CIOs walking digital tightrope between opportunity and risk

These are scary, exciting times for CIOs who must tackle digital transformations.

By Clint Boulton
Jan. 18, 2017

A few years ago, most CIO searches entailed looking for IT leaders who could juggle Big Bang projects, such as data center consolidations and ERP overhauls. Companies asked prospective candidates how many people they’ve led and inquired about their management style.

Those traits remain important but most CEOs today seek CIOs who can harness digital technologies to transform their businesses and boost revenue growth, says Heidrick & Struggles partner Matt Aiello. They demand forward-thinking change agents with a nose for serving digitally savvy customers.

“When you get at what makes a CIO successful … it’s about mobilizing resources and driving a customer-centric organization,” Aiello tells

Matt Aiello, partner at Heidrick & Struggles,
Heidrick & Struggles Matt Aiello, partner at Heidrick & Struggles.

But CIOs talented and fortunate enough to land a gig crafting a digital transformation stand on the razor’s edge between opportunity and risk. Success can result in a promotion such as Goldman Sachs’ recent elevation of CIO Marty Chavez to CFO. Failure can lead to replacement with another CIO or even a chief digital officer.

One thing is certain: Strong appetites for emerging technologies, with all of their potential risks and rewards, coupled with a willingness to fail fast and move forward, are essential for CIOs navigating the digital era, in which innovation is no longer a dilemma but an imperative.

Innovator’s dilemma has become the innovator’s imperative
CIOs can look at virtually any business sector and grasp the portents of the situation. Sears, Macy’s, Wal-Mart and countless other retail stalwarts are shedding staff and closing stores as Amazon's ecommerce tendrils grow longer. Financial services companies are automating jobs through artificial intelligence technologies. The reminders of disruptive services travel with CIOs as they “Uber” around a city, fully aware of the risks facing their businesses.

Stephen Andriolem, professor at Villanova University,
Villanova University. Stephen Andriolem, professor at Villanova University.

"The potential for disruption of a business model or an entire industry is at an all-time high," says Villanova University professor Stephen Andriole, who teaches undergraduate and graduate students about the role technology plays in business strategy and execution. "Companies have to be looking over their shoulders constantly because they may be disrupted by technology they don’t even understand and a business model they don’t understand."

In 2016, Andriole surveyed 150 CIOs, CTOs and other tech decision-makers and found that these leaders are throwing validated business requirements out the window and piloting technologies they believe might help their companies, regardless of how well they understand the problems these technologies might solve.  

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