The Point: Why This Article Matters

  • CIOs matter. CIOs play a critical role in driving digital transformation and enabling their organizations to reach their full potential.
  • CIOs are strong thinkers. Transformational leaders are strategic thinkers who look for opportunities to create new value through technology.
  • CIOs are analytical collaborators. Effective CIOs must have a deep understanding of both technology and business and be able to collaborate effectively with other business leaders.

CIOs have without question many hats these days. I would argue that one of the most important is being a transformation leader. This of course doesn’t mean that CIOs do strategy on their own. This will lead to failure. But it does mean, effective CIOs are intimately involved in digital strategy. Let’s start by hearing what CIOs say about being transformation leaders and then hear their secrets for success.

Transformational Leader vs. Transformation Manager

Today’s transformational leaders are strategists who look for opportunities to create new value through technology. They effectively enable their organizations to reach their full potential. On the other hand, a transformational manager is more tactical and delivers only what the business needs for today. CIO magazine provided a great list of distinctions between each role:

Transformation Leader

Transformation Manager



Defines and Sets Direction

Manages What Others Decide

Master of Communications

Blocks and Tackles

Focused Upon Culture, Vision and Evolving Business Model

Focused Upon Delivery, Partnering with Stakeholders, Team Collaboration, Quality and KPIs

Determines Where Technology Can be Used to Improve and Advance the Business

Improves Technology Where the Business Decides It is Needed

Master of Tech Portfolio, Talent and the Business


Envisions New Ways of Doing Things

Prepares the Organization for ResultingChanges

Conceives, Influences and Designs Next-Gen Business Model


To be fair, the purpose of this question was to imply that CIOs need to move from transformational managers to transformation leaders to continue to have a seat in the chair. Fortunately, CIO Deb Gildersleeve, took the bait and said, “The CIO as transformational leader puts forward areas where technology can be used to improve and advance the business.”

How Important Is It for CIOs to Participate in Cross Industry Events?

Rita McGrath in her book, “Seeing Around Corners,” talks about the importance of "sensing the ice melting at the edge." For this reason, she says that weak signals represent an opportunity to spot an inflection point early. Former CIO Joanna Young agrees and says, “Out-of-box thinking, new ideas, can come from other industries. Including seeing ice melt in your blind spot.”

“Outside-in learning is what I call it,” says Former CIO Isaac Sacolick. “If you're in manufacturing, construction, healthcare, insurance, higher ed and some areas of financial services, go learn from media and retail that have been transforming for two decades.”

CIO Martin Davis believes that doing this is really about “being a well-rounded business executive than anything else. Or put another way, it uses your time wisely!”

The goal for CIOs should be to create a good cross industry network. Industry analyst Dion Hinchcliffe agrees but adds, “getting the balance right is hard since a CIO’s time is very scarce. The reality is that we live in an era of combinatorics in innovation. But it's unevenly discovered. Cross industry connections are more key than ever to get a jump.”

Related Article: The Qualities That Matter in Your Next CIO

Bringing the Business Along for the Ride?

CIOs who are transformational leaders need to help in co-invention and driving initiatives. However, how do they bring the business along the journey. Young stresses that “CIOs need to be good storytellers, including vision and data in the storyline.” Clearly, Davis is right when he says, “If you are having to bring them along for the ride then you have already failed.”,

However, it can be totally on the CIOs' shoulders when they interface with the business on technology versus business. For this reason, Gildersleeve says, “It is critical that CIOs speak in business terms around benefits.” There is a message in here for vendors as well.

Learning Opportunities

Hinchcliffe goes further and suggests that “the CIOs must be seen as co-owners of the business strategy. Though often they are not. And this can be hard for both the CIO and the business to accept.” For this to occur Capgemini Executive Steve Jones says, "CIOs need to demonstrate and commit to the outcomes. The destination needs to be something the CIO is aligned with the business on, not dragging them along.”

Do Transformational CIOs Need Their CEO Acting as a Cheerleader?

Shumaker claims, “It sure helps to amplify, speed up and remove barriers!” Young agrees and suggests that it would be great to have the board doing the same thing. While Gildersleeve says, “It isn’t required.” She says, “It sure helps to have a CEO as cheerleader for transformation. It can speed up the process of bringing others along.” Hinchcliffe adds, “There is a fairly hard stop immediately beyond IT if the CIO is not supported well by the CEO. In an ideal situation, the CIO should be a trusted partner of both the CEO and CFO. But one or the other will do in a pinch.”

Related Article: What Does It Mean to Be a Digitally Savvy CIO?

What Change Management Skills Do Transformational CIOs Have?

Clearly, change management is essential because change always impacts people’s lives. For this reason, Hinchcliffe says transformation CIOs need the following skills:

  • Ability to craft an achievable vision.
  • Ability to attract and build a great team.
  • Be a great communicator/storyteller.
  • Ability to inspire the team to take the hill.
  • Listens and learns.
  • Uses data/truth to guide.
  • Knows effective means of change.

Digging in on change specifically, Gildersleeve says, “A transformational CIO needs to be able to bring people along the change curve and to be able to tell the story of transformation — why it is needed, what’s in it for me — is an important skill for this process.” For Young, this means “experience and proven methods/frameworks for moving product, people, process, technology from point A to successful, measurable point B.” In terms of importance of this skill set, Davis concludes, “I have always joked that as a CIO I spend more time on change management than I do on technology.”

Parting Words on Transformational CIOs

It seems clear that CIOs have moved from being change managers to being change leaders. They bring needed vision and cross industry knowledge to help develop new business models with technology.

And importantly, they are able to bring the business along including through the process of change management.

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