Former CIOs: The View from the Other Side of the Table

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Learn how the perspectives of former CIOs changed along with their job titlesn Hear what new business leaders have learned about the need for communication

Find out why former techies say great technology isn’t always great for business

C. Lee Jones wasn’t quite sure if he’d been brainwashed by IT. n As vice president of IT at Abbott Laboratories from February 1996 to March 2000, the businessman-turned-techie was spending his days devouring analyst reports, meeting with other IT chiefs and giving spiels to managers about the impact and value IT could bring to the century-old health-care company. "You can start to feel that the universe is revolving around the IT organization," says Jones, reflecting on his years in Abbott’s IS department. "I started wondering, have I become biased because of the role I’m in? Is [IT] really having a potential impact on the organization, or is it just because I’ve read about it and listened to it that I’ve become convinced it’s true?" n Jones can see things more clearly now that he’s stepped out of the CIO role and into that of president and COO of AmericasDoctor, a Gurnee, Ill.-based company that helps the pharmaceutical industry develop and promote its products. The good news? He found that his gray matter hadn’t been scrubbed white by all those IT reports. "IT is critical," he says. "Being in this job, I can tell you that’s absolutely true." The bad news—isn’t there always bad news?—is that although he has an MBA and 15 years of senior management experience, as a CIO, Jones had to work at making sure he looked at business problems first and then at whether there was an IT solution. These days, the opposite occurs. "When I think of the business, I automatically subsume the IT issues in that thought process," he says.

Jones belongs to a slowly growing coterie of former CIOs who have alighted at other spots at the table, and who have an evolving perspective on what IT leaders should think about and provide to other executives as they pursue alignment. So what snaps into focus for them now that was blurry before? Don’t be dazzled by technology, develop business smarts, and start building relationships. Oh, and don’t stare too long at any swinging pocket watches.

It’s Not the Technology

Pat Fortune is attracted to whiz-bang technology—like all those three- or four-letter acronyms and buzzwords ("More than you can shake a stick at," he says) that surround e-commerce. But if there’s one thing that the former head of IT at medical products manufacturer Baxter International, agricultural bioengineering company Monsanto and pharmaceutical giant Bristol-Myers Squibb has learned as a business leader, it’s that the best technology doesn’t necessarily make for the best business decision. "What’s changed in my mind is that it’s not the technology that’s an issue; it’s whether or not you can create business value by deploying the technology," says Fortune, who since 1999 has been president and COO at New Era of Networks (NEON), a 1,200-person e-business integration software provider based in Denver. "If you’re just doing pure technical things, [choosing solutions] that are technically good is not a bad way to make decisions. However, as you move into business, you realize that the investment business is making in information technology is targeted to produce a business return on investment. Then you begin to focus much more on [whether you are creating] value for the business or simply doing things that are technologically interesting."

For some former IT chiefs that means recognizing the need to outsource projects that as CIO they would have wanted to keep their hands on. Robin Raina, CEO and president of the Atlanta-based insurance portal Ebix.com, says that as an IT leader, he used to think that a company needed to be independent, but once he got involved in business discussions, he started realizing the benefit of forming deals with outside players. Raina was senior vice president in charge of technology, sales and international operations back when Ebix.com was known as Delphi Information Systems. A former engineer whose technical vision led him to the top spot at Ebix.com, Raina says that in the past he factored technology and cost into decisions. Now, he’s added revenue and market knowledge to the mix, and he uses the word leverage a lot when discussing the outsourcing deals that this new frame of mind inspired—like one with computer juggernaut Hewlett-Packard. In this deal, Ebix.com received free website services in exchange for an endorsement. "I never would have thought of that before," says Raina.

The Business Point of View

Thinking in business terms doesn’t necessarily have to be a radical shift, according to Carl Bass, who uses a logical approach to business in his new role as CEO and president of Buzzsaw.com, an online workspace for the building and construction industry. "A lot of business is problem solving, which isn’t all that different from mathematics," says Bass, who has a math background and no formal business training but nevertheless led Buzzsaw’s spinoff from Autodesk. "You have a different algebra; you have different things that are permissible. You have a set of rules, and you have to find a creative solution to the problem," says Bass, former CTO and software developer for San Rafael, Calif.-based Autodesk. His mixed background makes life easier for the IT chiefs who work with Bass. Eric Wagner, vice president of IT and operations at Buzzsaw, says he spends less time explaining technology and also gets a cross-check on his work. "Carl looks at this technology and says, ’How will that help us get the business done?’" Wagner says. "He tends to really get it in terms of what the technology means for customers."

The technology du jour may be the way to start developing general business knowledge and changing thinking patterns in a way that leads to better alignment. Jim Burns, another CIO turned CEO, says that e-commerce initiatives have created opportunities for CIOs to lead businesswide initiatives. "The CIO needs to put a convincing argument in front of the CEO and say, ’This is my domain, this is where I should provide leadership and provide a coordination effort,’" says Burns, CEO of Itemus Solutions, an Ottawa, Canada-based company that develops e-commerce strategies. At least that’s what he did, but with the business pressures of a different decade. In the 1990s, as the CIO of Swiss Bank’s North American operations and before that Goldman Sachs, Burns made forays into the business side by taking on a leadership role not in e-commerce but in the push for faster, round-the-clock transaction processing.

At the time, financial services companies needed to decrease the lag time between when someone instigated a transaction and when that transaction was completed. Waiting five days or even three days was becoming too long, says Burns. While designing software to address this problem, he talked to a lot of users and in the process became more involved with how the market worked. As a result, Burns started to think more about how technology could support that market. "You’re not just innovating a piece of technology," he says in retrospect. "You’re innovating where business is going to go." Another trick Burns learned was how to get enough business knowledge applied to a project. "You convince [business leaders] that it’s imperative that they assign some of their businesspeople to help work in conjunction on a common program. I’d go talk to people individually to see if we could build a common agenda." Once the dialog was underway, he convinced the people he’d been talking with to join a more formal steering committee. As it turns out, a lot of the gap can be bridged with a pretty old building material: communication.

Building Peer Relationships

One key alignment component that often comes into focus during the CIO-to-CXO transition is the need for executives to be plugged into what’s going on inside and outside the company. NEON’s founder and CEO Rick Adam, another former CIO who works at the Denver-based company, wishes he’d forced himself to spend less time chained to his desk when he led IT at Goldman Sachs and Baxter Healthcare and a little more time interacting with other CIOs to get a more complete view of the market. On the other hand, Debbi Gillotti, former CIO of the Starbucks Coffee Co. and battery manufacturer Duracell International, emphasizes in-house communication. Through her experiences as both a techie and a business leader, she learned the importance of being accessible to other department heads, being a good listener and not forming opinions until all the information has been presented. "If you’re good at communicating, a lot of times you can overcome those [problems]," says Gillotti, who left Starbucks to become COO of Viathan, a Seattle-based startup that develops Internet database technology.

John Reece, former vice president of IT for New York City-based Time Warner, remembers when a light went on in his head about how IT should work in conjunction with other business functions. From 1996 to 1997, he was on the design team, mostly made up of technical people, that was putting together the media giant’s first companywide intranet. "I had a typical techie’s idea of how this thing would work. You would walk into a building at 75 Rockefeller Plaza, you walk across the lobby to the elevator, you punch a button on the elevator, and you go to one floor for human resources, another floor for company background and so on," says Reece, now CEO of his own eponymous consultancy in Hilton Head, S.C. "And I looked at [this early website design] and said, ’No, this isn’t going to fly. There’s got to be a better way.’" So he called the people at Time Warner’s corporate communications department, thinking that they were the best source in the company for figuring out how to present information. They were glad to help, and all-around intranet kum-ba-yah-ing ensued.

Not that it’s easy to make that first contact. It was hard to ask for help, Reece says, because of the fear of appearing to be a failure rather than someone who’s taking advantage of the expertise of other departments. "So many techie guys think they have all the answers and that they don’t really need to go get expertise from other people," Reece says. "It’s not technology ¿ber alles. Technology was a part of the implementation, not the implementation itself."

The experiences former CIOs have when they trade in their I’s for another letter illustrate a key dictum for alignment: Companies need cross-fertilization between business and IT leaders whose personal journeys will reverberate throughout the business. Back at AmericasDoctor, Jones says his experiences help him educate and train line managers about IT in a nonthreatening way, and make him sensitive to the importance of engaging his CIO in daily business operations. No matter where you sit, this kind of dual-minded perspective creates companies ripe for alignment.

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