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The Grill: Guess CIO Michael Relich takes on his dream job: COO

Mary K. Pratt | Dec. 17, 2013
This IT leader took the road less traveled to his dream job: chief operating officer.

As executive vice president and CIO at Guess Inc., Michael Relich oversaw the retailer's global IT strategy and a worldwide IT staff of more than 100 people. His nine-year tenure in the position earned him a spot as one of four finalists for the MIT Sloan CIO Symposium's CIO Leadership Award for 2013. Relich's work also earned him a nod from Guess CEO and co-founder Paul Marciano, who in August named him the company's new COO. In announcing Relich's appointment, Marciano cited his strong operational skills, strategic vision and leadership in retail technology.

Did your IT background prepare you for the COO job in ways that experience in other areas couldn't? The CIO job is a little bit of a barrier. I wanted to have this role, this was my ultimate aspiration, but it's such an untypical path that it seemed really difficult. But now that I've got the COO job, I think being CIO uniquely prepared me and it's a huge benefit. If you come in as a CFO, you understand the numbers. But business is getting more complex, and the CIO is putting in systems to solve problems. And how can you solve a problem if you don't understand what it is? I was part of the team that built the systems infrastructure, and I had a good grip on how the company works. If didn't have that experience, it would be difficult to take on this position.

Were there disadvantages in moving from CIO to COO? A big part of the COO role is financial. Because the traditional path has been via the CFO route, people [might think I] lack the finance acumen. That's probably the disadvantage. But still, it's different. If you worked as a CFO, I can't compete with that. But I don't think CFOs can compete with me on the operations side.

Did you aspire to the COO job? I started out my career as a programmer, so I was pretty technical. I'd have managers come in and say, "Program this, program that," but I wanted to understand why I was doing a particular task. Nothing bothered me more than someone giving me a task without giving me context.

As a CIO, I was getting frustrated because a lot of times you were treated as if you didn't know the business, so people wouldn't be open to all the possibilities. As a CIO, I was highly respected, but you don't have that same pull. You're trying to convince people. As COO, I know the systems, I know how the process works, and it's amazing how that little title change can change people's perspective.

What does that say about the CIO role in business today? You can recommend solutions, but adoption still takes place on the business side. So you're still a salesperson. But as a COO, it's much easier to ensure adoption.

 

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