Dan Roberts
Contributing writer

FedEx EVP/CIO Ken Spangler on enterprise agility as an enabler for innovation

Jan 13, 2022
Digital TransformationInnovationIT Leadership

The FedEx business leader shares why the strategic operating principles of competing collectively, operating collaboratively, and innovating digitally matter more than ever.

Ken Spangler, EVP of IT and CIO of Global OpCo Technologies, FedEx
Credit: FedEx

Ken Spangler is executive vice president of information technology and CIO of Global OpCo Technologies at FedEx, an $84 billion, Fortune 45 company with 560,000 team members worldwide. Having previously served as CIO for each of FedEx’s businesses, he brings a unique business vantage point to his role today overseeing the global information technology teams that support FedEx Express, FedEx Ground, FedEx Freight and FedEx Logistics.

With a customer base spanning 220 countries and territories, FedEx maintains one of the largest air operations in the world and a ground fleet of more than 200,000 motorized vehicles to deliver more than 15.5 million shipments daily. As you can imagine, it takes innovative technology to run this complex operation. But as Spangler notes, the acceleration of technology within business today, combined with the challenges of the past couple of years, has put added pressure on business and technology leaders to quickly implement new capabilities and improve agility. 

When we spoke for my CIO Whisperers podcast, Spangler shared some of the secret sauce behind FedEx’s ability to do things that are revolutionary vs. evolutionary. He also discussed how he’s leveraged his expanded role to help further differentiate the company in the marketplace. After the show wrapped, we spent a few more minutes talking about the success pillars he says are central to navigating today’s technological complexities. What follows is that off-air conversation, lightly edited for length and clarity.

Dan Roberts: I hear many CIOs talk about embarking upon big initiatives using all the right words, like modernization, transformation, and agility, but very few ever get to the finish line or realize the full benefits. What are your pillars for getting beyond the buzzwords and delivering results that matter?

Ken Spangler: I think there are a couple of things that are really imperatives, and some of them don’t sound revolutionary; they’re just blocking and tackling. One of the things everyone talks about today is transformation, and we have a saying and an image that we’ve created in my group that says you have to perform in order to transform. A lot of times people are trying to drive a transformational initiative because they have bad processes or bad technology or just bad operations, equaling bad results. And I believe strongly that you have to perform first in order to transform.

As part of perform, what we talk about first is always operational excellence. You have to run world class systems in order to do anything else. Then, to transform, a lot of times in business technology, where people don’t get to the end state of what they’re after, it’s because other things get in the way. We believe strongly in proven frameworks. As we talked about in the podcast, there’s that simple framework of the story, the deal and the plan that creates alignment, which is always a key to success. If you stay disciplined to that and you execute it, you almost have a hard time not being successful getting to the end. But you have to understand the framework. You have to be disciplined to the framework. And you have to be relentless.

FedEx’s response to the pandemic, how you took care of your people while serving the needs of your customers, is beyond impressive. What is it about your culture that set you up for success?

Our organization as a whole, around the world, responded with the level of urgency and care that is part of the culture. As part of that, IT had to respond in a few unique ways. Number one is a different level of scalability, with urgency in everything, from our amazing operations to literally the many thousands of people that suddenly had to work from home.

Part of it was the mission, part of it was the caring, and part of it was recognizing that this is going to be different, so we have to scale. And we have to scale with the quality and operational excellence that we need. That sounds simple; that was hard every day. Literally that was being managed at 7 am calls every day to make sure we knew every single thing that needed to be done and everything that was different because we were operating in a different time.

But I also want to give credit where credit’s due. Fred [Smith, Chairman and CEO, FedEx Corporation] is always looking into the future. And Rob Carter [EVP, CIO, FedEx Corporation] is relentless about driving our technology to the next level. So, we had a lot of the foundation in place to scale from them. Those two are great at living in the future and leading the vision to it. That’s just the way they’ve led the company forever, and that was a really powerful enabler when we had to suddenly slingshot to the future.

Everyone talks about agile, but FedEx is doing it, thinking about it, and executing in a different way. This is no small task given the size and complexity of your OpCos.

I think being agile, not just doing agile, is incredibly important today for every business, but possibly even more so for us because we’re such a large federated business. Early on, I realized that it was easy to say we’re agile, but everybody’s interpretation of agile was different. Also,  we’ve realized as part of our three strategic operating principles—to compete collectively, operate collaboratively and innovate digitally—is that what we do across the enterprise really matters now more than ever. So to us, it is about enterprise business agility, broader than just agile. We’ve had a relentless focus on lean portfolio management and a simplified view of what are common processes, taxonomy, and tooling.

Even that sounds so simple. But in an organization the size of ours, operating around the world in different huge operating companies, consistency of that is an enabler. That lean portfolio management is incredibly powerful. And then, ultimately, that gets us to enterprise portfolio management, where, again, not everything’s an enterprise priority. If everything is a priority, then nothing is priority. So, it’s about what are truly the enterprise priorities, the narrow view of that, and then in these individual operating companies, which are huge, multibillion dollar businesses, what are those unique priorities.

We also have an architectural design principle called solid core and flexible edge: What’s the enterprise core, and what’s flexible and on the edge and empowered as well? That’s another part of why enterprise business agility—and the consistency of it—is an enabler for us.

You’re big on teams. You’re big on people. But we’re working very dramatically different than we were 20 months ago. How do you know if a team is working well?

Number one, through many years of working with global teams, I’ve developed this sense to listen for words like “we” and “us.” Before the pandemic, I was often going to different regions of the world, and it’s almost like you could sit down, start to meet with the teams and notice that when you consistently hear “we” and “us,” those two words are so powerful that you knew this was going to be a successful and productive team.   

Number two, the way we work today is actually more connected than ever. What’s interesting is I see all of our teams more than ever now, because it used to be just when I’m in Europe or just when I’m in Asia or wherever. We’re always together now. The collaboration tools have changed what’s possible. And then lastly, we’re very quantitative and qualitative, and the measures show that we are just absolutely more productive.

During the podcast, we talked about the “isms,” those expressions you use that make you such an effective communicator. But there are two sides to that, the speaker-communicator and the listener-communicator. How are you intentional about both?

I’ve been lucky to be around great communicators, none more so than Rob Carter. He’s a world class communicator, and part of that is he’s a great listener. I’ve mirrored the people I admire and learn from.

To me, being a communicator is first ensuring there’s air in the room for other leaders. I have multiple senior vice presidents who each have very large organizations. We plan our communications for the entire year, including town halls, videos and all forms of communications. But the number one thing I stress when I sit down with my chief of staff and my professional communicators is that we must first make sure there’s air in the room for the senior vice presidents to communicate. They need to be able to have space to communicate also.

Second, when you communicate, make sure all forms of communication are two-way. I think that’s the most important thing. However, being a great listener doesn’t mean being silent. So, the last part is, when you do speak, make sure you do it in a way that’s clear and simplified. And simplified doesn’t mean void of details. It just means understandable.

For more from Spangler on his leadership philosophies, perspectives on urgent vs. important, and what it takes to build the muscle, mindset, and brand of a business technologist, listen to the full podcast episode here.

Dan Roberts
Contributing writer

Dan Roberts is the CEO of Ouellette & Associates Consulting, host of the Tech Whisperers podcast, and author of numerous books, including "Unleashing the Power of IT" and "Confessions of a Successful CIO."