Adrian Butler grew up in a farm community of no more than 100 people, so when he became CIO of Casey’s General Stores, a $9 billion convenience store chain with a large rural presence, the job had real meaning for him. “Casey’s opened its first store in Boone, Iowa in 1968,” says Butler. “In many ways, the Casey’s guest is me and my family. Our guests work hard, and they want speed, accuracy, and easy access to all of our products, from our pizza to snacks to fuel.”
As Casey’s first-ever CIO, Butler also felt a deep commitment to his team and colleagues, to ensure he was developing an IT strategy and operating model that would be of lasting value to the business. “Casey’s has had a history of growth and stability, but two years ago, a new CEO joined the company with the remit to enhance the service we provide to our guests. My role is a realization from our CEO, board, and executive team about the importance of investing in technology,” he says.
Recognizing the rich history of the business, Butler did not try to change everything at once. “I did not start with a moonshot,” he says. “I started by making sure our day-to-day IT operations were solid, while asking what big problems we were trying to solve.” Like most retail businesses, these challenges were all around digital engagement, guest analytics, supply chain optimization, and creating efficiencies in the stores. The goals were to allow team members to spend more time with guests and to ensure that the right products get on the right shelves.
In moving toward those goals, Butler turned the team’s attention to using data to better understand supply chain, inventory, and the guest experience.
With data, “the hardest step is the first step,” says Butler. “Overthinking your data strategy can inhibit your ability to move.” For Butler and his team, the key first step was to bring together leaders across the company to ask: What does data mean to us? Why is it important? What will we do with the data? “Once you define your data philosophy, you can find low hanging fruit, like better visualization of the data you already have, to provide your business with value,” he says. “We started by using data to do a better job of running key areas of our business and reporting on performance, before moving to more advanced analytics and attempting to project the future.”
Shift to product management model
To help Casey’s IT organization and business partners start thinking differently, Butler adopted a product management model. Butler has defined approximately 15 product teams that are aligned to the major retail functions of buy, move, sell, and enabling corporate functions. For example, product teams within the buy and move function are merchandising, supply chain, and fuel. Within the sell function, the product teams are payments, point of sale, back of house systems, and kitchen. Digital product teams are ecommerce, customer engagement, and customer retention.
Product managers are aligned to the broader, higher-level functions and product owners are responsible for a specific product team. For example, the stores product manager interacts with store colleagues across the organization to define the store product roadmap; product owners for sub areas, like point of sale and payment, are more narrowly focused and can go deeper. “The product manager’s job is to develop really deep, detailed knowledge about that part of the business, and what is happening not only inside of Casey’s, but in the broader industry,” Butler says. “They work with our functional business partners to develop business cases and structure the big body of work. The product managers then hand off that work to the product team who breaks the work into components with priorities and sequencing.
There are new roles in the product model and some similar roles. The key difference is that these roles are integrated into one agile team and work together to build products rather than hand them back and forth between teams.
Outcomes over org chart
With the product model still in its initial stage, product leaders sit in the IT organization. “Since product management is a new capability, we are starting it in IT, so we can model the behaviors we need in a product team,” says Butler. “But as we scale, and the model becomes embedded in our operations, I can see the role sitting outside of IT, in our functional areas.”
But Butler is not too hung up on who reports where. “I am a big a fan of blurred reporting lines, because if we get wound up thinking about reporting, we lose sight of what we are trying to accomplish,” he says. “I am focused on getting the right people in the right seats, and making sure they are building the right relationships and driving the right outcomes.”
Regardless of where product leaders report, Butler looks for the same competency he looks for in all of his leaders: critical thinking. “Critical thinking is a force multiplier; it drives innovation, velocity, and helps to realize business value much sooner by allowing us to become much more predictable regarding delivery. I also look for people who can communicate, collaborate, and ideally, have some experience working outside of IT. The product manager role does not have to be deeply technical.”
Butler’s advice to CIOs intent on moving into a more collaborative operating model? “Set a vision for the future and take others on the journey with you. Be 100 percent transparent with the good and the bad,” he says. “Every time I join a new organization, I ask my peers and their direct reports about their challenges, and I listen. Once my team and I have a clear understanding, I can present my thoughts on the strategy, roadmap, and team necessary to support them.”
Butler also spends time ensuring his colleagues really understand the product management approach before he asks them to participate. “I invite them into the product model discussion,” he says. “I walk them people through the why, the how and the what? Why are product management and agile the right approaches? How will this affect you? What will the impact be? I believe in leaning into the why before people have to ask. I do that upfront, so that people can get their minds wrapped around it. I want to create advocacy outside of IT for what we are trying to do. The loneliest place for a CIO to be is on an island.”
Martha Heller is CEO of Heller Search Associates, an IT executive recruiting firm specializing in CIO, CTO, CISO and senior technology roles in all industries. She is the author The CIO Paradox: Battling the Contradictions of IT Leadership and Be the Business: CIOs in the New Era of IT. To join the IT career conversation, subscribe to The Heller Report.