I’ve been thinking a lot lately about CIOs and the skills they need to be successful during the age of information. My quest is the definitive “Ten Critical Competencies of the Modern CIO,” and I’m getting there.
My conversation with Steve Little, CIO of Xerox, was particularly helpful in this regard. Little has been a CIO for more than Steve Little, Xeorox, CIO20 years, and through a discussion we had a few weeks ago, I was able to put some key competencies on the list.
The Ability to Make the Complex Simple
In 2012, Carol Zierhoffer, CIO of Xerox, called Little, with whom she had previously worked with at ITT. Xerox was struggling with a European ERP rollout, and Zierhoffer asked Little to head over to Europe to see what was wrong.
“I’m a simple guy,” says Little. “And the only way for me to understand a problem is to break it down into its smallest parts. When I showed up in the U.K., I asked the business sponsor to show me the architecture, and what I saw was very complicated.
Business leaders at Xerox, says Little, were so focused on the complexity of the Xerox business – including licensing arrangements, a global supply chain and distribution nuances, that they wound up with a set of business processes that mitigated the benefits of an ERP.
Little commuted to London for six months and led the program to a successful implementation, and in 2013, when Zierhoffer left Xerox to become CIO of Bechtel, Little was hired as Xerox’s new CIO.
Once he took on the CIO role, Little had six weeks to develop and present a comprehensive IT strategy to the executive committee. Having learned that Xerox has not traditionally had an appetite for long-term ERP projects, Little had to find a new way to modernize the applications portfolio. “We needed a pragmatic approach to develop an IT strategy for our legacy business -- our printers and copiers -- for a market that is not growing,” says Little. “So I asked the simple question: How do we take a diverse applications portfolio, and move to more common global platforms in such a way that we are not signing up for a multi-year project? How do we build a roadmap that lets us make decisions along the way, but in a phased approach, where each phase drives business value?”
Little decided that the best, simplest solution was to leverage the modern platforms that were already in place. This meant taking Oracle, which was running in the US, and making it the global platform for the direct to consumer business and taking SAP, which was running in Europe, and make it the global platform for the indirect sales business.
Six weeks later, Little presented this strategy to the executive committee, and at the end of the meeting, Ursula Burns, CEO, congratulated Little on his work. “When I communicate IT to any audience, I use the simplest approach,” says Little. “My approach is to dissect complex architectures and complex business structures and articulate them at a level that everyone can understand. Good communication is not just about being able to speak well, it’s about being able to understand when people don’t get it, and continuing to simplify until they do.”
The Courage to Operationalize Your Horizontal View
Sometimes CIOs remind me of the Greek mythological figure, Cassandra, who had the power of prophecy but the curse of never being believed. While every other executive is looking at his or her vertical piece of the pie, it is only the CIO who can see across the organization in a horizontal view. The problem, of course, is that the power to see the horizontal view does not always bring with it the power to operationalize that view.
Xerox’s legacy business is organized by line-of-business, but Little’s strategy is to drive horizontal solutions. As CIO, the price of entry is to see the benefits of a horizontal view; but the critical competency is in having the courage to operationalize that view. “As CIO, you need to be courageous and confident that what you are doing is right,” says Little. “The more we try to satisfy everybody, the harder it is to be successful.”
The Ability to Garner CEO Support
Garnering your CEO support may be the most critical CIO skill of all. Developing and deploying an IT strategy is really about driving operational change. How can you build an integrated data strategy and deploy an ERP if everyone hasn’t bought into the change? If the CIO is not anointed by the CEO as someone with the authority to drive operational change, he will have a tough time overcoming resistance, when the resistance is particularly high.
But how do you get support from your CEO? For Little, it began with making sure that his CEO had a good understanding of the IT strategy.
When Little took on the CIO role at Xerox, CEO Ursula Burns asked, “What do you want from me?” Little requested that she understand the IT strategy well enough to be comfortable with what he was proposing. Shortly after Little had presented the IT strategy to the executive committee, he had to present it to the Board in just 15 minutes. During that presentation, when Board members asked questions about the IT strategy, Little found that Burns was stepping in to answer some of them. With the CEO knowing enough to engage in Board level discussions of Xerox’s IT strategy, Little knew that he had her support.
To my mind, making the complex simple, operationalizing your horizontal view, and garnering of your CEO’s support are critical competencies of the modern CIO, but there is so much more. Watch this blog, over the next few months, as I add more items to the list.
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