- Chief information officers were once overlooked in organizations, but the digital transformation underway across corporate America is giving the role new responsibilities.
- As chief information officers become more critical to the goals of an organization, they’re more likely to considered for the CEO spot, MuleSoft founder Ross Mason said.
- The increased responsibilities also mean chief information officers have better access to leadership, including the CEO and the board of directors.
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Companies looking for their next leader might want to consider a once overshadowed but no longer hidden member of the C-suite: the chief information officer.
Traditionally, the IT department has been largely viewed as a sector tasked with helping to fix tech issues around the office. But a digital revolution across corporate America is changing that.
Now, as companies invest billions of dollars to increase their tech capabilities, chief information officers are increasingly becoming critical leaders within organizations. Next up could be assuming the role of CEO, MuleSoft founder Ross Mason said.
“Everything’s up for disruption,” he told Business Insider. Companies “need someone at the helm that really understands how technology can be leveraged … to drive a very different outcome.”
Mason is in one of the best positions to know the pipeline of future leaders. As founder of a firm whose platform allows companies to quickly link different applications together, he regularly gives counsel to CEOs and chief information officers on their digital overhauls.
MuleSoft was bought by Salesforce in 2018 for $6.5 billion. Since then, the software giant has used MuleSoft’s integration tools to roll out industry-specific data platforms. The most recent one gives manufacturers greater insight into customer demand.
First comes ‘being at the table,’ then comes running the table
While Mason said only a small subset of chief information officers could assume the top role now, that will quickly change as organizations throughout industries increasingly make software a more central part of their operations.
Take Walmart, for example, which is spending significantly to upgrade its digital operations. It has an innovation hub in New York, where the retailer tries out new artificial-intelligence-powered technology. And CEO Doug McMillon has even referred to Walmart as a “technology company” in presentations.
“The first step is being at the table, and the second step is actually aligning the strategy of the business and IT strategy together,” Mason said. “The third step is ‘we are a software company.'”
Part of the reason why Mason and others think more chief information officers will be tapped for the top job more frequently is because their role is quickly expanding and becoming more central to a company’s operations.
Over the past few years, the IT department has evolved beyond what Mason refers to as “order takers,” or those tasked with making sure laptops work properly and other tech problems are addressed.
Now the chief information officer is often in charge of implementing a company’s digital revamp, which in many cases is also the top goal of the company as a whole. That responsibility gives them more direct access to top leadership, like the board of directors, according to Mason.
All eyes are on the CIO now
That sort of visibility is what helps information heads become more vital to the organization, but it still requires buy-in from the brass of the company.
“It’s a lot easier in today’s climate [for CIOs] to get the ear of the CEO and talk about aligning the IT strategy and the business strategy, but it has to come from the CEO,” he said.
When Steve Easterbrook came on as McDonald’s CEO in 2015, for example, he outlined four areas of focus, including modernizing in-store technology. And he wanted it done quickly, telling investors that the fast-food chain would have 20,000 locations running its mobile-ordering application by the end of 2017.
Each of those goals heavily involved IT, and the job to implement them fell to then-Chief Information Officer Frank Liberio. While it was a daunting task, it also meant he would have a much closer interaction with Easterbrook.
“Technology needed to go at a speed that it’s never gone before,” Liberio said at a recent MuleSoft conference in New York City. “I remember him talking to me saying, ‘Frank, I’ve never not lived up to a commitment to Wall Street, so this is something you have to figure out how to get done.'”
By December 2017, Liberio’s team achieved the rollout goal.
To date, it’s still rare for IT heads to make the jump to top executive. In one big example, Yvonne Wassenaar went from being chief information officer of New Relic Inc., a software-analytics company, to CEO of the drone company Airware. She has since moved on to become the CEO of the software-automation firm Puppet.
“Ideally, we’ll start to see a lot more of that,” Mason said. “I think it’ll happen.”