Technology expert to business leader: The evolution of the CIO

Chief Information Officers are often experts in technology, but leadership in business strategy sets pioneers apart from the rest.

Today’s IT leaders must strike the right balance between technology and business strategy, a panel of experts said at a recent webinar hosted by the MIT Sloan CIO Symposium. Many CIOs are more comfortable with technical innovation than with formulating business strategy, assuming revenue generation responsibilities, working with boards of directors, or managing change. But now these are all important parts of the role.

Research reflects the evolution of the CIO from technology expert to enterprise business leader. According to’s State of the CIO 2023 survey, many CIOs already play a strategic leadership role. Nearly three-quarters (71%) of respondents said they expect to actively drive business innovation, develop and refine business strategy, and identify opportunities for competitive differentiation over the next three years. The survey also found that CEOs believe that CIOs should prioritize strengthening IT and business collaboration, and that the most important focus of CIOs is driving business innovation.

“At the end of the day, IT is the business and the business is IT,” said panel moderator Shamim Mohammad, executive vice president and chief information and technology officer at CarMax. “They’re all in this together, and ultimately there have to be common goals.”

Yet it can be difficult for CIOs to navigate the transition from a technology focus to a broader business role. The panelists offered the following tips.

1. Anchor everything in business value.

Tech leaders tend to talk about technology when they should really be framing solutions in the context of how they deliver to the business. Too many discussions present IT projects as cost-cutting initiatives because such arguments are often convincing. Yet IT leaders must go further and frame technology discussions with senior executives in terms they understand—anchored in business value and supported by ROI metrics.


In a 2022 survey, 71% of respondents said they expect CIOs to drive business innovation and develop business strategy.

“We called it the three-finger punch,” said George Corbin, an executive who leads innovation and business transformation at large firms such as Mars Inc. and Marriott International, describing their tactics for presenting IT proposals to senior management. “We’re basically going to go in and say, ‘Here are three facts you need to know: We’re losing share among the largest customer segment; we lose share from new intermediaries, which costs us 10 times per transaction; and our loyalty falls. We set the tone by showing that we are anchored on key business needs and how a digital offering solves them.”

2. Use storytelling and communication skills.

Reciting facts, especially very technical ones, won’t get the attention of the C-suite — or the wider enterprise, for that matter. CIOs must build a compelling narrative that ties the technology roadmap to business strategy, including how it addresses specific pain points or advances key revenue goals. Corbyn said he once had trouble making the case for an initiative even though he was armed with a 160-slide presentation deck. By translating the same argument into a four-minute video depicting how the initiative would improve the customer experience, he was able to break through and get the executive team on board.

Especially during the pandemic, “CIOs have had to expand their ability to communicate and connect with people,” said Maryfran Johnson, host of the CIO Leadership Live video show and podcast on “And the way you connect with people is often through stories.”

3. Be visible and inspiring.

CIOs should take every opportunity to get out there and communicate the IT vision, whether it’s presenting at town halls or attending board meetings. Outlining a clear vision of the technology strategy not only drives buy-in, but also helps recruit champions across the organization who will be critical to success.

On a personal level, CIOs should actively promote their own brand, including on social media sites such as LinkedIn. “Don’t think of LinkedIn as a resume page, but rather as a promotion for your personal product,” Corbin said. “What is the value you carry? This is what your LinkedIn profile should convey.”

Johnson agreed. “For good or bad, [LinkedIn] is our professional network in technology,” she said. “This is where you want to start connecting with other CIOs.”

Related articles

She advised people to watch their social media profiles carefully because other people will. “Every CIO I know wants their company to be a magnet for tech talent,” she said. “Where’s the tech talent going to go check you out like a boss and see how often you’re posting?” See what people are saying about the things you post about your staff and what they’re doing, the projects you’re working on.”

4. Nurture trusted relationships with C-suite peers.

Business understanding and strong communication skills are the foundation on which CIOs can build bridges with their colleagues on the executive team and other areas of the business. When Mohammad came on board at CarMax, he did not set out to propose major transformation or IT projects. Rather, he spends time getting to know colleagues and partners to understand what their pain points are and what challenges the organization faces. This allowed him to target areas with the greatest business impact. He also forged alliances with senior executives such as the Chief Marketing Officer and Chief Operating Officer, which earned him instant credibility with the rest of the leadership team.

“Everything we’ve done has turned out to be a company initiative, not a technology initiative, a marketing program or an operational initiative,” Mohammad said. “It started with building solid relationships, mutual trust and focusing on common challenges that needed to be overcome for the business.”

Read next: Who owns digital innovation? Who cares?

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *