by Martha Heller

At DirecTV, the CEO and CIO Are on the Same Wavelength

Feb 26, 20143 mins

Michael White, CEO of DirecTV, describes the company's innovation culture and what he expects from his CIO

Michael White, CEO of DirecTV, describes the company’s innovation culture and what he expects from his CIO).

How does IT affect the business of DirecTV?

We process 20 million bills a month, our website receives a half million unique visits a day, and we have 30,000 technicians and call agents in 38 call centers. So any way you look at it, IT is critical to our business as a leading provider of digital television entertainment services. For example, we have an active decisioning engine in our call centers.

When a customer seeks additional service, our agents have the information they need in front of them to make optimal decisions. Handheld devices give our field service technicians more information when they serve customers in their homes. We’ve invested in a social collaboration platform, and I even blog every now and then.

What promise does IT hold for DirecTV in the next few years?

I can think down the road about having boxes in the customer’s home that call us in advance of a problem. We will be able to anticipate a problem and fix it much more quickly.

What should a CEO do to support the CIO?

First, CIOs need a full seat at the decision table; my CIO reports to me. Second, CEOs must invest time with their CIOs, understand their challenges and be their adviser. Finally, CEOs should provide air cover for their CIOs, from resource allocation to moral support.

What skills do you value most in your CIO?

I count on my CIO to have a depth and breadth in technology knowledge, and in a company like ours, where IT and engineering are central to our business model, the CIO must partner extremely well with peers. I look to my CIO to be an inspirational leader. DirecTV employs 800 IT experts, so our CIO must have the skills to motivate a team of that size and caliber.

Some IT organizations are so focused on efficient operations that they cannot make time for innovation. How do you solve that problem?

I’m lucky because when I came here four years ago innovation was already a core value of the company. But values are not enough. You need formal mechanisms to promote innovative thinking.

We’ve started a program called F12, which encourages our IT team to fail fearlessly. The program includes 12 statements like, “We use failure as a tool to innovate and grow,” that underscore a framework that celebrates IT failure. Participants in F12 can win points for driving innovation. Companies must recognize and reward innovative behavior when they see it.

With IT, it has to be a “loose-tight” approach. They have to manage projects on time and on budget, but if you don’t give them budget and space to experiment your company will suffer. If you don’t make a few mistakes along the way, you’re probably not taking enough risks.

What are you most excited about when it comes to technology?

For years, we looked at our IT budget and said, “It goes up every year, but we are not getting any leverage out of it.” But that has changed and will continue to change. Based on our successful IT initiatives, I know IT will increase our effectiveness with our customers in ways we can’t even imagine today.

Martha Heller is president of the executive recruiting firm Heller Search Associates and author of The CIO Paradox. Follow her on Twitter: @marthaheller.

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