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6 steps to create a CIO-CEO strategic partnership

The pandemic pushed CIOs to the head of the C-suite table. Here's how they can keep that respect and power and create true partnership with their CEO.

The pandemic did for many CIOs what years of career jockeying and C-suite campaigning couldn't: It gave them a spotlight and a microphone.

CIOs can take advantage of the clout they gained during the pandemic and use that to become a strategic partner to the CEO, lead the company on its digital innovation journey and be the company's key technical advisor. Doing this well requires understanding what steps to take.

Here's a look at six of the most important steps CIOs can use to be a strategic business partner to the CEO.

1. Understand the opportunity

Technology was instrumental in getting organizations through the pandemic, particularly in creating a remote workforce -- and CIOs were key to that.

"The pandemic certainly helped a number of CIOs and IT departments to come through as heroes, as they had mere days to move large groups from being always in the office to remote work," said Scott Buchholz, government and public services chief technology officer and emerging tech research director at Deloitte, headquartered in New York City.

Maintaining that hero halo will require CIOs to understand their role and how they can co-create with CEOs.

"Beyond enablement [of workforce transitions], modern CIOs, the ones who are emerging as CEO advisors, are influencing a shift from 'IT as an enabler' to tech as an intrinsic part of business strategy," said Dan Priest, cloud and digital managing partner at global consultancy PwC of London.

What's the difference?

IT as an enabler occurs when business leaders define strategies and look to IT only for enablement and support, Priest said.

"[When tech is core to business strategy] the CIO [is] at the table with the CEO defining new business models and new ways of working with data, tech, digital and cloud at the core of the strategy, not as an afterthought," Priest said.

2. Switch from survive to thrive mode -- fast

One way CIOs can ensure they land in the latter category is to proactively lead innovation.

"Demonstrating business acumen and understanding of future pivots while working through these issues with CEOs and other strategy leaders can help CIOs maintain their elevated posture in the organization," Buchholz said.

CIOs now need to reassess the technology investments they made to ensure their companies survived during the pandemic align with forward-looking strategy.  

"Take advantage of the opportunity to rethink critical systems and operations," Buchholz said. Here are some examples he offered:

  • Where are the areas that require the most business agility?
  • Where are the areas with the most technical debt?
  • What can IT teams revitalize with cloud-based components?
  • What 5%-10% is truly differentiating?

3. Proactively balance corporate vision with market reality

The CIO role is critical in balancing vision with reality to keep the company on course. Business leaders and line managers often can't easily explain what they're aiming to do. Conversely, they may not know what is technically possible and what isn't. Savvy CIOs can lead them through these quagmires to both understand what needs to be done and what can be done.

Too much focus on vision can lead to situations where promising ideas never make it out of the conceptual stage.
Erik BaileyCIO, Anaqua

"This can be a delicate balance -- too much focus on vision can lead to situations where promising ideas never make it out of the conceptual stage," said Erik Bailey, CIO at Anaqua, an intellectual property software and services provider based in Boston. "On the other hand, too much focus on the cold hard realities can prevent new ideas from ever taking flight."

"[CIOs who keep that balance] at the forefront [of their] communications and dealings with the rest of the C-suite will be successful, especially as the CIO role is now critical and central to an organization's success in the modern business world," Bailey said.

4. Be quick to identify and address new threats

The pandemic has wrought much change -- and lots of new risks -- to businesses of all types. It's up to CIOs to navigate the company safely around obstacles and threats. That much hasn't changed. But CIOs should be proactive about both.

For example, protecting the company as employees migrated to their work-from-home offices was one big challenge. Their return to the office or to work in hybrid arrangements is another. But CIOs who want to impress CEOs as a strategic business partner know to look for other evolving risks, too.

"The challenge for the CIO now is continuing to innovate without duplicating risk," said Mike Anderson, chief digital and information officer at Netskope, a security software company located in Santa Clara, Calif. "They [also] need to get ahead of new insider threats that may stem partly from 'the great resignation.'"

5. Create the future

To remain a leader, CIOs must be more than excellent problem-solvers. The true winners step up to help create the company's future, too -- and work with the CEO to do so.

"CIOs are helping CEOs to not only reimagine the future but create certainty around achieving that future with delivery disciplines and value realization strategies tuned for tech," Priest said.

6. Don't wait for permission to make your move

CIOs who want to be a strategic partner to the CEO must impress them with proactivity and courage. IT leaders should not be waiting on someone to tell them the next move.

"You as the CIO have to move upstream in the decision process," said Aviv Ben-Yosef, a tech executive consultant and coach at Aviv Ben-Yosef Consulting. "You cannot wait to be handed a roadmap but should inject yourself to the right meetings ahead of time."

Being a strategic partner means taking the lead. "Once you're around that table where the strategy is formed, speak up," Ben-Yosef advised.

Technology isn't merely a tool but an enabler of business success, he added.

"Help your colleagues in the C-suite realize what is possible and thus put items in the roadmap that make the best use of your organization's capabilities," Ben-Yosef said.

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