Nielsen’s Mitchell Habib on Leading Change, Outsourcing and “The Art of War”
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.
By Kim S. Nash
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.
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
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 CIO.com’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
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
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
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.