Breaking out of IT

The disruptive CIO is becoming a popular phrase to describe a new brand of IT leader that challenges the status quo, introduces radical new approaches and acts as a catalyst for change across the organisation. And a small, but growing number of CIOs already refer to themselves as being disruptive whilst many others aspire to become so.

Why is there a need to be disruptive?

Businesses are facing many challenges in the digital world, not least from potentially disruptive competitors – often start-ups – that are using technology to meet customer needs in new ways. These new competitors are changing the rules of business and creating more dynamic markets where speed and agility are more important than size and brand. And they also think differently to traditional businesses, they have different ways of working and they have a relentless focus on the customer, which they use to shape everything the company does.

To rise to this challenge, traditional organisations have to build new capabilities; they need to be able to match the speed, agility and customer focus of companies that were built for digital. And they need to do this as quickly as possible if they want to avoid getting left behind. In other words they need to disrupt themselves to avoid becoming a victim of disruption.

Does it have to be the CIO?

Technology is the driving the digital revolution; it is enabling new ways of working, business models, products and services. So it makes sense that the executive that is charged with leading the disruption understands technology. This does not automatically mean that the CIO will get the job though. And, as we have seen with the emergence of the Chief Digital Officer role, which in many cases has been given to someone outside of IT, CIOs are often overlooked for the role of chief disruptor.

Whilst technology plays a central role in transforming an organisation for digital, it takes a lot more than tech knowledge to be an effective leader of the disruption. Communication, networking and influencing skills are also prerequisites for the role as are knowledge of the wider business, including its commercial drivers, markets, competitors and, of course, customers. And then there is the ability to understand and, where necessary, change culture, attitudes and behaviours at all levels of the organisation. Many of these areas have not traditionally been part of the CIO agenda and so it is perhaps not surprising then that the CEO looks elsewhere in the organisation for someone to lead the transformation of the business.

However, there are a growing number of exceptions to this trend with some IT leaders moving to CDO roles whilst others have had digital added to their CIO responsibilities. And we only have to look at the top of this year’s CIO 100 for examples of IT leaders who have successfully made this switch. I suspect this trend will continue as more businesses recognise that the CIO and the IT function have a key role to play in digital and that there are inherent risks involved in allowing other executives to make technology decisions without the involvement of IT.

How do you become a disruptive CIO?

The vast majority of the current crop of disruptive CIOs do have an advantage though: they are all relatively new in their positions (and in many cases to their organisations) having been appointed to their roles within the last two or three years. And they have been appointed with a mandate to disrupt. Indeed, it is likely that their ability to drive transformation across the business got them the job in the first place.

Front cover advertBut what about the rest of the CIO community, those IT leaders that have been with their organisation for a number of years and for whom being disruptive is not part of their remit? Stable, reliable, resilient, etc. are the words that most organisations tend to want to hear from their CIO, not disruption. The origins of IT are in supporting processes, ensuring consistency and quality, and controlling and enforcing ways of working, not disrupting them. And many IT leaders that have been in their role for some time are likely to have built their reputations on doing just that. So when the CEO is looking for an executive to be a disruptive force within the organisation, the CIO is often the last person they would consider for the job.

Hence for such CIOs, being associated with IT and its traditional role places a constraint on their ability to be seen as someone that can disrupt the organisation. For them to become a disruptive CIO, they first need to break out of the box that being in IT has placed around them and their career prospects.

Act now, ask for forgiveness later

I often hear this advice being given to CIOs that do not have a remit to disrupt. But it is rarely that simple for most IT leaders when the entire corporate machine is geared towards preventing this type of behaviour. And, even if the CIO could just make changes across the organisation without first gaining approval, the harsh reality is that the consequences of doing so are often greater than merely having to seek forgiveness. What if the changes fail? Or cause the wrong type of disruption? What if they encroach on another executive’s remit? What if the CIO’s boss does not like surprises? Acting without approval or remit – even when it is possible – is still more likely to be a career limiting move for most IT leaders.

Breaking out of IT will take time for many CIOs. And It will involve a dual process of gaining the skills and experience required to lead change across the wider organisation whilst also gradually changing the perception of their role and that of the IT function. This process is a subject that I have covered many times in this column as well as in my book, Disrupt IT. The good news – as we see each year in the CIO 100 – is that a growing number of IT leaders understand the need to change and are beginning to do something about it.

If you are a CIO that wants to reposition your role or if you would benefit from working with a mentor who can help you develop the skills required to break out of IT, then please contact me or visit my website,


  1. […] What does it mean to be a disruptive CIO? We’re seeing this phrase thrown around a lot recently and in this article, The CIO Leader breaks it down. In today’s increasingly digital world, the CIO is responsible for driving the technology of a business to keep pace. So, how can you be the right kind of disruptive? How can you, as CIO, change the landscape of how the business approaches technology? Read Breaking out of IT to find out.  […]


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