CIO’s …How to Gain a Seat at the Leadership Table 
by R. Gaines Baty

John Thompson is the EVP of CROSSMARK, a Plano, TX based marketing/professional services organization that specializes in headquarter selling, in-store merchandising and sales support, IT outsourcing and supply chain optimization.

John has attained the distinction of having ascended to this role via the CIO position.

After earning an MBA in Finance and a BS in Economics and Business, John started his career in a warehouse operations/management capacity.   He quickly became disenchanted by the frustrations inherent in mis-aligned processes, unmotivated employees and reconciling the computer system for its own sake…the business and the IT system were unrelated and IT did nothing to improve the business.  After reworking several basic business processes and aligning the information systems with those improved processes, productivity was improved dramatically. 

Upon joining Sales Mark, the CROSSMARK predecessor, as Fleet Manager, John was able to further leverage his previous experience in aligning IT with process with business.  He was asked to review the proposed new IT plan, and proceeded to ask tough, probing questions about how this plan would improve the business.  This prompted Executive Management to suggest that John create a new plan, and of course, he was later asked to implement it as the new CIO of CROSSMARK. 

This plan John developed was a ‘business plan’, not an IT plan, with detailed investment and potential benefit analyses included.  The criterion for investment was entirely functionally-focused, with IT viewed as another tool to help get where they wanted to go.  It was all about “what do you want to accomplish?”

John built a new organization, and proceeded to evaluate and champion dramatic change.  He outsourced services as needed.  Decisions were always ‘business-driven’, not agenda-driven.  Fifty-six companies were acquired and integrated, IT was centralized, and Category Management, Field Force Automation and Order Management tools were developed during the first four years of John’s watch.  Initially, for example, Order Management was a totally manual task: today 82% of all orders are processed with no human intervention required. 

“Our organization has evolved into one in which no scenario can exist in which the operations of the business can be successful without IT being successful, and vice versa.”  In other words, they’ve reached a point from which there is “no way back.”  Business and IT are truly ‘integrated’…one cannot exist without the other.

Today, CROSSMARK’s business is transformed to one with a portfolio of commercial offerings such as a Field Force Automation System, joint ventures with AC Nielsen and Grey Advertising/J. Brown, a Software Technology Park in India, and an Order Management System licensed by EDS.   The business cannot be envisioned without the integration of IT…in other words, there is ‘no way back’.

The key question to ask is what has to get done that allows specific business processes to reach a ‘no way back’ status.  Think in terms of business outcomes, not in terms of technologies or capabilities.  Think ‘what ‘could we do?’

“In truth, few organizations within a company have a better opportunity to make a major difference in the business than IT, because of its potential impact on all segments of the business.  The failure of IT too be at the leadership table represents numerous missed opportunities for the business.  While some IT leaders may not be capable, and/or some Executive Management teams may not be appropriately receptive to change, fault should not be assessed.  Rather, an organization should focus on what can be done to change for the better?  What can be done to change the dynamics, to the point of no return?  It’s not about ‘service levels’, but about adding value.”

John quickly points out the actual dictionary definition of “technology”…which includes ‘the practical application of knowledge,” and “accomplishing a task with technical processes.” 

Many ‘technologists’ fail to recognize that what’s new and/or “amazing” is not necessarily relevant, practical or useful to the business.  “Many IT Leaders think they’re here to wind the watch, when in reality they should be in charge of the time”.   Evidence to this effect is a prominent sales strategy of most ERP software and outsourcing organizations…to bypass the CIO.  These organizations sell possibilities and visions to C-level executives, and CIO’s are perceived to be defensive gatekeepers to change.

Thompson suggests that the IT leader is better situated to make a major difference in the business than any other position, other than perhaps the CEO, provided three things: 

1.       S/he understands what is relevant

2.       S/he can identify the point of no return…must truly understand the business

3.      S/he must solve problems and create initiatives that people actually care about  

John suggests that companies should choose business people as the leaders of IT, and that technologists must strive to become “real business people”.  CIO’s should be ‘Champions of Change.’ 

John went on to describe one of his key early ‘issue escalation tactics’…to engage a visionary executive-level salesperson.   “First, I could discuss my list of problems and seek ideas for creative solutions.  Our strengths would complement each other…he initially had better access to the CEO than I did, could get an audience for me about specific issues, and those issues were acknowledged and escalated in priority.  I was confident in my knowledge of the business and ability to make a difference, and provided all the information required for the rep to make a sale.  Again, the focus must be on processes and not software or hardware.  As the business case was developed and the investment forced a project agenda, I was viewed as an enabler vs. an impediment.   This sales process is easy to understand, but very difficult to do.  I leveraged off someone who excels in the sales process.”  Other CIO’s have discussed utilizing functional heads as lead change agent/sales resources with executive management. 

“Unless a company is a technology company, technology should only exist to make the business better.  Focusing on cost and flexibility enables an IT Leader to keep his or her job.  On the other hand, focusing on and affecting change in business processes and change management wins a seat at then leadership table.”

IT is an ideal place to start if one’s goal is to become the CEO.  It is a key function, touches every area of company…every department, and when applied correctly can effect dramatic and productive change across all organizations.  It’s a place for real leadership, not just technology expertise.

The key is to take the organization to the point where there is “no turning back!”

R. Gaines Baty is President of R. Gaines Baty Associates, Inc. (est. 1977)a Dallas-based retained executive search firm.  Mr. Baty, who started his career with IBM Corp., is formerly a two-term President of both the Society of Executive Recruiting Consultants (SERC) and the Dallas Independent Recruiters Group (IRG), and is a well-known author, trainer and practitioner in executive team building, executive evaluation, executive search and career management issues.  Mr. Baty can be reached at gbaty@rgba.com.

 

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