Main Thing I Did Right as CIO? Win Over the CEO

By Tom Thomas  |  Posted 2001-12-10 Print this article Print

You have to have enough salesmanship, knowledge and experience to gain the support of top executives

As a former CIO, I fundamentally believe that the CIO has the most impactful job in a company. The CIO has to have as close to the CEO's vision of the company as anyone. You've got to be able to see how everything in the business fits together.

PDF DownloadWhen the CIO makes a mistake, the results can be disastrous for the company. I would not be surprised to see a malpractice suit for a CIO that screws up.

You can always tell when a CIO doesn't know what he's doing, and when he doesn't have the courage of his convictions to support a plan and execute it.

Some people think it's mission impossible, because you can't be a marketer and a salesman and a technologist. I think it's very doable.

I've always been more focused on the business than on technology. When we fundamentally changed the distribution system at Kraft, we went from different distribution centers for every line of business, to two for the whole company. But we never talked technology, we talked about the business.

The same thing happened at Dell. DellNet was started with the idea of figuring out what was possible in improving the way the business worked. Then we figured out the technology, the day-to-day structure of this and that and all those kinds of things.

One key to our success at both Dell and Kraft was that I had the support I needed to carry out the plan. At Kraft, Mike Miles, who went on to be chairman and CEO of Philip Morris, provided that level of support, and 90 days later I had a plan to remodel the entire business.

The whole thing was very results-oriented. I narrowed it down to quarterly increments of what we could implement over a three-year period and showed them the points in time where they could fire me and never spend another dollar.

Michael Dell was the same way in terms of support and understanding. He was a young man when I arrived at Dell, but he had a vision for the company and was very supportive of IT.

You also have to be able to sell your plan. At Kraft, it was like being a presidential candidate; it's what I did 90% of the time. You have to be the champion, the person who has the courage to get out there and help people understand what's possible. You don't just say, "Change." You show them what's possible, and you have to have enough salesmanship, knowledge and experience to gain their support.

I had two versions of the plan for Kraft. One I called the Disney version. It was, "Here's a fundamental way to go change how this business operates." Then there's an X-rated version, that says if you put it all in place, you can change how your company looks—those distribution centers don't need executives running them, you don't need 50 purchasing departments. But we didn't tell anyone that until we'd built all the software.

The CIO also has to really understand the culture in order to bring in new ideas and effect change. At Kraft, if you said, "Here's what I can do in three years," they would be skeptical, because experience told them it should be 10 years. So we were creating a hurry-up offense at Kraft that didn't exist before. But at Dell, there was a very young culture of people for whom 30 days was a long time, so three years would seem like forever, and maybe a fiscal quarter would be something that was reasonable.

You get a wide range of CIOs. At one end of the spectrum you get some great visions, all the neat ideas. Then you have this other crowd that wants to talk about bits and transfer rates and structures and all that.

In the middle is somebody who can understand enough about the technology to bring the two together, and execute like hell. That's what separates the really good CIOs from the maintenance-oriented ones. Then it's not just impactful, it's fun.

Written with Edward Cone

Haht Commerce CEO Tom Thomas was previously CIO of Dell Computer, Kraft Inc., and Sara Lee.


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