By Baselinemag  |  Posted 2005-05-23 Print this article Print

Albertson's CEO Larry Johnston talks about how he works with his technology chief to fuel innovations; CIO Trude Van Horn discusses what she expects from her chief executive.

Trude Van Horn

Chief Information Officer at Jo-Ann Stores, a $1.8 billion fabric and craft-supply chain based in Hudson, Ohio.

Van Horn is in her first stint as a chief information officer, but she comes to the job with plenty of serious technology and business experience. As vice president of global information delivery systems at Office Depot, Van Horn oversaw the $13.6 billion company's creation of personalized online shopping portals for individual and corporate customers. The project helped Office Depot reverse a 4% drop in annual sales in 2001 to gains of 2% in 2002, 9% in 2003 and 10% last year.

She has directed application development and enterprise systems at Limited Brands, and has also served as a technology vice president at American Express and JP Morgan.

Jo-Ann Stores is about to tackle the work of making its supply chain more predictable and overhauling merchandise systems. The company lost $15 million in 2002 and profits have been uneven since: down 9% in fiscal 2004 and up 13% in fiscal 2005.

Baseline senior writer Kim S. Nash talked with Van Horn about how she will work with Jo-Ann Stores' chief executive officer to deliver what she promises—and promise what she can deliver.

BASELINE: What's the hardest thing about working with a CEO to get something done?

VAN HORN: Right now [being new], I don't know folks well enough to prepare for the types of questions they're likely to ask. Over time, you get that groove. "Does so-and-so have an operational bent or a human-capital bent or pure financial focus?" I need to be as prepared as I can be right now for every kind of question.

The other challenge everyone has is time. Getting people together to have a true conversation. Enough time to not just cover the deck but have a discussion to support the decisions you're about to make. Time is tough.

BASELINE: How often do you talk with your CEO, Alan Rosskamm?

VAN HORN: Nearly every day.

BASELINE: What's the most important thing your CEO can do for you in the next 12 months?

VAN HORN: Help with prioritization. There are a million things to do in I.T. and all of them sound like good ideas, but not all of them are. Helping with the tough calls is something the CEO does overtly in a steering meeting, for example. But he does it covertly, too, because he's got a different level of access to the organization than I do. He'll know what the most important ideas are. He's in a lot more formal strategic meetings. And hallway conversations—I'm not likely to be at many of those.

I'm not saying it's the case here, but I've been in organizations where the best presenters got the funding [for a new project] as opposed to those who needed it but couldn't articulate that need appropriately. It's through conversations with the CEO that some of those things might come out.

BASELINE: Who should set the technical direction of the company?

VAN HORN: My job, No. 1, first and foremost, is to make sure I.T. strategy aligns with business strategy. And then that the technology team is as responsive and enabling as we can be. First, strategy. Second, the right team. [One] way to align is the grassroots way, where I pair my folks with counterpart business folks. They review on a monthly basis what's going on in the business area and what are the new things.

BASELINE: How much weight do you expect your voice to carry?

VAN HORN: I would expect my voice is one of the most important voices on technical direction. I have an obligation to learn this business and be a trusted partner. I'm working to earn that trust; then I can be the one who provides and guides with technology.

BASELINE: What's the best way to say "no" to your CEO?

VAN HORN: [Laughing] That's one of the key traits that a CIO has to have. There's always demand beyond what our resources can bear. Always. Sometimes it's an out-and-out "no." But quite often, it's a matter of stepping through the reasons and getting to "no" together. Sometimes the answer is not "no," just "not now." I show the person the laundry list of things I'm working on and give reasons why the answer is what it is.

BASELINE: How do you bring bad news to your CEO?

VAN HORN: Make sure you're telling everything all along. In the beginning [of a project], a lot of us know what the risks are. Call those out at the beginning and continue to revisit those. [That way] the bad news is usually not a surprise. It's just the realization of something you've thought was a risk. If you've been honest in calling out the risks and talking to your sponsor, you might even have a mitigation plan in your back pocket, making the news not as bad as it could have been.

[At Office Depot] I was working on an IBM WebSphere portal. It was a fairly new suite of technology. We didn't have all the resources we needed to get the foundation as well as the application to run. We knew that was a risk. So we asked IBM, "Will you be backing us? Are you going to help us?" IBM [brought] the resources to bear when we needed them—contractors, but also advisers to help us with our approach.

BASELINE: Is information technology a utility, like electricity, or a source of competitive advantage?

VAN HORN: More and more, we're like the phone company. Nobody ever calls up and says, "Thanks for the dial tone! Thank you, thank you!" So, no complaints is the best you can get. The way the service runs should be a utility, but the function it performs should be a value-added service.

BASELINE: What's the one thing you want to change about working with your CEO?

VAN HORN: Everyone you work with, you take something away. Sometimes it's how not to do something. As I look back on my career at times where I was less successful, it was all based on relationships. At American Express, I was once working with a very senior director on a project. But I found out that this very senior director had never [cleared the project] with his boss in New York. We actually had an executive who was funding an initiative that he knew nothing about. I assumed a relationship that was not there. Shame on me for not getting on a plane to New York periodically to make sure everyone was on board.

There are high-powered external vendors who can be friend or foe. You need to nurture those relationships, too. At Limited and Office Depot, we had fabulous relationships with NCR Teradata. Customer relationship management is one of NCR's areas of expertise. Rather than just treat them as a hardware and database vendor, we brought them in to do educational sessions. They put us in touch with customers doing what we were trying to do. I even hired a couple of people I met through NCR.

BASELINE: What is the most important thing you have to do to convince your CEO of the merits of an initiative you're proposing?

VAN HORN: Business should be there with me shoulder-to-shoulder in front of Alan. And we should be as candid about the costs as possible. Make sure we have subject-matter experts talking about the returns, not just I.T. experts, so we have a truly balanced picture.

Look at the processes and the capability of the business to absorb a new tool and how well the tools already there are being used. A CIO is a consultant. We provide advice around those edges that perhaps the business doesn't have time to research. We've all heard the stories about I.T. just taking orders: "I put that in because that's what they asked for." Those days are gone. It's expensive and short-sighted.


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