by Kim S. Nash

Nielsen’s Mitchell Habib on Leading Change, Outsourcing and “The Art of War”

Oct 22, 20076 mins
CIOIT LeadershipOutsourcing

At Citigroup and General Electric, Mitchell Habib won praise for his ability to manage change, and criticism for his outsourcing moves. Now CIO at The Nielsen Company, Habib explains his views on tackling a new role, communicating with employees and the role of outsourcing.

Our annual “State of the CIO” analysis is underway and already we’re uncovering surprising trends in how CIOs work, strategize and view themselves in the corporate landscape. We surveyed hundreds of IT leaders about expectations for themselves and for their peers regarding technical and managerial issues. We’ll publish our full analysis on Dec. 15, but between now and then we’ll bring you excerpts of the data and of our conversations with CIOs wrestling with tough issues.


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One theme emerging this year is how CIOs instigate and manage change—sometimes unwelcome change. Is there a more delicate issue in today’s IT world? Our survey finds that 63 percent of CIOs are leading and effecting organizational change. Fifty-one percent are engaged in transforming their IT groups, and therefore how business units get their work done, plus another 12 percent of CIOs are focused mainly on using technology to differentiate their companies from their rivals. It all adds up to change management.

And is there a CIO more famous for shaking things up than Mitchell Habib? Habib’s deep experience leading IT groups through change has earned him both loyalists and detractors.

Mitchell Habib

The 46-year-old executive is known among executive recruiters and colleagues as a turnaround CIO who helps companies blaze through major organizational transformation. Others resent Habib’s quick moves to make aggressive changes and outsource IT work. They think he’s a hatchet man. They’ve told us so in posts on’s Movers & Shakers blog. Critics have outlined grievances at other blogs, too.

After two-and-a-half years at Citigroup and seven years at several General Electric business units before that, Habib joined The Nielsen Company in March as executive vice president of global business services. It’s a new position at Nielsen that combines operations and IT, and in it, he’s overseeing major reconstruction of how Nielsen manages technology. He’s introducing new software platforms and outsourcing, and in the process is changing the work lives of over 4,500 technologists worldwide.

Habib says he’s aware of what Movers & Shakers readers have written about him and he cites the blog as one reason he started his own inside Nielsen—to help clear the air. (That blog is not public.)

Recently, Habib talked with Senior Editor Kim S. Nash about his style, his reputation and his approach to changing IT at Nielsen. The conversation reveals Habib as a thick-skinned executive focused on getting the job done.

CIO: Change is hard on people, isn’t it?

Habib: I don’t see it as hard. Logic is an amazingly powerful tool. Nielsen’s corporate values are openness and simplicity. When we expose to people the complexity of what [processes and systems] exist and present the opportunity to eliminate that, resistance melts away.

CIO: How do you gauge when people have reached their limit for change?

Habib: We think change is constant. We’re never going to say change is over. If you’re not continuing to innovate, either your competition is or you’re in trouble. We do a lot of communicating. It’s listening and understanding and responding. We put out videos in seven languages [for Nielsen employees worldwide]. The video conveys key decisions we’ve made, and why, the impacts to individuals who are listening to the message, and then what’s coming.

Then we have a website: Mitchell’s Corner. I’m writing a blog. Every two weeks, I post and people post responses. It’s a dialog. There’s an “Ask Mitchell” button to submit questions and I respond to every single question.

I also hold roundtables where we bring in 15 to 20 people and serve lunch. There are no rules. Ask whatever questions you want, and we will, too.

The final thing we do is monthly. We do two calls that are repeated four times because of time zones. One call is for people managers—about an hour. We do about 15 minutes of material and then have a very active Q&A session. I give a $75 gift card when someone asks a tough question to demonstrate that our culture is truly open and that we appreciate an individual’s courage.

Then we do the same thing for the full population, in another call the next day. Again, we repeat that four times and it’s about 90 minutes. Just one question after another. Some are great. Some are tough. Some are personal.

CIO: What’s one $75 question you got recently?

Habib: Someone commented that it’s me and people like me who are ruining the country because we’re leveraging global talent. I said, “Thank you for asking. Here’s $75.” Then I said, “I’m a capitalist. We all are. Efficient companies get rewarded and inefficient [companies] get punished. Because we are competing against companies that leverage global talent, we would be at a significant disadvantage [if we didn’t outsource].” I was able to share stories about how work has moved in Nielsen for 50 years around the U.S., then outside the U.S. There’s no retribution for tough questions.

CIO: As I’m sure you know, a lot of CIOs known as turnaround or transformational CIOs have to manage people’s emotions and mindsets from the moment they arrive as the new CIO. Reputations precede them. How difficult does that make the job going in?

Habib: On day one, I do a new managers assimilation of all my direct reports, facilitated by a third party not known to me. I go in and say, “This is your opportunity to put it all on the table and ask any questions.” Then I leave. For two or four hours, they write questions and essays. I come back. Questions are not attributed. I go question by question.

I also have a fairly effective on-boarding ritual, which lasts 30 days or 45 days. I say, “You guys were successful without me yesterday. Continue. Let’s say I’m not in charge for these [30 or 45] days. I’m going to listen and learn. I’m going to meet you—my colleagues and our customers—and understand.” Then I talk to my boss and put a plan in front of him. Then we flip from learning mode to execution mode.

CIO: Sounds like you have refined this plan as you’ve gone along in your career.

Habib: Sun Tzu wrote in The Art of War: If you’re not going to refine your plan, you’re going to make mistakes.