Feld says successful CIOs need to be "tough-minded optimists."
By Peter Fabris
President, The Feld Group Inc., Irving, Texas
CIO, Burlington Northern Santa Fe Corp. (BNSF); president, The Feld Group
Vice president of MIS, Frito-Lay Co.
Director of management services, Frito-Lay
Bachelor’s degree in economics from City College of New York
“Sitting in the CIO’s chair, nine out of 10 things that cross your desk are bad news,” laments Charlie Feld. That makes a lot of IS executives pessimistic about their ability to make positive contributions in their organizations. “Then you’re defeated before you start,” he says. At the other end of the spectrum are unbridled optimists “who think they can do anything and sell anything to anybody but aren’t really grounded in the facts.” Feld says successful CIOs need to strike a balance between the two extremes and be “tough-minded optimists,” motivating with positive energy while rolling with the punches of the inevitable systems glitches, project delays and the like.
Feld’s optimism was no doubt fortified by his successes at Frito-Lay in the 1980s. There, he orchestrated the field sales force handheld computer network that transformed the work of the company’s 10,000 or so salespeople. Instead of filling out stacks of paper forms to record inventory levels and account for special promotions, salespeople could then enter data on small, portable computers. By saving them several hours’ worth of paperwork a week, the system allowed the salespeople to focus more on selling.
The project was an early case study on how IS can partner with business units to achieve competitive advantage. “We had a very strong alliance with the sales and distribution people,” Feld says. The IS team linked with sales and marketing in the days before such cross-functional teaming was ‘cool.’ “We had enough credibility with sales to make sure we were part of the streamlining process,” he explains.
During his days at Frito-Lay and afterward, Feld has proved to be a paragon of the characteristics that distinguish great CIOs from the rest of the pack. For example, he is able to translate complex technical issues into business issues for upper management and to help them sort out priorities, says Michael H. Jordan, chairman and CEO of Westinghouse Electric Corp. and former Frito-Lay CEO. “He is somebody who can build consensus in an organization,” Jordan says, recalling how Feld convinced operating managers at Frito-Lay to make use of the wealth of new sales and marketing data collected by the handheld network.
Ron Rittenmeyer, a colleague who worked with Feld for more than 20 years–first at Frito-Lay as vice president of operations and then at Burlington Northern Railroad (pre-merger) as chief operating officer–says Feld has an upbeat, engaging personality that helps him inspire teamwork in an organization. “He also has a real mental toughness about delivering results in the time frame required,” Rittenmeyer says.
Feld earned accolades from the trade press and the Harvard Business School for his success at Frito-Lay, and job offers poured in. Struck by the intensity of the pleas from many CEOs to join their struggling IT organizations, in 1992 he established The Feld Group, a provider of temporary CIO consulting services. Between then and this past July, he also served as temporary CIO for Burlington Northern Santa Fe Corp.
His current project is to collect a shared wisdom of successful IS management in preparation for developing a postgraduate school for CIOs, something that may extend his influence on the profession well into the 21st century. The CIO position is getting more attention these days from CEOs and governing boards, Feld says, but CIOs have been on their own trying to learn what it takes to be successful. “It’s like doctors becoming doctors without going to medical school,” he says.
Nevertheless, “I’ve got great hope for the profession,” Feld says. “We are moving front and center now, just like CFOs did in the ’80s.”
In 2007, we met up with Charlie Feld again. He shared his reflections on the last few decades of IT. Read the update.