From Bean Counter to Propeller Head: Lessons Learned by a New CIO
Over the past 25 years, I have seen the management of supply chains go from oversight of a tactical cost center to a strategic source of competitive advantage. Continuously changing and increasingly volatile, supply chains today are complex, global, and technology dependent. In response, shippers have gone from looking for a carrier to move freight from point A to point B as cheaply as possible, to relying on logistics service providers to manage their supply chain. Succeeding in this market requires having the best people, processes and technology. Historically, logistics technology platforms were simple order entry and accounting platforms. Today, there is an expectation of accurate, real-time information with full visibility to all involved in the supply chain.
I spent 25 years in finance at C.H. Robinson, 15 of those as CFO. At the beginning of 2015, I made the unusual career move from CFO to CIO. Why? To continue to lead amid the changing demands of our industry, IT needs to be managed differently. While the CFO role is extremely important in every industry, the evolution of technology in our industry has changed IT from a cost center focused on expense reduction to a strategically critical function required to grow our business and to meet the ever-changing needs of our customers.
As the CIO I need to drive as much investment as possible to create innovative technology before our competitors. While I’ve only been a member of our technology team for 9 months, I’ve seen great progress in our IT team and changing perspectives in our business leaders as a result of my ability to better connect the business strategy with the technology strategy and operational tactics. I’m sure I have a lot more to learn, but here’s what’s worked well so far.
"It is important that the business leaders set the strategic direction and the technology roadmap"
Don’t accept status quo. Ask the dumb questions and don’t accept the first answer. Technology changes quickly. Many things that were true limitations in the past aren’t anymore. It’s easy for people to get comfortable with the way they do things and not initiate or embrace change or even the possibility of change. With the right questions and the right leadership some people will adapt, and some people might even become innovators. Say goodbye to the employees who continually resist adapting and progressing.
Hire the best. Look at your team’s track record of bringing in talent. Find the leaders that hire the best talent and expand their involvement in hiring. We use a lot of business simulations and have candidates work together to solve a problem even though they may be competing with each other for a job. For developers, we also give them a logic problem to solve. These interviews and exercises are designed and administered by our best and brightest. There is nothing more important than hiring the best.
Manage your unicorns. If you hire well, you will occasionally discover a unicorn. Perhaps you’ve hired a highly talented developer that can also interact with users to define requirements and be able to communicate with business leaders on strategy. These unicorns often understand how unique they are and at times offend those around them. Help them develop the humility required for them to grow and prosper.
Career paths shouldn’t always lead to management. Pay your performers and pay them well. I have seen too many examples of strong technical people moving into management because they think it’s the only way to advance their career and compensation. I firmly believe you need to leverage the skills of your technical talent. Create an alternative career path and compensate them for their contribution.
Define your target user and build solutions for them. If you try to build software to keep everybody happy you will build software that disappoints everybody. Figure out what persona you are building for and build software to meet their needs. You can also try to meet other persona’s needs, but never at the expense of your primary persona.
Listen to business leader; learn from the users. It is important that the business leaders set the strategic direction and the technology roadmap. It is also important that the business leaders prioritize the work based on what will provide the most value. However, don’t allow leadership to design the user experience. We have made this mistake. Even though our leadership team has spent the majority of their careers with the company, they are not the primary users and don’t know what a user needs to effectively and efficiently perform their job. We are currently focused on transitioning the way we gather user requirements and design our user experience. We send our UX team into the native environments of our users, including internal users, customers and suppliers. They don’t interview users. They observe them doing their job and ask them to think out loud. They then create multiple designs and bring a mockup to another group of users to test the design. We iterate until we are comfortable that we have the right design.
Be open, honest and direct with everybody. By far the biggest way to build trust with the business and IT is to have open, honest and direct communications. Building software is a complex empirical process. We don’t know what we don’t know. Every estimate is wrong. Timely and open communication will build trust with the business. Delayed, misleading and unclear communication will ruin credibility. Don’t spin the message; own it. Explain what is going on to the level the business will listen; don’t underestimate their ability to understand. Be humble and don’t make excuses.