by Martha Heller

How to Make Time for Strategy

Apr 22, 2010

Five strategic CIOs explain how to extricate yourself from the tactical weeds of operations

Last week I asked a CIO roundtable which elements of the CIO Paradox they found most challenging. One item that showed up on every CIO’s top-three list was “You were hired to be strategic, but you are forced to spend most of your time on operational issues.” I spoke to five of the Council’s most strategy-minded CIOs about how they managed to get out of the operational morass.

Resist the lure of the weeds. “I’ve seen CIOs become overwhelmed with tactical challenges and never get to the strategic,” says Kevin Summers, CIO of Whirlpool. To combat that, you need to be strategic from day one, regardless of the operational situation, Summers advises. “During my first six months, while I was visiting our operations and meeting with the board, there were outages and delivery problems,” he says. “The hardest part was to let those fires burn while assessing the data to build our IT road map. Once you have your road map, you can stabilize operations. But if you don’t resist the operational challenges at the beginning, you’ll never get out.”

Carve out the time to be strategic. “Many years ago, I was serving as executive officer on a submarine,” says Tom Flanagan, CIO of biotechnology company Amgen. “My responsibility was the day-to-day operations of the ship, but I knew my next assignment would be commanding officer. So I forced myself to carve out two hours every day to study for the new role.” Flanagan applies the same method to IT leadership. “When I’m in the middle of an ERP rollout, I have to step back from checking test scripts and think about how to apply the new system strategically. Carving out strategic thinking time is important; I learned that a long time ago and have tried to stay with it.”

Don’t try to do it alone. Twila Day, CIO of Sysco, started out as a programmer and tended to take a tactical view of situations. “As I grew in the organization, I knew that I had to break my tactical habit and actually use my strategic skills. In order to do that, I had to hire the right staff to handle the operations and let go.” Once her staff had operations under control, Day applied the same approach to her strategic responsibilities and focused some of her staff on strategy. “We started an architecture review board that looked at new technologies and processes. Whether you hire new staff or tap your vendors and business partners for strategic input, you need to look beyond yourself to balance both roles.”

Outsource your commodity work. “I was certainly in the weeds when I was first hired,” says Ron Kifer, group VP and CIO of Applied Materials. “So very early on, we did a core-versus-context analysis to determine how to direct our internal resources. We held onto competencies that drove business performance, but outsourced commodity work.” With the success of the IT outsourcing initiative, Kifer’s group extended the managed services model to HR and procurement, a strategic move in itself. “The best way to get out of the weeds is to refocus your internal resources on core competencies,” Kifer says.

Elevate the tactical to a strategic level. Phil Fasano was new to health care when he joined Kaiser Permanente as CIO, so he had to learn the industry’s complexities as he was taking the IT reigns of a $40 billion company. “But at the same time, our operational challenges were immense,” he says. Rather than solving the operational issues before moving on to the strategic, Fasano combined the two. “When I spoke to the board, I framed our operational challenges as business risks where the health of the company would be impacted by our infrastructure upgrade. I placed operations squarely in the strategic vision of the board,” he says.

Martha Heller is president of Heller Search Associates, an IT executive search firm, and a cofounder of the CIO Executive Council. She can be reached at