by Brian P. Watson, Dan Roberts

Building IT value with Midwestern values

Jun 03, 20154 mins
CIOIT LeadershipIT Strategy

Chris Hjelm rebuilt an IT service culture and innovation machine at grocery retailer Kroger, partly by sticking to a professional moral compass.

Chris Hjelm is a unique CIO, primarily because of two accomplishments: He’s found success in several very different industries, and he’s ascended the role itself to take on not only additional internal responsibilities, but also an appointment to the board of a successful public company.

But there’s another thing that makes Hjelm unique. Take this question, for example.

If I ask you to do something stupid, are you going to do it?

That’s what Chris Hjelm asked an IT manager he met when he first joined Kroger as CIO. He poses that challenge to current and potential employees alike. In the early days, more often than he’d like, Hjelm heard answers like, ‘Well, you’re the boss, and I’d be crazy to go against you.’

“You just did,” was Hjelm’s response, as he recalled to us in a recent interview. “You’re a leader of associates and you need to do the right thing for yourself and the company, period.”

That short exchange encapsulates Hjelm’s leadership style in two ways. For one, he’s aggressive. He thrives on driving change—sometimes faster than some employees or fellow executives can handle. But there’s a more fundamental underpinning: to Hjelm, values are everything.

How Hjelm’s leadership philosophy was born

Like many of the prominent IT leaders in Confessions of a Successful CIO, Hjelm’s leadership philosophy is grounded by a core set of values. Those values were forged through his IT leadership roles at FedEx and eBay, before joining Kroger, the $108 billion grocery retailer, but their roots go much further back.

Raised in a Midwestern family with a strong sense of right and wrong, Hjelm exhibited a mature, independent streak at a young age. Hjelm often was responsible for his older brother, who was handicapped by Klinefelter Syndrome. That responsibility ingrained in his mind the two key concepts: accountability and consistency. Those became something of a moral compass as Hjelm embarked on his professional career.

Another key learning came at FedEx, when, like all other prospective employees, he took a test aimed at determining if he would be a good fit in the logistic giant’s servant-leadership culture. Hjelm scored high—the highest ever, he was told—mainly because he honestly answered questions that most would lie about. Like, did he ever steal anything? Yes, as a kid, and he felt horrible about it, and he owned up.

When he arrived at Kroger, he found gaps in the service culture in IT. This became apparent as he confronted a weekend service outage early into his tenure. He reached a direct report on the phone to talk through the problem, and the report told him, “I don’t do that—people who work for me deal with those issues.” To Hjelm, that answer was fascinating—and disturbing. “As of this minute, that just changed,” he responded. If we’re in trouble, we’re both responsible, Hjelm told him, so let’s get on the call.

‘Kroger Technology’ becomes a unified focused team

That’s why he asks such tough questions of his people. If you’re not willing to help drive the change he’s mandating, then a change will certainly come. And it did. Hjelm’s organization is delivering services much more efficiently, so much so that his focus today is aimed at doing what he came to do: turning Kroger’s technology unit into an innovation engine that would become the most valued in the retail business.

It’s a lofty goal, he admits, and a tough one to measure. But that mission has become gospel among the IT ranks — and, as Hjelm points out, it’s also resonating with the rest of the company. He rebranded the organization from an ambiguous “IS&S” to “Kroger Technology,” a clear, straightforward name that has further unified the team around that mission.

And they’re delivering. Some of Kroger Technology’s notable accomplishments include QueVision, a system that has reduced checkout wait times to a mindboggling 30 seconds; and ZigBee, a sensor network for refrigerated cases and freezers that has increased food safety and store efficiency.

Hjelm’s accomplishments — not to mention his service on the board of Kindred Healthcare, a $5.7 billion provider of post-acute care services — have garnered him even more responsibility at Kroger. He currently oversees the company’s “small-store” strategy, a new group of stores aimed at helping customers complete their fill-in shopping. These stores — smaller than a supermarket, but larger than a convenience store—are expected to increase customer loyalty, grow identical-store shares, and boost wallet share among shoppers.

Hjelm has conquered two of his main objectives: building a culture of excellence and returning Kroger Technology to its legacy of innovation. And no doubt there’s much more to come.