Sainsbury’s group CIO Phil Jordan has announced he’ll retire in March 2023 after a 35-year career in technology, spanning country, regional and group CIO roles across telecommunications, financial services, industrial gas and retail.
He recalls his career highlights, leadership lessons while working abroad, and how CIOs can become future CEOs — so long as they first navigate economic uncertainty.
‘Old enough and young enough’ to retire
With his decades of experience across executive and non-executive roles, having also been Group CIO at Telefonica (where he also headed the Global Technology business as CEO and chairman), UK and European CIO at O2, and CIO at Vodafone, Jordan believes it was the right time to step down.
“I’m 55 in January and I just feel I want to go off and do something else,” he told CIO.com. “I’ve done five years at Sainsbury’s, so what’s the option? I could go somewhere else, but I’m not sure I’ve got the energy to do it again at a big company. I just thought it was a good time. I feel like I’m old enough and young enough to do it.”
Jordan won’t be sitting idly by, however. As well as spending more time on the golf course, he’ll continue his role as the board chair of D9 PLC, the investment trust listed on the London Stock Exchange last year, and retain non-executive commitments. Retirement, he says, offers a chance to reset his work-life balance.
“When you’re in intense roles for years, it becomes a lifestyle choice,” he says. “And I guess I got to the point in my life where I’m ready for a slightly different lifestyle choice.”
A CIO’s career achievements and leadership lessons
Jordan says on reflection that he’s particularly proud of enabling change at organisations at different junctures, building high-performance teams around him and adapting to new cultures while working abroad.
“I’m one of the few [CIOs] who has gone to multiple geographies, multiple industries, and I’ve really enjoyed that as a personal challenge,” he says. “Living in a different culture, a different language, a different country and industry, and applying my leadership, but with all those change variables, I’ve really enjoyed that.”
As for his most notable career achievements, Jordan highlights the projects that required ‘big business change’ because they were the most difficult to deliver. “So much technology gets delivered into a business and it doesn’t get fully utilised, because people and working practices are hard to change,” he says.
In particular, he points to a CRM deployment at Vodafone, multi-market greenfield implementations across the telco stack at Telefonica, and digital investments at Sainsbury’s through the COVID-19 pandemic as his most rewarding achievements.
This isn’t to say there haven’t been challenges, especially, Jordan suggests, the current talent shortage and cost of living crisis, and he recalls conflict between global and UK teams as being one of the reasons for his departure from Vodafone.
Another emerged when working abroad, pushing him to reflect on his skillsets, the strengths of the team around him, and how he communicated to other regions. When working in Madrid, he recalls when he realised his emails were being adapted for one market, where appearing overly optimistic could make the sender appear inept.
“There’s 20 countries in Telefonica,” he says. “I’d communicate from the centre and be reminded by people around me that these messages are interpreted wildly differently in different places in the world. So I sharpened my business influencing skills when I was abroad. When you’re not a native speaker in a business, you have to listen and watch really hard for how decisions get made and how you influence that.”
Clearing a path for CIOs to become CEOs
Despite his upcoming retirement, Jordan believes it remains a great time to be a technology leader, claiming that CIOs are now well positioned to progress into the CEO hot seat.
During his career, he says IT has progressed from ‘necessary evil’ to technology being commoditised and, more lately, a business differentiator. Jordan acknowledges, though, that the cost-of-living crisis, coupled with ongoing geopolitical instability, could push IT leaders back into firefighting mode in the near future.
“I think CIOs in the next three years are going to have that massive challenge that’s come up a number of times,” he says. “Businesses want to keep accelerating their digital capability, but the cost of technology will be constantly seen as an overhead.”
Yet he believes CIOs are well placed to lead change in future.
“Part of the CIO role — and this will be a thing for future CIOs or new CEOs — is being the person who demystifies,” he says. “The person who can bring real examples who helps your peers understand it in a way that’s easy for them, but doesn’t embarrass them in any way.”
CIOs will only do this if they adapt their own skill sets, however. “I would put more emphasis in business acumen, commercial understanding, data analytics, and understanding how the business is going to be changed by technology than I would on the skill set when I started, which was about supplier management, project management and technical delivery,” he says. “I genuinely think, from an executive perspective, we’ll see more CEOs come from technology, because technology is so important to businesses.”