Syncing Up With Your CEO

Pleasing the boss requires CIOs to be catalysts, gatekeepers and diplomats.

Randy G. Burdick, executive vice president and CIO at OfficeMax Inc., reports to the CEO, and he says pleasing the boss is simple in concept. "He is pleased by the business doing better," Burdick explains.

After that, things get a bit more complicated. "It's a matter of being well integrated with the entire executive team," Burdick says. So helping the Naperville, Ill.-based retailer "do better" requires him to embrace the disparate goals of marketing, finance, supply chain operations, store operations, the legal department and human resources.

Burdick and other Premier 100 IT Leaders can generally tick off precise lists of their CEOs' goals, from high-level guidance such as "Improve our competitive position" to detailed prescriptions such as "Increase margins in Latin America by 3.5%." They report a variety of strategies for meeting these goals, but most say success requires strict discipline tempered by a deft handling of human relations.

Randy G. Burdick

Randy G. Burdick

Image Credit: Andy Goodwin

As a CIO, Burdick isn't unusual these days in occupying a special role among executives at his company. "The CEO came to me and said he wanted a five-year plan, and he asked me to pull that together," Burdick says. He was also tapped to head an enterprise project management office.

But Burdick is careful to point out that he isn't some kind of planning or project management czar with power over non-IT areas. His role is more one of a "catalyst" around the planning process, he says.

In addition to drawing guidance from overall corporate goals, Burdick is expected to pay attention to the goals of individual projects, not just IT projects. Most of the business projects are measured by their internal rate of return, a way of calculating a financial return via discounted cash flow. Other initiatives, including many pure IT projects, instead have "compliance" goals — like addressing some regulatory requirement such as the Sarbanes-Oxley Act.

Burdick acknowledges that disputes with other business unit managers can arise over priorities and goals. "First, we have a debate on it, privately," he explains. "If I feel really strongly about it, I'll tee it up at the executive steering committee."

If he doesn't feel strongly about it, he'll often accede to the wishes of the other manager. "The business gets to determine what we do. I get to determine how we do it," Burdick says.


Greg Smith, vice president of IT and CIO at the World Wildlife Fund in Washington, says he plays a similar role at the nonprofit organization. "A hidden role of the CIO, and one we should play more actively, is that of gatekeeper," he says. "I'm not going to rubber-stamp a project that has an IT implication that I don't think has merit."

Smith reports to the senior vice president of operations, and "it's pretty obvious what my supervisor expects," he says. One of those expectations is that Smith will vet all major World Wildlife Fund projects against five annual goals from the CEO. The closer a project proposal ties to those goals — especially revenue-generating goals — the more likely it is to be approved, Smith says.

One goal is to increase revenue overall, and another is to increase member support in 19 geographic regions where the World Wildlife Fund has special conservation programs.

Smith says the "governance structure" at World Wildlife Fund works well because it adheres to a for-profit model of accountability.

"[Our model] puts responsibilities and roles in the proper places [and] applies standards, procedures, methodologies and signatory sign-off," he says.

For example, Smith says, "I won't even consider buying or building a piece of software for a business unit until we have a signed-off requirements document."

Empowering the CIO to issue mandates can be a double-edged sword, says Tina Nunno, an analyst at Gartner Inc. "When mandates are not realistic or possible, CIOs must engage key stakeholders and help them come to the best decision for the enterprise," she says.

"This process is more time-consuming and may take the form of a governance process, informal meetings or a campaign to educate and get stakeholders on board," Nunno says. "Yet the rewards are often a higher rate of buy-in to the IT strategy, a higher rate of compliance and greater overall satisfaction with the CIO and IT organization."

For Carolynn Horrell-Chamoun, CIO at Telerx Marketing Inc. in Horsham, Pa., syncing up with the call-center company's CEO means paying attention to many things. There's a long-range plan to be considered and an annual plan with both strategic and tactical goals, some of which deal with financial measures and some with service quality.

The Telerx annual plan began as a draft with 28 objectives that were then distilled to eight. Each of those strategic objectives has an "owner" who is a member of the executive leadership team. For example, the CIO is tasked with reducing overhead expenses in seven areas, including recruiting, consulting and disaster avoidance. Below that are separate projects, each of which is identified with one or more of the eight objectives.

How to keep track of all that? One way, Horrell-Chamoun says, is with a manual tracking report that assigns red, yellow or green lights to each of the major objectives and to major projects.

"Once a month, we report on the status of off-target objectives, and we agree on what the key milestones are and when they will be delivered," she says.

Horrell-Chamoun says the CEO credits the executive leadership team with achieving its goals only if all major projects earn green lights. "Therefore, we have collective alignment, not individual wins," she says.

As vice president of applications development, Vava Dimond at Schneider National Inc. in Green Bay, Wis., is one level below CIO, but she enjoys considerable clout when it comes to deciding whether proposed projects line up with the CEO's goals.

Projects are evaluated along four dimensions, she says: 1) Is the business able to take on the project and succeed with it? 2) Does it meet budgetary constraints? 3) Does it meet return-on-investment criteria? and 4) Is it a good fit with the enterprise IT architecture?

Dimond says the key is to look for balance among the four criteria. "Sometimes you might have a project that looks very good in terms of ROI, but we simply won't be able to manage the change inside the business because they don't have the resources."

Advice on the House
  • Try "tough love" with your colleagues — firmness tempered with diplomacy.
  • Employ "dashboards" — automated or not — to track and give visibility to progress against goals.
  • If your CEO gives you goals but not the authority to achieve them, look for another job.

She says the second success factor is "interlock," by which managers meet periodically, compare their plans and look for critical dependencies. "For example, I might say, 'I see this box here that says you are going to do X, Y and Z. I think I have an IT connection there.' "

Sometimes there are conflicts in the goals and priorities among the company's business managers, Dimond concedes. "A lot of times, the business sponsors don't understand well enough yet what an enterprise architecture looks like and why it is important that certain standards be met or that we don't want to add yet another ecosystem to our environment because of the cost. Sometimes it's about educating them, sometimes it's about compromise," she says.

"There can be robust dialogues," says Dimond. "Every time we go through this process, we learn something and we continue to tweak it."

See the complete 2007 Premier 100 IT Leaders special report.

Copyright © 2006 IDG Communications, Inc.

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