‘CIOs Are Required To Be More Than Just Innovative Technologists’

Sastry Durvasula, CIO at TIAA, talks about what the role demands today, and how he’s taking on new challenges at the investment powerhouse.

Sastry Durvasula has seen a lot of change in the position of information chief at enterprise companies in recent years.

The CIO and chief client services officer at TIAA, the New York City-based provider of retirement and other investment solutions with over $1.2 trillion in assets under management, spoke with StrategicCIO360 about how the job has changed, how he’s responding and what he thinks about AI.

CIOs play a crucial role in driving and leading digital transformation and shaping future businesses. Do you have—and have you communicated—a clear vision for the future of the organization and how technology can enable and power that vision?

Throughout my career, I have witnessed remarkable changes within the industry. One of the most notable is the role of the CIO in Fortune 500 companies.

Nowadays, CIOs are required to be more than just innovative technologists focused on driving business growth. We have evolved into shaping and creating strategic business value, driving digital transformation for clients and colleagues, incubating fintech and new business opportunities, and building data and AI powered enterprises. I call this the CIO-plus role.

Our client services and technology organization within TIAA aligns with a specific strategy: powering business growth and fueling innovation, while transforming the core. This strategy lays the foundation for everything else, including our operating model and hiring for the right talent. This strategy is tied to our company’s mission to deliver lifetime income for all with investments that build a better world.

The operating model I designed consisted of business-facing CIOs for each of our individual businesses, such as our retirement, wealth management and [our] $1.3 trillion asset management businesses. I established enterprise technology shared services for our core shared services. This structure allowed for effective alignment between the technology organization and the diverse needs of our different business units.

In terms of technology strategy, I created horizontals that encompassed various areas. These included driving a digital-first approach, building customer-obsessed products, leveraging data and AI to propel our enterprise forward, focusing on next-generation infrastructure and cloud services, prioritizing secure-by-design cyber capabilities, and fostering technology partnerships within a broader ecosystem.

To support these horizontals, I assessed the existing talent within the organization and actively recruited top talent to fill gaps and created opportunities for internal talent. In conjunction with hiring new talent, we have created a robust Guild Network to cross-train and upskill our existing employees in skills of the future including data and AI, and the cloud.

Throughout the talent acquisition process, we remained committed to the principles of inclusion, diversity and equity and considered specific attributes and qualities necessary for leaders to thrive in our unique environment, given that our company has a rich 105-year history and a distinct culture.

Personally, I take great pride in the fact that 55 percent of my leadership team, my direct reports, are women in technology. Building a diverse team not only fosters a breadth of perspectives but also yields tangible benefits.

What are your learnings, best practices and watch areas based on your leadership experience in driving digital transformation in century-old Fortune 500 companies?

In today’s rapidly evolving business landscape, technology is at the forefront of every industry, and enterprises are striving to become not just data-enabled, but focused on AI-powered insights and processes to better meet the needs of their customers.

The cloud serves as a catalyst for transformation, and new operating models act as the bridge to this digital future. Simultaneously, this has accelerated the evolution of job functions and requirements and emphasized the critical need for reskilling, upskilling and virtual training across all organizations.

Historical estimates suggest that approximately 50 percent of tech skills become obsolete every two years, and in the current environment, this timeframe is expected to shrink even further. As employers, it is essential to empower employees to identify their skills, address their knowledge gaps, and maximize their potential through customized learning paths and plans.

Leading in a technology-centric or contemporary company differs significantly from leading technology in an organization like TIAA. I prioritize individuals with technical acumen as the technology landscape constantly evolves. Today’s focus may be on generative AI, but tomorrow it will inevitably shift to something new.

The ability to adapt, learn and understand the business itself is equally crucial because ultimately, the challenges we tackle are in service of the business strategy, products and clients. Both technical acumen and business acumen hold utmost importance.

Equally vital is the people and culture side of the equation. As the leader of a large organization comprising approximately 60 percent of the company’s colleagues, which includes technology and client services, interpersonal and people skills are paramount. Navigating through a large organization with multiple business units, verticals and horizontals requires strong interpersonal abilities.

I consider these skills to be among the most important attributes for a leader’s success, even if they possess excellent functional domain knowledge and technical expertise. Collaboration and being a team player are crucial in a large company, as all contributions should serve the collective goals rather than self-interest.

Another attribute I value is balance and stamina. Technology transformation initiatives often span multiple years, and securing ongoing investments becomes a recurring task. Stamina and persistence are essential in such transformative environments.

AI is all the buzz now. What is your strategy for AI and how do you drive business impact and new offerings, keeping both a telescopic view for the long-term and microscopic view for the short-term impact?

Data and AI are not only a strategic business asset, but also the vital asset which, through the power of our technology, drives the analytics and the AI that let us deliver on our mission to help people retire with dignity. Note that I mention data and AI in the same breath, and that’s because no company can have a successful and impactful AI strategy without a foundation of solid data capabilities.

At TIAA our businesses span retirement, asset management and wealth management, while digital and customer journeys, as well as marketing, are part of the broader functional pillars. At the heart of each of these verticals, data has always played a critical role. What is changing now is how we are pivoting to an enterprise-wide data strategy in how we will deepen our relationship with AI in each of these business and functional verticals.

We are on a journey to not just modernize our underlying technology platforms and processes, but to infuse every decision and business activity with AI such that we move from a reporting and dashboarding culture, to a predictive and insights-driven culture.

In recognition of data and AI’s importance to our mission, I appointed a chief data and artificial intelligence officer, Swatee Singh, who is leading our investments in data and AI capabilities, which we’re calling “Data & AI 2.0,” as part of my organization’s broader strategy, with a multi-year investment roadmap to back it up.

I take a microscope and telescope approach to AI with our Data & AI 2.0 strategy—keep focused on client needs and deliver on impactful use cases in the near term by prioritizing opportunities where AI can drive immediate value, while focusing on long-term opportunities to drive sustained and scalable impact.

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