates, their worries, and their greatest ambitions for their organizations. A few topline takeaways illustrate these trends:

  • 68% of leaders believe that an organization’s success is now largely determined by the strength of its tech leadership.
  • 67% say that the CIO is now second only to the CEO in terms of shaping and delivering the business strategy.

It’s time to examine the evolving nature of tech leadership, and map action to ambition. What should CIOs do today to navigate this new territory, and drive business success in the new world of work?


Tomorrow’s CIO: Listener and fortune teller

As digital strategy grows more predictive of an organization’s success, so does the unique POV that far-sighted CIOs bring. This is plain to see in CIOs’ heightened boardroom profiles, with many leaders surveyed by Fieldwork by Citrix seeing CIOs as the de facto COO. Additionally, CIOs are taking on responsibilities in areas including employee experience, well-being, productivity, training and development, customer experience, and recruitment and retention.

That said, digital transformation doesn’t happen overnight, and CIOs must balance the need for technological advancement with the requirements of maintaining legacy systems. Globally, C-level tech leaders are most likely to cite digital transformation and IT modernization among their top three priorities, while a significant majority say they are still grappling with existing systems and “technical debt.”

Taken together, what do these factors mean for the role? Tomorrow’s CIO isn’t simply a tech leader. They need to be mindful of employee needs, both at an individual level and a systemic one. As revealed in the research, many leaders believe CIOs will be entirely or largely responsible for employee well-being in five years’ time, challenges that require abilities such as communication skills, establishing trust, emotional intelligence, and a people-centric approach.


Three factors that hamper CIOs

Even as CIOs increasingly are tasked with charting a course toward the future, they’re spending too much of today troubleshooting. Tech stewardship, if not outright support, has long been part of a CIO’s job, so it can be difficult for organizations and employees alike to embrace, let alone understand the need for this evolution of the CIO’s role.

Additionally, poorly procured and/or implemented hybrid work technology can cause confusion at best, resentment and attrition at worst. This can present a significant challenge for CIOs, forcing them to explain and demonstrate digital procedures and protocols to employees.

Thirdly, the tech talent crunch complicates the hiring and retention of top talent. Sixty-eight percent of C-level tech leaders — and 59% of non-tech leaders and non-C-level tech leaders — say that a lack of tech talent is currently one of the greatest risks to their business. Consequently, nearly half of surveyed C-level tech leaders report that they’ll delay retirement over fears that there is no one who can replace them.

Envisioning the evolved CIO

So, what is to be done? Deploying technology for technology’s sake isn’t the answer. CIOs are responsible for building a remote-first work model that empowers tech-enhanced fluid workers and working styles; work technology should be easy to understand and even easier to use. They also must consider how automation can make their business operate more efficiently.

Perched at the intersection of technology and employee experience, CIOs are a key intermediary in shaping these dynamics. For example, they can partner with Human Resources to develop more thoughtful onboarding practices, and work with their Talent team on high-value upskilling and training programs. By enacting mentorship programs, CIOs can help organizations build supportive cultures where employees feel inspired by their leaders. Finally, the CIO can spearhead thoughtful succession planning that reflects where roles are going in the new world of work, not where they exist today.


More money, more watch-outs

As noted in the research from Fieldwork by Citrix, leaders predict that spending on AI, VR, and automation will double in the next two years. Additionally, a majority of executives surveyed believe that the metaverse will transform the way employees work, leading to new opportunities as well as new challenges.

CIOs will play a critical role in how this windfall is deployed. They can and should create worker-first systems that prioritize the ability to work securely from anywhere. As systems develop and organizations continue adjusting to the new world of work, maintaining flexibility when adding new technology, while continuing to solicit and act on employee feedback, should be part of the CIO’s remit.

Transformation today, success tomorrow

The research is clear: CIOs are transitioning into leaders of their organizations, second only to the CEO in terms of setting the future-facing agenda for the organization. Tech leadership is intrinsically tied to business success. The most effective CIOs will develop new skills while focusing on the needs of their organization’s employees, helping assist with retention, training, well-being, and more.

Still, many tech leaders feel boxed in, caught between evolving their business and maintaining legacy technology and providing tech support. CIOs balance two roles: maintainer and innovator. This split focus is a distraction and a drag on organizational success. Yet by working to free themselves from the day-to-day grind of technology management, CIOs can look up the value chain, driving organization-wide initiatives.

In the new world of work, the CIO is positioned arguably better than anyone else to visualize, explain, and enact holistic change across an organization. It is today’s task to ensure that this vision, so vital not just to the individual but to the entire enterprise, can be realized.