17 minute read 19 April 2023

Charting your course: A road map for transitioning to the CIO role

As the chief information officer’s role evolves from technical to strategic, newly appointed CIOs should not just transition to their new responsibilities quickly, but also lead agile teams to deliver business results.

Lou DiLorenzo Jr

Lou DiLorenzo Jr

United States

Khalid Kark

Khalid Kark

United States

Anjali Shaikh

Anjali Shaikh

United States

Natalie Andrus

Natalie Andrus

United States

As technology becomes more integral to the success of every business, the role of the chief information officer (CIO) may be evolving into that of a critical strategic leader responsible for delivering tangible impact and competitive advantage. With these increased expectations and expanded scope, those moving into new positions often find their transitions complex and challenging. CIOs should be able to quickly come up to speed, understand the technology and business landscape, and add value quickly.

Deloitte’s CIO Program actively works with transitioning technology leaders to help set them up for success. In our 2017 publication, Taking charge: The essential guide to CIO transitions, we examined and shared lessons learned against the three elements—time, talent, and relationships—that help contribute to a successful CIO transition.1 Since then, the program has helped more than 200 technology leaders in their transition. This article shares perspectives from CIOs who recently moved into their roles and Deloitte’s most recent transition data, to explore how CIOs can evaluate role opportunities, understand priorities and expectations, and create buy-ins for their technology strategy and road map in their initial days on the job.

Research methodology

The CIO Program conducts the CIO Transition Lab as a one-day experience that leverages creative thinking and collaborative teaming to help both new and seasoned CIOs address the unique challenges of technology leadership. The labs help CIOs establish critical priorities, evaluate talent, identify and address challenges, and frame leadership strategies and work plans.

To customize each CIO Transition Lab session to meet the participants’ individual needs, the CIO Program team conducts interviews with key business stakeholders, including other members of the C-suite and functional business leaders. This report synthesizes themes from more than 400 CIO Transition Labs, including interviews with more than 600 key stakeholders conducted from 2018–2022, along with in-depth phone interviews with six global CIOs who have recently transitioned roles.

Our data and research from these engagements show that, five years ago, transitioning CIOs found themselves occupied with technologist and operator responsibilities (see the sidebar, “The four faces of the CIO” for more details on these roles) as they spent time understanding the IT environment and stabilizing core IT operations. Today, those responsibilities seem to have shifted, with CIOs spending 11% less time as operators and 21% more time as strategists when first starting their roles, as compared with results from our 2017 publication2 (figure 1). While there are many causes for this shift, part of this could correlate to the growth of on-demand infrastructure and software-as-a-service. If this trend continues, it may be increasingly more important that CIOs and candidates demonstrate the ability to shape strategy as a capability versus demonstrating technical prowess. Expectations of the role are seemingly shifting from driving operational effectiveness to demonstrating enterprise value, growth, and revenue generation.

The four faces of the CIO

Deloitte’s framework on CIO transitions identifies four CIO areas, or “faces,” aligning to business needs:

  • Strategists partner with the business to align business and IT strategies and maximize the value of technology investments.
  • Catalysts instigate innovation through transformational change to business architecture, strategy, operations, and technology.
  • Technologists assess technologies and design technical architectures to increase business agility and manage complexity.
  • Operators manage and deliver efficient IT services and solutions to support the business while managing risk and protecting core assets.

Along with the evolution of the role, today, we find that CIOs are increasingly helping to shape the scope and directive of their positions as they enter into each new engagement. The “one-size-fits-all” job specification may no longer be applicable as every company looks to meet the unique needs of their customer—internal and external—and provide technology services under the direction of their senior-most technology leader.

Set realistic expectations by knowing what you are signing up for

As technology and digital capabilities increasingly drive how work is done, we’ve seen an expansion of tech leadership roles such as chief technology officer, chief digital officer, chief digital information officer, and chief data officer. These roles not only continue to proliferate and disperse across the enterprise, but in some cases, they can converge into a single job title and description. In Deloitte’s 2023 Global Tech Leader Survey,3 8% of organizations surveyed reported having at least four technology leadership roles. Our research has also shown that among the companies observed, the number of technology executives with “digital” in their title has doubled since 2018. Leading through influence could become even more important as technology leadership may no longer be confined to one role and transitioning tech leaders could be responsible for governing, ensuring compliance across federated technology, and clarifying the expectations, interactions, and interrelationships among other tech leadership roles as early as possible.

Understanding the organizational dynamics and culture, budgets, operating model, and the level of influence you have as CIO is more important today than ever. While CIOs may view their remit to include emerging tech, data strategy, end-consumer technologies, and aligned strategic technology investments, having too many tech chiefs could fracture accountability and create organizational conflict and confusion.

Technology leaders looking for roles that give them ownership of digital capabilities or consumer-facing technology leaders may find the actual job is often still rooted in tech operations. On the flip side, executives looking for roles that play to a deep technology expertise and ability to drive operational excellence may be signing up for a role that requires greater focus on the customer and revenue-generating technologies.

Irrespective of the organization’s view of technology’s role, tech acumen and expertise in specific tech stacks alone have decreased in importance compared to other CIO selection criteria.4 There is recognition that tech stacks may often be similar and if CIOs have transformed organizations before, they could reasonably be expected to have the skills to do so again with any of the tech stacks. Overall CIO selection criteria, tech convergence, and vendor/partnership management have seemingly reduced the importance of specific tech expertise in hiring new CIOs. A new set of leadership competencies may be required as CIOs orchestrate and coordinate across the various peer- or direct-report C-suite technology leader roles to help ensure ownership and responsibilities are clear and the organization rallies behind a well-articulated tech strategy and vision.

Data from CIO Transition Labs shows that technical vision and expertise, along with strategic thinking and business acumen, remain important considerations in CIO selection decisions.

Deloitte’s 2023 Global Tech Leader Survey of more than 1,150 CIOs and tech leaders shows that 54% of those surveyed cite “soft” leadership traits such as ability to inspire, communication skills, and executive presence as the most important qualities within the technology function in the next two years. That’s three times the share of respondents (18%) who said software engineering capabilities are a key quality for technology leaders. Respondents have felt that the demands on the CIO have multiplied, so much so that it’s no longer enough, or even necessary, for a CIO to be a technology specialist. What’s more important to a CIO’s long-term success are softer skills, like being a transformational leader, ability to monetize tech assets, problem-solving, and collaboration, according to those surveyed.

Business leaders interviewed also share this view around the importance of soft skills to the role. When asked about their views on the CIO’s strengths as they start the role, the top four responses from over 650 business stakeholders interviewed in our CIO Transition Labs are all related to soft skills: communication, industry and market knowledge, influence, and overall leadership (figure 2).

Understanding these expectations can be important, and the process should start before a CIO comes into the role. During the interview process, CIO candidates should assess the views of the CEO and board members to understand how they define the CIO job and how they think it fits into the broader business strategy. Are the CEO and the board aligned in their views? Do they have a vision of what they want IT to be, or are they expecting the CIO to provide one? Even if candidates have been given this information previously, it’s important to confirm it directly with the board and the CEO. As discussed in a recent Deloitte article on CEO leadership in digital transformation,5 active support of the CEO is necessary for successful digital transformations. Boards and CEOs should be aligned and active participants in transformations. The answers to these questions asked early in the interview process can help the CIO understand the dynamics involved.

“I created a 90-day plan before they made their final decision,” said Darrell Riekena, who became CIO of Colonial Pipeline in June 2022. “I presented that to the CEO and other executives I interviewed with and they shared with the board of directors. Ultimately, I think that’s what convinced the executive team I was the right candidate … I had learned enough through the interview process, I treated it like I was already in the position. Here’s what I heard, what I’m going to do and shaped the first 30/60/90 days in role. It’s worked well and I use it as a scorecard to measure progress.”

During the interview process, it can also be important to connect with key stakeholders and understand the company’s financial health, its strategic vision, and—especially for external candidates—its culture. This includes learning how the board interacts, which could provide some insight into cultivating relationships with directors. Understand the reporting relationships for the role as this can often be linked to how technology is funded. Internal CIO candidates should understand the business more deeply than they may have in a previous role. For external candidates, the learning curve may be steeper, especially if there is an industry change as well. Transformational CIOs should want to understand if IT is truly a key enabler of the business, if the organization is truly ready for disruptive change, and if adequate funding will be provisioned to support transformation of the technology stack in play.

Don’t rush into the job. It can be important to take time to transition, and perhaps even take a vacation that allows time to reset and refocus on the new position. “I spent some time trying to just disconnect my mind from the challenges of the last role,” said Sabina Ewing, who became Abbott’s global CIO and vice president of business and technology services in November 2020.

Use the time during the interview process to talk to other executives within the company as well as CIOs at other organizations to help gain a deeper perspective. “I leveraged my network,” said Rom Kosla, executive vice president of IT and CIO for Ahold Delhaize’s Retail Business Services. “I talked to CIOs that knew the brand and knew the business. I also talked to the prior CIO as well to get his thoughts about the landscape.”

Take the time to listen and understand before making decisions

The conversations during the interview phase could help uncover core dynamics and expectations of the role but learning the true essence of the organization starts on the job. It’s common for any new executive to set a 100-day deadline for the transition. Sometimes, however, that could be just scratching the surface. We find that CIOs spend their first several weeks, if not months, meeting with customers, vendors, and employees to better understand expectations and priorities.

“You can’t do it in 90 days,“ said Union Pacific CIO Rahul Jalali, who moved into the role in November 2020. “First 90 days was just around listening. I told my directs to not expect a decision out of me … I’m new to the industry and don’t have the relationships. We really took the next 180 days to establish that. I had to tell the board and the organization to please stay patient—we are thinking through a good strategic vision.”

In our experience, the first 90 days are often needed to listen, understand, and observe the environment, culture, and organizational dynamics of the new role. Use this time to help get a pulse on the view of IT and look for quick wins enabled by people who know what to do. Take time to get to know your team and help unlock your people’s potential. Deloitte’s CIO Transition Labs are typically timed to this point to carefully plan the next 180 days. Identifying and focusing on the critical outcomes tech leaders set for themselves can be essential. Establishing these expectations and timelines clearly with the impatient stakeholders, executive team, and tech organization can be important. CIOs may need to navigate a balance of executives wanting them to contribute immediately and their tech teams focused on fixing issues first.

To understand the priorities, listening tours shouldn’t just focus on upper management. CIOs should consider spending time with front-line workers deep in the organization—go to the distribution centers, the oil rigs, the retail outlets, the urgent care centers—to get first-hand feedback from people who use technology in the daily execution of their jobs.

“I started getting out into the field every single week,” said Jalali. “There is zero substitute for in-person learning. Understand how people are working and what are their problems. How do they view technology? Also start interacting with customers. It doesn’t matter what we think of ourselves, but how do customers view us?”

By being there in person, CIOs may gain a better understanding of how technology is applied in the organization. Workers may be more likely to be open and transparent in face-to-face conversations, and they could see the CIO as a person and approachable leader, rather than a title.

Deloitte’s CIO Transition Lab data shows that business stakeholder participants consistently expect new CIOs to drive alignment with business strategy, establish a strategic IT road map, and focus on developing a high-performing IT talent and culture in their first six to 12 months (figure 3).

“Don’t jump to conclusions based on what you know,” said Jalali. “Really learn how the company operates, how it makes money, how operations work, understand the role of technology. Don’t get into the ‘I’ve seen this before’ mentality.” Successful CIOs show up as business leaders—they adjust their thinking and priorities based on what they learn about the business and how it uses technology.

For internal promotions, the challenges may be slightly different. They may already have been involved in developing the strategy and priorities. They should use their early days in the role to differentiate themselves from their predecessors and revisit stakeholder expectations. Rather than assuming stakeholders are happy with the status quo, it can be important to assess opportunities for improvement.

“I was involved in creating the strategy and deciding priorities, so I felt I owned the recommendations and decisions before I became CIO,” said Taren Rodabaugh, CIO of Bridgestone Americas and previously CIO at Harley-Davidson. “The challenge is to take the path that you helped develop and define what your role is or how your future direction may be different. Deliberately ask yourself when you need to deviate from the path you helped create to one that differentiates you from the previous CIO because the company needs a new direction.”

Developing a plan is a first step, not the destination

By the end of the first 90–120 days, many CIOs can establish their strategic technology vision and produce an initial view of their strategy aligned to the expectations heard during the listening tour. Organizational culture may influence the timeline of developing a road map as getting buy-in and establishing trust before making changes can be important and can take longer than anticipated.

In Deloitte’s CIO Transition Labs, CIOs assess the top priorities they want to focus on for the next 180 days. Over the past two years, the top priorities for these individuals have been talent and team culture, followed by vision and strategy, and delivery and execution (figure 4). This is a shift from our 2018 research, when operational excellence was the top priority, followed by vision and talent.

In these labs, CIO participants also assess where they currently rate their organizations across multiple capabilities and where they’d like to be in 18–24 months. The priorities we see emerging from labs closely align with the largest capability gaps, with business partnership and tech vision and agenda sitting at the top, followed closely by talent and leadership development.

New leaders sometimes can start making organizational changes too quickly as they prioritize assessing talent. This can create a lack of trust and alignment among their leadership team. Demonstrating patience before making quick changes and engaging the IT leadership team to better understand organizational dynamics could encourage support for your technology strategy, vision, and plan, as well as help you assess talent early on.

Creating and delivering a plan, however, likely isn’t enough. CIOs should make sure their team understands, supports, and are willing to execute the plan. “I needed buy-in,” Ewing said. “I needed to bring people along. I had sessions with my team where we worked together to formulate the strategy. You have to be bulletproof on the fundamentals of what you are driving toward.”

Look for change agents and people who are curious—those who ask “why” and “what-if” during the listening period—to help you drive your plan’s key initiatives. “I was trying to assess my team to understand what I had and what I didn't have in terms of technology skills, in terms of leadership skills, and what people were looking for in terms of career opportunities as well,” said Kristie Grinnell, who became the CIO of DXC Technology in December 2021.

Once the CIO has the right team and talent in place, the priorities may shift away from talent assessment to creating and socializing a strategic road map and vision—including developing an innovative IT culture, optimizing business operations, establishing processes for cost and efficiency, and modernizing core systems. “I shared my plan with everyone—with my boss, with my teams, so there was no guessing of what I was looking at,” Kosla said.

As the role has changed over the past few years, it can be important to agree on the full scope of the role, otherwise you could be put in a position where you can’t make the impact needed. Consider getting clarity on the role up front and then cultivate and grow trust around what you develop. Savvy CIOs rally their organizations behind core values and a brand that is well understood and supported by their teams.

As the strategy and road map are being developed, CIOs should have a plan for getting stakeholders on board with the changes and closing the loop on their listening tour. “I intentionally have a change and communications person reporting to me. [It] helps me think about the impact, the why, and how we can move people forward,” said Grinnell. “Probably 50% of my time is stakeholder management—that’s my job. I provide direction and strategy, but I’m also managing the stakeholders along the way to say, ‘Are we there?’ We have roadshow decks that we use to share our strategy and we are making sure we use their words back. The more I can use their language, the more it will resonate. That makes a huge difference in getting buy-in—they hear their words and recognize you are listening.”

Transitioning CIOs can often underestimate the power of relationships in achieving their goals and agenda. Make sure you have a relationship chart that identifies the importance, relationship strength, and frequency of interactions with key stakeholders. By documenting these relationships, you can identify focus areas and develop plans for improving relationships and interactions.

Recognizing the culture around the pace of change

In our conversations with CIOs, they stressed the importance of listening and patience. The listening tour during the first 100 days is just the beginning. The need to listen and solicit feedback from stakeholders—and adjusting strategy accordingly—is unending.

But as more information is gleaned from these communications, CIOs can develop a strategy and regular cadence of stakeholder engagement rooted in expectations and the needs of the business.

“We needed to keep the board abreast of how technology can become an enabler,” Union Pacific’s Jalali said. “What we build here is going to be a strategy for the foreseeable future. Our core leadership team spent many months putting together a comprehensive three-year tech strategy. And we centered it around four pillars: people, process, technology, and cybersecurity.”

A key part of the CIO’s job, of course, is designing the IT governance. New CIOs should remember that new governance models can be implemented only as quickly as the culture allows. According to Deloitte’s 2023 Global Tech Leader Survey,6 CIOs often have sole responsibility for architecture such as selecting technologies and platforms; however, they more often share responsibility with business leaders in overseeing digital transformation. Similarly, managing operational risk and security is often the joint purview of tech leaders and the C-suite rather than just IT.

“If you just make your own little decisions in your silo, you're going to be really efficient in your silo, but you just made the world a nightmare for somebody else,” DXC Technology's Grinnell said. “So what we are doing is bringing everyone around the table, and that's really opening people's eyes to the fact that there's only so much we can afford, and there's only so much change that a business can take at once.”

The CIO should also set realistic expectations so that other leaders understand the tech priorities. By working with C-suite leaders to identify how to deploy resources and capital effectively and efficiently, the new CIO can give other leaders a well-reasoned plan for what will be done first and what must wait.

“Leading the IT function is not just delivering projects or running operations,” Bridgestone Americas’ Rodabaugh said. “It’s also having solid business acumen and ensuring you’re improving business value. Technology is changing all the time. How are you providing that thought partnership to your stakeholders?”

While it’s natural for a new CIO to focus on the future, it can be important to remember that the past is not the past. Tech leaders may need to deal with decisions that were made before they took the job—whether they were hired externally or internally. Past decisions, even if they were made by others, can inform decisions moving forward.

“Sometimes, you think ‘everything behind me was not my decision,’” Ahold Delhaize’s Kosla says. “But it was your team’s decision. It’s important to remember that you own the past as well as the future.”

Recognizing those past decisions and weighing them against future strategy can foster trust among the leadership team and help build a cohesive operation.

At the same time, CIOs should understand the pace of change within the organization. Deloitte’s previous article on CIO transitions has found that many CIOs want to make talent decisions more quickly, for example. But they also should respect the culture and how it views change. It can be important to be patient and move at a speed that’s a good cultural fit. Most participants of the CIO Transition Labs overestimate the pace at which they can move on their priorities.

“You have to know and understand the way the management or executive team operates the company,” said Darrell Riekena, who was named CIO of Colonial Pipeline in June 2022 after six years as CIO of Republic National Distributing Company. “Who are the key decision-makers? Is it the executive team or is it a subset of that executive team? What are the dynamics with the board of directors?”

CIOs should work with peers to help ensure everyone is aligned on strategy and key decisions. In-person interactions can be important in building rapport with peers and team members. Approaching a new role with humility and demonstrating a willingness to work with peers can also foster trust. “Learning the environment, reading your peers, and bringing them along with you is an approach more likely to succeed,” according to Riekena. Although new, externally hired CIOs may have been faced with similar situations in past roles, each organization has a different culture and attitude toward how they approach change.

“Make sure your ears are bigger than your eyes,” says Grinnell. “Be quiet in your listening tour rather than trying to solve the problem.”

A key to long-term success: Staying curious

Technology and the role of the CIO are seemingly continuing to increase in importance to an organization’s overall success as tech executives are now responsible for much more than just overseeing IT systems. It can be essential for new CIOs to be able to come into an organization, get the lay of the land, adapt to the new culture, and seamlessly transition so as to not disrupt the business and start adding value as soon as possible. Understanding these expectations should start during the interview phase and evolve through the initial listening tour.

CIOs may benefit from staying curious and adapting a lifelong learner mindset. Technology leaders should demonstrate flexibility and agility in supporting organizational needs. Technology skills can become dated or obsolete in as little as 2.5 years.7 As a result, successful tech leaders should make their organizations more agile, iterative, and experimental to stay relevant. Creativity, problem-solving, and other human skills are greater differentiators for tech talent than ever before. CIOs should help the organization understand and commit to these changes.

As the role of technology changes within organizations, so do the challenges new CIOs face, such as a proliferation of technology-related C-suite roles, adapting to corporate cultures, managing competing priorities, addressing tech talent, and navigating complicated stakeholder relationships. CIOs should consider adjusting to these changing expectations as they help develop and empower agile teams that are accountable for delivering business results.

  1. Khalid Kark, Charles Dean, and Caroline Brown, Taking charge: The essential guide to CIO transitions, Deloitte Insights, September 11, 2017.

    View in Article
  2. Kark, Dean, and Brown, Taking charge, Deloitte Insights.

    View in Article
  3. Lou DiLorenzo et al.,  Understanding the five competencies of transformational technology leadershipDeloitte Insights, March 29, 2023.

    View in Article
  4. Deloitte Insights, 2023 Global Technology Leadership Study; Forbes Technology Council, “15 must-have skills for any successful CIO candidate,” April 24, 2020.View in Article
  5. Benjamin Finzi et al., How the CEO’s leadership in digital transformation can tip the scales toward success, Deloitte Insights, June 28, 2022.

    View in Article
  6. DiLorenzo et al., Understanding the five competencies of transformational leadership.

    View in Article
  7. Sonia Malik, “Skills transformation for the 2021 workplace,” IBM Training and Skills Blog, December 7, 2020. View in Article

The CIO Program and the authors would like to thank Michael Wilson and Adrienne Wyzga for sharing their perspectives on this important topic. The authors would also like to thank Chuck Dean for his support for this article and leadership over the past several years. They would like to extend their thanks to Noam Neusner and Loren Steffy for their editorial eye, and Rithu Thomas and Preetha Devan and the entire Deloitte Insights team for their editorial and production skills, patience, and flexibility.

Cover image by: Jim Slatton

CIO Program

CIOs lead unique and complex lives—operating at the intersection of business and technology to drive transformation and deliver business value. To help CIOs manage these challenges and issues, Deloitte’s CIO Program delivers trusted, personal experiences and relevant insights to technology leaders at the moments that matter most. We empower CIOs and technology leaders to deliver business value and keep pace with the latest research and emerging technologies across their career life cycle.

Lou DiLorenzo Jr

Lou DiLorenzo Jr

Managing director | AI & Data Strategy leader | National US CIO Program leader


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