While I’ve never been much of a data whiz, I’ve always loved getting carried away by a good character study. So when I began dissecting this year’s State of the CIO study, I was fascinated by the story the datapoints were telling me about the reality of modern CIO leadership.

I was stuck on one in particular: that addressing security threats was the top issue forcing CIOs to redirect their attention away from strategic and innovative tasks. What resonated with me wasn’t so much the ever-present nature of malicious actors as it was the familiar feeling of being pulled away from inspiring work to put out fires. Something I feel every single day was being mirrored by the world’s most innovative tech leaders.

In a conversation about the study with my colleague Lee Rennick, Executive Director of CIO Communities at Foundry, I knew she would have great insights into what the reality of leadership looked like for today’s CIO, and how tech vendors should be supporting them in both the day-to-day and on tomorrow’s roadmap.

The complex state of CIO leadership

I asked Lee specifically about how CIOs are juggling the multifaceted requirements of their roles, with the research showing that today’s CIO is being asked to be both a strategic business advisor at the highest level as well as the one to pull their organizations out of daily technical crises. 

“There’s a greater awareness of what it means to be a leader,” Lee said, noting that CIOs and ITDMs are becoming increasingly focused on leadership training, human resources, and upskilling themselves in these areas.

“However, with this workload, the leader is stretched in many different directions,” continued Lee, adding “and we have a bit of an issue with security in that it’s still hard to find effective teams doing security operations, so we have a bit of a gap there.” She recalled a CIO telling her that hiring a security manager took them 168 days. That’s half a year worth of strategic planning time lost to security threats and protocols falling on that CIO’s desk.

To understand how CIOs were coping and remaining optimistic, we turned to two of her CIO Leadership Live episodes.

Manfred Boudreaux-Dehmer

There is no such thing as just an IT vision. It needs to be fully part and parcel with the business vision to calibrate the entire organization towards it—regardless of what happens.

Manfred Boudreaux-Dehmer

Following the North Star

Manfred Boudreaux-Dehmer, CIO of NATO, talked about his leadership philosophy with Lee, noting that the modern CIO role called for guidance, adaptability, and trust. 

“As a leader,” he said, “it starts with being a painter. You need to collectively, with your team, define a vision that is in line with the business vision. You paint that on the sky, and that is the North Star. You refer to the North Star at all times, to calibrate the entire organization towards it—regardless of what happens.” While Manfred sets this vision for his IT team, importantly he notes “there is no such thing as just an IT vision. It needs to be fully part and parcel with the business vision.”

With the strategic vision set, Manfred went on to share how he activates his teams and those around him—citing sometimes the need to step in and become hands-on. “There’s a degree of being an architect,” he says, “to define a self-sufficient organization that relies on its own judgement at various levels.” While he will frequently step in to help teams execute, “you largely let the organization in itself loose to achieve the vision.”

In theory, this is how leaders from all departments want to structure their department—in a self-sufficient way guided by a single vision. But what about hurdles, internal friction, and everyday emergencies like security threats that get in the way of this ideal state of operation? That’s where Manfred says “you need to be a catalyst,” someone who can set things in motion. “Whether there are stumbling stones in your path, roadblocks you need to remove, or connections you need to forge with other departments or entities,” said Manfred, “that is also an important part of being a leader.”

John Pinard DUCA

My interactions have changed. Now I spend as much time with senior leadership talking about the development of our business as I do with my technical team.

John Pinard
VP, IT Operations, Infrastructure & Cybersecurity, DUCA Financial Services Credit Union

The balancing act

Manfred’s leadership style of setting an IT strategy in harmony with the business, of maneuvering their own and other teams towards it at all times, and of forging alliances across the organization is a relatively new one for IT leaders. I think we may have even taken for granted the rate at which the CIO’s status has been elevated to key strategic advisor, as Lee’s guest John Pinard points out.

As VP, IT Operations, Infrastructure & Cybersecurity for DUCA Financial Services Credit Union, John shared with Lee just how much the nature of his work has changed over his nearly 30-year career in IT. 

“Back in my early days, IT were those guys your threw in the basement,” he said. “Now, I spend as much time with our senior leadership team talking about business and the development of our business as I do talking with my technical team on what needs to be done on our technical side.”

The reality is, today’s CIOs are truly immersed in both sides of the business—now deeply rooted in the business vision, while still hands-on in technical execution every day. And although they seem energized by this newer strategic remit, as anyone can imagine, the need to pivot their attention regularly can cause inefficiencies on both sides of the aisle. 

Lee says this is where vendors can help: “That idea of vendor collaboration—that’s really key in [supporting CIOs].” As we learned from Parm Sandhu as well as throughout our research, CIOs need external support now more than ever to make up for internal skill shortages and to keep up with technology’s rapid pace of change. Tech vendors that can tip the scales and help free up the CIO’s time to focus and execute on their strategic visions will be the ones that form lasting relationships with these leaders.

To better understand the areas that CIOs are looking to offload to vendors, as well as their key strategic focuses, download the 2024 State of the CIO study.