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How CIOs can drive change by setting a vision

Brian P. Watson | March 31, 2017
Sysco IT chief Wayne Shurts has a long track record of rallying his troops around a vision for change.

One acceptable answer, Shurts says, was to tell them that the legacy technologies were outdated and that the company had to look to the future.

But he took a different approach.

At a town hall, he told the clamoring employees: “It’s going to make life better for our customers. It’s going to make life better for our employees. It’s going to help us make more money. This is how we’re going to be able to do things that we were never able to do before. This is how we’re going to have a better future for the company.”

 

Business, fast and simple

When we were writing Confessions of a Successful CIO, my co-author Dan Roberts and I were captivated by the Nabisco transformation story, primarily because of Shurts’ emphatic rallying cry, but also because the initiative suffered a severe setback.

Let’s stay on the rallying cry for a moment. The mission mattered, not just for motivational purposes, but also because it was true and transparent. And sharing ownership of that mission was sorely needed to get past the reticence of many IT staffers. “Otherwise, to some degree, we were a bunch of professionals coming into the office just to do something,” Shurts says.

To a high degree, it worked. After Shurts invited his boss, the division president, to a town hall about the project, the executive told his colleagues (as Shurts recalls) that Shurts’ team ‘really believes they’re working on the most important thing for this company.’ Shurts thought to himself, “Damn it, Rick — you should, too!”

The Nabisco project stumbled because company leadership decided to cut a planned eight-month pilot and roll out the system immediately upon completion, in the interest of reaping the rewards faster. There are more details in the book, but the important lesson for Shurts was to be “relentless” in planning for mistakes.

And he soon had an opportunity to do so. Shurts was tapped to lead a complicated overhaul of Nabisco’s transactional systems. He and his team used the lessons learned from the ERP initiative as a backdrop for how they would execute on shifting from an AS400 system to SAP.

Even when, during the testing phase, a systems integrator told Shurts the new system was ready for rollout, Shurts insisted on more testing. In the process, they uncovered more problems that could have been catastrophic if put into production. With a bit more due diligence, Shurts and his team rolled out of the biggest transactional systems on SAP in North America, with plenty of gains for Nabisco, but no setbacks.

And then it happened again. After Shurts’ tenure at Nabisco, he became CIO at Cadbury, and then at the grocery-store giant Supervalu. When he arrived, in April 2010, the then $41 billion company was cash-strapped and bleeding money from trying to replace legacy systems with an Oracle ERP system.

 

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