Chris Hjelm is a CIO legend with a career spanning Fortune 50 behemoths like Kroger and FedEx, innovative tech companies like Orbitz and eBay, and other high-growth e-commerce and startup businesses. The 2023 recipient of the Ohio CIO of the Year ORBIE Leadership Award is known for his track record of building and heading global technology strategy initiatives to drive innovation and transform legacy operations. Today, Hjelm serves on three boards of directors with a focus on strategy, cybersecurity, technology, talent, and operations.\n\nOn a recent episode of the Tech Whisperers podcast, Hjelm traced his career and experiences and opened up about his leadership philosophies and what he\u2019s learned along the way. Four \u201cmystery questioners\u201d \u2014 Nick Kaufman, vice president of technology at Kroger; Annette Hater, vice president and global head of technology strategy and portfolio at Tapestry; CPO\/CTO coach and mentor Leon Chism, former chief technology officer at Jellyvision; and Ryan Kean, CIO at Total Quality Logistics \u2014 joined us for the episode to probe specific aspects of Hjelm\u2019s leadership playbook.\n\nWe spent some time after the show delving into what Kean highlighted as Hjelm\u2019s intentionality around developing future-ready leaders. Hjelm also taught what he calls a \u201cvalues-based leadership seminar\u201d in each company where he worked. What follows is that conversation, edited for length and clarity.\n\nDan Roberts: One could argue that the most important role a CIO plays today is developing leaders. What are your concerns about the up-and-coming generation in terms of being both \u2018today ready\u2019 and future ready?\n\nChris Hjelm: I think about this a lot with my own kids, and I think we have a multidimensional problem to solve. One of the issues is that social media and smartphones have taken away from the necessity of building relationships through physical interaction. Another is that \u2014 and this is generalizing a bit \u2014 but this generation is often geared towards instant gratification: \u2018It\u2019s all about me.\u2019 That\u2019s really in conflict with the servant leadership model. It\u2019s just about polar opposite.\n\nWhat I\u2019ve seen in some of those I\u2019ve mentored who are right out of college is that, if they want something, they\u2019ll network hard and reach out, but if they don\u2019t get what they need or want, they stop investing in the relationship. What they don\u2019t understand is that life is a longer journey. It\u2019s not a single event, and they may want to have a relationship with me that pays dividends and gives them another opportunity down the road. If our business together today doesn\u2019t work out for whatever reason, I\u2019m okay with that. But I\u2019m not okay with the lack of follow-through.\n\nIt also goes back to building those relationships face to face. I recently talked with a family member who was going through an interview process for a job, and it had all been done via videoconference. I said, you need to go there. Meet the senior leadership team, whoever your supervisor is going to be, ask good questions about the industry and the business, about what makes them tick and what\u2019s important to them. Then decide if the team and culture is one you want to be a part of \u2014 because you\u2019re going to be committing a big chunk of your life to this organization. To think that someone would be willing to make that call without getting to know the people makes me uncomfortable about the future.\n\nI also think it\u2019s one of the reasons why so many jobs are short-lived, because there\u2019s just huge misalignment. There\u2019s no emotional connection or depth, so when you hit a bump in the road or the next thing comes along, why stay?\n\nWhat are some of the key learnings and takeaways from the values-based leadership seminar you teach that could help this next generation?\n\nFirst is something we discussed in the podcast, which is this notion of leadership vs. management. It\u2019s easier to create good managers \u2014 there\u2019s a formula you can follow and get consistent results. Leadership\u2019s a bit more abstract and highly dependent on life experiences. You have to get people to be critical thinkers, take risks, be innovators and to teach others. You have to build that muscle memory, which is why the military is so good at it. They\u2019ve got a wide range of talent, they pick the ones who show potential, and they continue to grow them as leaders. Leadership development is a process. Just signing up for the job doesn\u2019t make you a leader.\n\nWe also discuss things like being a great listener. I worked for a guy early in my career who said to me, \u2018Don\u2019t be afraid to weigh in, but I really like how you are a thoughtful listener. You don\u2019t talk first; you listen first. Keep doing that. That\u2019ll serve you well in your career.\u2019\n\nManage your own career, and as part of that, sign up for tough jobs. The more screwed up something is, the higher you should raise your hand, because you\u2019re going to learn a lot from it. You learn more from messes than you do pristine things.\n\nDelegating is another super important piece of the equation. I delegate even when I am confident something\u2019s not going to go well, because, again, it\u2019s an opportunity to gain experience \u2014 with the caveat being that the shareholder cost isn\u2019t too high. You have to let people take risks and fail. The important thing is that they learn from the experience and reinforce what they learned by sharing with others.\n\nIt\u2019s also important to give your team all the credit. If something\u2019s successful, it\u2019s your team\u2019s success. By the same token, if something fails, as a leader, it\u2019s your responsibility.\n\nConstant self-evaluation is important, too. I would do this even with my communications, for example, at a town hall meeting. I would reflect on my performance, and I\u2019d ask the attendees, \u2018How was that one? What was good? What could have been better?\u2019 You\u2019re not going to get better if you don\u2019t solicit feedback. So if it\u2019s good, I\u2019ll do more of it. If it wasn\u2019t so good, I won\u2019t try that again. You have to seek feedback, and also give it to others, remembering that \u2018feedback is a gift.\u2019\n\nWe discuss about avoiding social media pitfalls. It\u2019s a slippery slope and you just have to take the high ground and not get into these rabbit holes where there just isn\u2019t a winning answer. I don\u2019t care how strong you feel about something. The second you cross that line, you may be alienating half the world without a benefit to the company or shareholders.\n\nIn the seminar, we also spend time on expectations of management and what good managers do. We\u2019re there to win; we\u2019re not there to come in second. So set a high bar, hold people accountable, and put goals and objectives in place. I\u2019m a big advocate of you can\u2019t improve what you can\u2019t measure, which helps align teams and makes success and failure clear.\n\nI always say the best leaders are also teachers, and you\u2019re certainly an example of that. How do you instill that in other leaders?\n\nI can\u2019t tell you how many leaders came to me over the years to tell me that they were applying for this job, that they were ready for it. And I would say, \u2018Alright, who\u2019s taking yours?\u2019\n\nI would explain, \u2018Your opportunities are gated by the readiness of your successors.\u2019 In one-on-ones with people and in mentoring sessions, I\u2019d say, \u2018I care about your development plan, but I care as much about the development plans of the people that are coming behind you, because you won\u2019t go anywhere if your successor isn\u2019t ready.\u2019\n\nNow, some jobs are harder to build successors for, but at least present options for finding good candidates. At least tell me, for example, who you met at a conference or know through your network who could do your job.\n\nThat\u2019s also part of prioritizing talent as a key pillar of your strategy.\n\nI always hammered home the importance of talent through an early Kroger experience. I remember someone who came in to me for an exit interview after I\u2019d been at Kroger for about 18 months. He was really good \u2014 he\u2019s someone who would have been on my future leader watch list \u2014 so when he came in and told me he was leaving, I wanted to know why. I thought things were good. He told me, \u2018Well, I wasn\u2019t seeing any opportunity and I wanted to get into management.\u2019\n\nI got the VPs and directors together, the top two levels of management, and I said this person is leaving and asked what they thought about him. They all said, \u2018Oh, he\u2019s great, we really love him.\u2019 So I said, \u2018How many of you would trade one of your existing managers for this guy?\u2019 Every hand went up. So my next question was, \u2018Why didn\u2019t that happen?\u2019\n\nI said, \u2018This is a deal I\u2019m going to cut with all of you. If I do another exit interview for a high-performing person in your organization that\u2019s leaving, I will do your exit interview next. High-performing talent doesn\u2019t come along very often, and when they do, our job as a cross-functional team is to take care of them, to allow them to punch their tickets and be successful.\u2019 We put in other processes to manage top talent, and I am confident that my leadership team didn\u2019t forget that exchange.\n\nYou\u2019re known for being a storyteller. How does that play a role in your leadership and your development of the next generation of leaders?\n\nDeveloping leadership skills is a lifetime journey, and we all have stories of our respective journeys. As a leader, I would tell the stories because people remember them, and I expected the stories to cascade throughout the halls of the organization. I wanted to change the culture, and you change the culture by telling impactful stories that align with your mission.\n\nI have a lot of storytelling examples I go through in the seminars, because there\u2019s a theme to each of them and I want people to think about what leadership traits were exhibited in that story. I use stories to teach governance, to teach who you really work for \u2014 the shareholders. I use them to teach servant leadership.\n\nI share stories from my own experience to show that it\u2019s okay to take risks and to fail. To get leaders to understand that if there\u2019s a misalignment in values, you need to go somewhere else. I try and give people the confidence to do the right thing, live their values, and if they\u2019re ever in a situation where they shouldn\u2019t be there, then don\u2019t compromise who you are and what you value for a job. It\u2019s not worth it personally nor does it create followership in an organization.\n\nIn the seminar, the stories are a way to reinforce what leadership is all about and to help give people confidence that, yeah, you can survive this issue \u2014 to stand in front of the board and tell them that management doesn\u2019t really get technology, but they are learning. If you\u2019re telling the truth and doing the right thing for the shareholders, nine times out of 10 things are going to go fine. But you have to take the risk that one out of 10 times you might be a casualty.\n\nWhen I think about developing people and reflect on what\u2019s worked and what hasn\u2019t, I can\u2019t stress enough how valuable telling the story is. When I talk about leadership, I say, \u2018It\u2019s tough but rewarding. It\u2019s not a popularity contest. Trust me, if you\u2019re doing the right things, you\u2019re not always going to be popular, but you will be respected.\u2019\n\nThe stories show them what that means. For example, firing people is no fun. It\u2019s never easy. But I\u2019ll give them some examples of when I\u2019ve done it. We also talk about what\u2019s good about being a leader. You broaden your impact. You get to see people like Annette and Ryan and Leon go off and be successful on their own. You get to make big decisions. You get to make more money. There are lots of positives. But make no mistake, it\u2019s no walk in the park.