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Leadership Insights

The Rise of AI Executives

6 min read

Chief AI officers (CAIOs) are on the rise. Our global CIO and Technology Officers Practice explains where they’re seeing these roles emerge within businesses.

Executive-level AI roles are increasing in number and appearing in large, globally distributed organizations. Typically, these organizations possess sufficient scale and high-quality data sets to warrant an AI officer appointment.

The drivers behind this growth are twofold; Pressure from stakeholders to capitalize on the Generative AI revolution, and an array of technology vendors telling businesses they “must act or risk being left behind".

Regardless of where the pressure comes from, the decision to appoint a Chief AI Officer or Head of AI is heavily influenced by the organization’s size and scale, its data maturity, and the potential value creation for customers.

Depending on these factors, we see AI leadership roles emerging in three areas. While their responsibilities can sometimes overlap, an AI officer is likely to sit within the CIO function, the CDO function, or as an entirely standalone board-level executive.

Below, we explain these roles and responsibilities, so boards can make informed decisions in their AI appointments.

AI leaders as part of the CIO function

Heads of AI sitting within the CIO function primarily focus on integrating AI to enhance and innovate existing IT and technology frameworks. In this capacity, they leverage AI for operational efficiency, cyber security enhancements, and driving technological innovation across the organization. Their goal is to use AI to create competitive advantages referred to as “data learning effects,” where AI’s ability to compound information automatically becomes a crucial strategic asset.

Unlike AI officers under the Chief Data Officer, who are likely to concentrate on data governance, analytics, and insights generation, we see AI leaders within the CIO domain tasked with applying AI technologies across IT infrastructure and processes. In many cases this is for internal purposes, but also includes deploying Large Language Models (LLMs) in areas such as customer service.

This positioning enables a more technology-centered approach to AI implementation, aligning closely with the broader IT strategy and infrastructure optimization. This tends to put an AI officer and their team at the core of staff functions with less proximity to business applications. Importantly, AI leadership under the CIO umbrella requires several prerequisites – a critical mass of data, a clean and ordered data environment, and the capability to process that data into actionable information.

AI leaders as part of the CDO function

AI officers within the Chief Data Officer function are fundamentally concerned with developing, managing, and leveraging data as a critical asset. Their focus is often to generate business value from AI applications, and integrating this into products and services.

Developing unique data assets tailored to the business's needs is critical here, and enables AI deployment for process automation and predictive analytics​. Part of the wider remit for AI officers within the CDO function is developing strong data governance and a culture that values data-driven decision-making. Data integrity and compliance is a key aspect of this role.

Their divergence from AI officers under the CIO comes from their direct engagement with data as a strategic business asset. Integrated into the CDO area, an AI officer typically has a center of expertise with AI core functions and satellite teams in different business divisions to drive the adoption of AI into products and services.

Board-level AI executives

A board-level CAIO would deploy and develop an AI strategy that transcends departmental boundaries, recognizing AI's potential to impact various aspects of the business. Appointing a CAIO at this level would signal a serious commitment to deploying AI throughout the organization.

In addition to using AI to revolutionize business processes, they would need to educate and advise the board and other C-suite members about AI technologies and the ethical ramifications of developing them. Using AI responsibly is rapidly growing in importance as the technology and its applications and impact evolves.

While still few and far between, there have been a number of recent board-level AI leadership appointments. These include Dell Technologies, Avanade, and Mayo Clinic all appointing Chief AI Officers last year.  

We anticipate a number of requirements for AI leaders at this level. First and foremost, a unique blend of technical knowledge, strategic insight, and leadership skills to navigate the complexities of AI integration. This includes the ability to secure executive buy-in, identify transformation use cases, and rigorously performance test AI investments against their impact. Organizations that appoint a standalone CAIO will be leaders in their field and view AI as a core component of their strategic vision.

Odgers Berndtson’s global CIO and Technology Officers practice is tapped into the global network of AI leaders, and is already working with clients to appoint leadership talent that can develop AI capabilities.


Get in touch. Follow the links below to discover more, or contact our dedicated leadership experts from your local Odgers Berndtson office to discuss your CAIO requirements.



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