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CIO job description: Leadership opportunities abound

Those who still say CIO stands for "career is over" should take stock of what CIOs are actually up to these days. Today, they are climbing the corporate ladder, joining boards of directors and becoming strategic partners to the business. And it's all because of the critically important role of technology in a company's survival and success, according to Korn Ferry headhunter John Petzold.

SearchCIO caught up with Petzold, senior client partner at the Los Angeles-based global executive search firm, at the recent MIT Sloan CIO Symposium in Cambridge, Mass., where he talked about how the CIO job description is changing, why CIOs are in high demand by boards of directors and what boards are looking for in a CIO director.

What does the CIO job description look like today?

John Petzold: Not just over the past year, but really over the past four or five years, the leadership elements of the CIO and the leadership competencies of the CIO have dramatically increased in terms of what's expected of that leader. Historically, CIOs and CTOs have been responsible for the nuts and bolts of technology. Now, as strategic business partners to boards and CEOs, there's really a requirement for them to be able to translate the nuts and bolts of technology into strategy -- into execution -- and act as business partners, as opposed to order takers.

Are CIOs still being tapped to serve on boards of directors?

Petzold: Absolutely. Right now, roughly 40% of the Fortune 500 have CIOs, former CIOs or former CTOs on the board of directors. The shift that has happened is the elevation of the importance of the CIO in terms of a business structure. When you think about the type of communication that's happening between the CIO, the CEO and the board of directors, we now have a much more informed, a much more knowledgeable adviser to the CEO and to the CIO.

One of the challenges in that construct, however, is making sure that the CIO you're putting on the board has been through the types of challenges that an organization is facing. So, it's no longer sufficient to have served as a CIO and, therefore, you can get a coveted board seat, but you need to be a CIO who has been transformational and has seen the types of challenges that your organization might be facing at the time.

Do boards have a preference for types of emerging technology experience? Is artificial intelligence (AI), for example, a priority?

Petzold: Artificial intelligence is everywhere, as is internet of things, as is machine learning. And so what you see are two things: One is the importance of those elements, but also really a watering down of what that actually means. When we look at startups that are building artificial intelligence or machine learning or cognitive learning technologies, sometimes what we see is there's no there, there.

Similarly, within large corporations, it's defining what does AI mean for our organization? What does machine learning mean for our organization? How does it tie into our strategy? In many cases, AI, machine learning and cognitive learning are being used for control functions -- so making sure to try and eliminate or mitigate risks within the organization using AI. In other areas, [these technologies are] meant to drive sales, marketing and growth.

CIOs have been told for years that IT needs to work more closely with the business. Is this reflected in today's CIO job description?

Petzold: The CIO has one of the most complex roles in the entire C-suite. … The efficient use of technology is, [for example,] going to make the CFO better by providing real-time data about the business metrics so that he or she can advise the CEO on real-time strategy changes that need to be made. Similarly, in the marketing function, using smart, accurate, informed data around customer segmentation can make your marketing function better.

So, the CIO is likely going to own every one of the underlying elements of that data and analytics, but they are supporting other functions. So I think there's an interaction requirement of the CIO now, including the interaction with the board of directors, the interaction with the CEO, the interaction across the entire C-suite, but then also cascading that information and the execution down through an entire organization to make sure that things actually get done.

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