Survival of the Fittest: How C-suite Roles Are Evolving - The CIO

Part Six | The CIO 

The past four years have seen major turning points in the CIO role. The cloud and cyber-security. Remote working and big data. AI and automation. These all occupy the widening agenda of tech leaders. And the agenda is evolving fast: business agility has accelerated thanks to a dwindling reliance on traditional ERP systems and mainframe implementation. Today’s Chief Information Officers (and equivalents) are running a marathon. What factors are determining the fittest Leaders For What’s Next? 

Key Questions 

  1. How has the role of the CIO evolved over 10 years? 
  2. What are the key performance factors?  
  3. What functions do the different role species perform? 
  4. How can organizations hire the fittest CIO? 
Survival Of The Fittest CIO

Key Messages

Data remains the deciding factor. Cloud and data fuel AI and organizational ability to anticipate and meet the fluctuating needs of consumers or branch into new industries. 

The Chief Information and Chief Technology Officer are now equally sought-after. Amrop compared its global assignment data over two 5-year periods over the past ten years (mainly large midcaps). The first period saw almost twice as many demands for CIOs as for CTOs. The roles are equally sought-after and account for 69% of Amrop’s global digital assignments. 

But within many organizations, the CIO and CTO roles are merging. As digitization transforms organizations and business models, the distinction between CIO and CTO is often blurring. Still, for most firms the role must remain the top C-suite position: Digital, Cyber-security, Data and Transformation Officers should report into it.  

Technology must remain a distinct function, not an add-on. While CIO’s must understand HR, operations, finance (and vice versa), being tech-conversant is not enough to fill these sophisticated shoes. Literacy means a Masters degree or professional education following considerable experience. 

As digital flows into the core of organizations, the CIO is at the strategic center. The role should move into the board. If a lean board, the CIO should report to the CEO or CFO. Business and IT strategy now form a double helix, and around half of boards are now exploring AI, as it pulls technology in its wake. 

Bigger branches need deep roots and wide support. Like the CHRO, the CIO needs business partners on the terrain. And whilst boards are becoming more supportive, some still prioritize short-term returns rather than the future of their investments.  

CIOs must master four domains: Strategy, Organization, Culture and Skills. Within the areas set out by Amrop’s Digital Competency Model©, inspirational and virtual leadership will become key levers for organizational change. Blending the two will take exceptional skills, as inspiring people at a distance is no easy task. 

This young domain still requires maturity. Candidates should be minimum in their late thirties and typically in their forties or fifties. Even if organizations are seeking an ‘embryonic’ CIO who will grow into a developing role, maturity is still a must. 


Today’s digital and technology leaders are marathon runners. The technical complexity of the role has increased. So have the stakes and the risks. CIOs and equivalents need a wide strategic bandwidth, high connectivity with the board and organization, and inspirational change management.  

“The major impact on the CIO agenda happened three or four years ago; the cloud, cyber-security, remote work. Those, and big data, were the major turning points,” says one Amrop Partner. Today, businesses are more agile, thanks to less reliance on traditional ERP systems and mainframe implementations, in favor of cloud-based subscription models. “Businesses have become much quicker at adapting new versions and technologies and the entry barriers are much lower.” 

“Of course, in the e-commerce space, for players such as Amazon, digital was already happening,” explains Amrop’s Global Digital Practice Leader. “So, there were two kinds of processes in companies, those focused on e-commerce and digital, making a huge impact, and others focusing on digitizing or automating the enterprise.” 

“Many companies had done a lot of M&A, taking over others with an IT legacy and there were big integration questions. A lot of the big corporates had about eighty different kernels in SAP and pushed them back in that period to twelve. I’m now looking at a company which has only three, because they’re focusing on data. It’s a different thinking.” 

The twin forces of cloud and data remain paramount and fuel AI, today’s game-changer 

“If you don’t have your data in order, you can’t have proper AI,” he continues. An Amrop Managing Partner recalls a conversation with an AI specialist in Hong Kong. “His company is leading the insurance industry in data use. They cross sell and are deploying AI and machine learning to create a health business and tap into the whole ecosystem.” Furthermore, digitization enables the company’s representatives to meet with their customers “on a daily basis.”  

The Amrop Partner raises another force, cyber-security: “We saw an accelerated change to that role a few years back with the major cyber-crime attacks.”  

Ultimately, the change in the CIO role is due to a bouquet of factors: “the impact of work on company infrastructure, on how we use data and insights and digitize pretty much everything in and around ourselves. That journey has already started, and many companies are quite far down that road. Or at least they know where they’re going.” 

"They have moved away from being a cost center to a mission-critical strategic unit."


How has the C-suite digital/technology domain evolved over ten years? Amrop analyzed its global database of C-suite assignments1. Looking at the proportion accounted for by each role type we compared the picture for two periods: 2014 to 2018 and 2019 to 2023. The first saw almost twice as many assignments for Chief Information Officers as for Chief Technology Officers. But the numbers have evened out in the past five years.  

The CIO and CTO

A recent global study by IBM2 highlights the plasticity of the CIO role and the dissolving barriers between CIO and CTO: “The CIO title, along with CTO, has become more fluid as the role of the technology function grows. Several CIOs even describe their role as a combination of what may be considered both CIO and CTO responsibilities.” IBM asked technology leaders who owned each of a range of responsibilities: exclusively or primarily the CTO or CIO, noting that the sharing of responsibilities could vary by industry and organization. 

How did this come about? In the opening phases of the digital revolution, says Amrop’s Global Digital Practice Leader, the CIO’s main purpose lay in transforming the organization and building new business models. This remains the case for large, production-centered corporates. For them, digitization is a means to an end and a company will adopt a tactical approach to process automation: “it will put in more digital concepts where it can.” In such organizations: “the CIO is the top technology/IT leader.”   

But today, things are more ambiguous. Many production-based companies have completed their evolution into technology organizations or are on their way: transforming into service providers or developing digital services to better communicate with customers. Their C-suite roles are merging accordingly. “The role of the CIO becomes more like a CTO role because it implies every technology. The CIO is the top leader and under him or her, you have specialists. But the story is still being written. 


The early digital/technology revolution also saw the emergence of the Chief Digital Officer. “This came from Gartner’s bimodal concept: on one side you have your traditional organization which you automate with digital products and solutions. For example, in the Netherlands, LeasePlan set up a separate digital platform selling used cars. “So, you had two systems, and within that system, you had the Chief Digital Officer.”  

However, for most organizations, digital cannot be the over-arching position. “Consider a producer of dairy products in factories run on Operational Technology, rather than Information Technology. There will be more robots, but the supply chain and operational parts won’t change. We need to eat food, and that’s not going to be run by a digital officer who doesn’t understand dairy production.” 

An Amrop Managing Partner echoes this. “The Chief Information Officer needs to be responsible for everything related to technology. An organization needs a fully integrated model, rather than new silos. “Additional roles, not integrated, are a big mistake.” 

But the need for digital specialists should not be under-estimated, even if they are not necessarily in the C-suite. An Amrop Managing Partner confirms that in consumer and retail: “the digital officer has to link all the way to the final consumers, to know who the super consumers are and how they influence all the other consumers.” 


For organizations above a certain size, the Chief Information Security Officer is today part of the scenery, often working with the risk function. However, “It’s become a different species, because today’s technology is very complex and involves a lot of people,” says Amrop’s Global Digital Practice Leader. “It’s a different dynamic, putting a fence around the organization — a very complex thing to do. You do have a transformation element here, and if the CIO is not cyber-security-savvy, or doesn’t see its importance, then the CISO is set apart. But as the CIO becomes a better leader, the CISO will fall under the CIO. There is also a dynamic that says the roles will merge into one, because all technology must be cyber-secure.” Within that blend, vertical knowledge nonetheless remains critical.  

“It’s a globalization issue as well, because if you are operating more in the global space you are vulnerable to cyber attacks. And that’s a big change from ten years ago.” 

The CISO/CIO collaboration is vital, but not always a given, as outlined in a recent report by Amrop and JM Search.3 CISOs and CIOs must alleviate tension, arrive at the best practices in their own collaboration, and communicate a unified message to the board and executive leadership team. 


Chief Transformation Officer

“For an organization transforming from a production to a service company you might have a Chief Transformation Officer (formerly more the Chief Digital Officer) to help digitize and come up with a different model and services. This needs different skills than implementing SAP and connecting it with automation systems such as Operational Technology,” says Amrop’s Global Digital Practice Leader. “If you have a CIO or a CTO on the board, then under that a Transformation Officer could be responsible for the big change programs in the technology space.” 

The future of the species 

The trend to merge the roles of CTO and CIO and indeed CISO, follows a general pattern for other functional domains. “The roles will all tend to merge back into the business and become equally important but integrated,” says this Amrop Partner. “You can’t be a good Supply Chain Officer if you don’t understand IT. Or a good CFO if you don’t understand digital and data. You can’t be a good CHRO if you don’t understand everything related to IT and the data side.” 

However, the digital/technology domain remains distinct, and while other C-suite functions need to be conversant: “The CIO is a proper function that is really important for the organization,” says the leader of Amrop’s Global Digital Practice. “It’s a specialized role like HR or Finance. It will always remain so.” 

For the remainder of this article, we use the term ‘CIO’ to refer to the C-suite position responsible for technology. 


As ‘data’ becomes ‘information’, the CIO is rising.  

The position belongs on the board, or close to it, he says. What of smaller organizations, or those who want a lean board? “If it’s only a two-person board, some people must report to the CEO and some to the CFO.” Beyond the C-suite: “We are seeing on non-executive boards that a lot of digital board members came into the organization.” 

AI is a propellant: “I know from attending the Gartner Forum last year that around half of the boards of larger corporations have already discussed AI with the Chief Executive Officer. Half of CEOs have already experimented with ChatGPT or other tools.” 

Double helix: IT and business strategy are intertwined 

“You once designed a business strategy then an IT strategy,” says this Amrop Partner. “You don’t do that now. Digital is the business nowadays and you can’t divide the two.” Of all the C-suite domains, says an Amrop Managing Partner, technology and digitization have evolved the most. “They have always been one of the biggest cost centers, but they have moved to ‘mission-critical strategic unit’. 

Bigger branches need deep roots and wide support 

“A proper function has business partners,” says the leader of Amrop’s Digital Practice. “Just as you have the HR business partner, you have an IT business partner. So it’s a normal model, no different to any other function. Let’s not design strange new concepts around that.”  

The CIO must also be well-supported: “Any member of the management team, and particularly the CEO, need to be very conversant with these topics,” says an Amrop Managing Partner. “You still have lots of executive boards where the majority of people are not sufficiently technology-savvy and not good sparring partners for the CIO.” Indeed, research by Amrop’s Global Digital Practice found that only 30% of digital leaders (and equivalents) believe that their board generally demonstrates understanding and support.4 

Progress has been made, says Amrop’s Global Practice Leader and author of the report. But some firms still need to examine their priorities. “Especially if they’re only driven by profit and not looking at the future of an investment. It’s highly strategic and important that the board understands that.” 

As the CIO role matures, the links with lateral domains must strengthen  

“It’s becoming a more grown-up function where you really need to understand the different sub-domains to be a good leader. The same can be said of the CFO who needs to understand tax, investments, controlling, or the CHRO who needs to understand industrial relations, people, culture, and HR tech. “If there is a people system that allows you to track relevant employment data, churn and satisfaction, I’d expect the HR to understand and know about that system and its possibilities.” So, a C-suite member should be ‘literate’ about their own domain, and ‘conversational’ about the rest. 

Moreover: “IP creation means working with the Chief Legal Officer and here, when we talk about AI, ChatGPT is very dangerous. An R&D staff member could be inputting a recipe into ChatGPT to find out how it can be simplified and in doing so, enters one of the ingredients. Just as you don’t want USB sticks lying around, ChatGPT is comparable.  

“The COO is also very interesting when it comes to digitizing operations into more of a service and selling it to other companies.” 

Particularly for technical companies, private equity are scrutinizing the CIO/CEO relationship: “They examine how much [the CEO] knows about the technology. Is there a good CIO next to him or her, helping to really make the change?” 

"How do I make sure that doesn't create a mess, but a coherent strategy?"

Profile & Hiring

With four dimensions (Strategy, Organization, Culture and Skills) containing 24 items, Amrop’s Digital Competency Model© captures the core aptitudes for CIOs and equivalents. The Amrop Global Digital Practice has established that those working for High Performing Organizations (posting 3-year growth) are bigger-picture thinkers and better at adding business value.5 They score significantly higher on all four dimensions of the ADCM model than counterparts working for Low Performing Organizations (posting 3-year decreasing or flat growth). As the full article sets out, two indicators will rise: inspirational leadership and virtual leadership.  

The ‘T-shaped profile’ needs to be more deeply engraved than ever 

The evolution in the CIO role has clear implications for hiring organizations in terms of the source and maturity of candidates. “The CIO role is a profession; there is a lot of education,” says the leader of Amrop’s Global Digital Practice. “Most CIOs come more from an information technology education and have a Masters degree.” 

This reflects the change in the role. Technology is no longer an ‘add-on’. “In the past it was mainly economics or finance people who moved into the IT domain. There were fewer people with IT/Digital DNA. Of course, you still have political sciences people who know a lot about this domain because they’ve worked in it for thirty years. You typically see that they are educating themselves and following all kinds of courses.” 

Even a young domain requires maturity 

Does the relative recency of the technology domain mean that today’s fittest leaders are also young digital natives? “It’s important to hire an executive search firm who can advise on what the CIO role should look like, looking at the future state of the organization as well as its current state,” he advises. “And you can hire a young CIO, or a profile who is more of an IT director and let this person develop into the CIO because your organization is going to expand.” 

He recalls how a legacy semiconductor player hired the CIO of a global pharmaceutical organization as transformation leader “because it’s such a big role. It depends on size and if the organization is globalizing or regionalizing. But seniority is really important. And typically these profiles are in around their fifties. In the past, their forties.” Even the embryonic candidate who will evolve in the role is no spring chicken: “...also already in their forties, or end thirties. But not younger.” 

An Amrop Managing Partner signals that older technology executives are in demand by organizations that are still dealing with legacy infrastructure. “So, it’s going to be an extremely diverse population in technology — of all ages and backgrounds.” 

In other Amrop articles, we examine the evolution of the CEO, CFO, the COO, and the CHRO. 


1 Large mid-caps account for the majority of the data analyzed. 

2 ‘The 2021 CIO Study, The CIO Revolution, Breaking barriers, creating value,’ (2021), The IBM Institute for Business Value.  

3 ‘Digitization on Boards 6th Edition’ (2023), Amrop.  

4 ‘Digitization on Boards, 4th Edition’ (2021), Amrop. 

5 ‘Digitization on Boards, 4th Edition’ (2021), Amrop. 

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Survival of the Fittest VI: The CIO