What CEOs Want

What do chief executives really want from their CIOs and IT organizations? The usual must-haves, but also wise and trusted advisers to help steer them through uncharted e-business waters.

So, what do CEOs really want from their top IT executives and organizations? We posed this question to chief executives at four very different kinds of companies and received surprisingly similar responses. Leadership, business and technology skills are all must-haves. But what the chief really wants in a CIO is a wise and trusted adviser to help separate fact from fantasy in the tumultuous world of electronic business.

Gil Minor

Age: 60

Company: Owens & Minor Inc., Glen Allen, Va.

Type of business: Medical products distributor

Annual sales: $3.2 billion

"It so happens we're searching for a CIO right now, so this subject is pretty high on my priority list," says Minor when asked what he would look for in a CIO.

A high degree of technical sophistication and an understanding of how technology products interconnect are both essential, he says. But any candidate good enough to make it to the interview stage of the hiring process is assumed to have these qualifications.

More important, Minor is looking for someone who can effectively build a bridge between the company's business strategy and its customers' needs.

"Our strategy is to provide a supply-chain solution to our customers that helps them reduce their costs by using our technology platform," he explains. "We're developing information tools to make that happen. We're heavily engaged with using EDI, using e-commerce and everything else. We're very technology-driven.

"Our senior management table includes five or six people, and I want our CIO to be one of those people. I don't think [IT] is any less important than sales or finance."

In particular, Minor says, he's looking for a CIO who can clearly communicate complex technological information in terms that make sense to businesspeople, both inside and outside the company. "Probably more important than anything else is being able to take the technology strategy and talk about it to our customers, to our suppliers - and Wall Street," he says.

While the CIO wouldn't be expected to make a presentation to a group of financial analysts, Minor says he will call on his new CIO to sit in on conference calls or one-on-one calls with analysts.

"If you can reduce it from a technical story to one people can understand, you get a lot of credibility," Minor says. "I think it's a great benefit if we have someone in our organization who can do that."

Earnest W. Deavenport Jr.

Age: 62

Company: Eastman Chemical Co., Kingsport, Tenn.

Type of business: Producer of specialty chemicals, plastics and fibers

Annual sales: $4.59 billion

"The bottom line is we're looking to them to add value to the business models and thus add value to the company," says Deavenport.

"More specifically, I'd say the CIO clearly has to understand the business. I think it's difficult to take someone who is just a technology person and make them a successful CIO," he explains. "That happens in many companies, but I think it happens over time because the CIO stays with the company and works in IT long enough to understand the business. They must have the business knowledge to understand how information technology can evolve the business from a strategic point of view.

"I'm looking to our CIO to really lead the effort in e-business. I'm looking to [CIO] Roger [Mowen] and Fred [Buehler, director of electronic business] to really help me move the company as rapidly as we can into the e-business world. We're on the bleeding edge right now in terms of the chemical industry, and I think we want to stay there," Deavenport continues.

"I look to Roger to provide the leadership internally and externally and to help me stay abreast of what is happening in the e-world. It is a different world and one that, unless I really got involved, I would not understand. The way I manage the company is through the executive team, and Roger sits on my executive team. Roger plays a key role in keeping me involved in the e-world in terms of how to stay out front and which business models are successful," he adds.

"You also need someone who has the respect of others in the organization and someone who networks extremely well so they can help the CEO recognize the need for change in terms of the e-world and IT and have all the other business managers understand the need for change and create that buy-in," says Deavenport. "The CIO also has to be a person with a really long-range focus, because when you talk about putting in systems enterprisewide, you clearly can't do it in one or two years or expect the payoff to be immediate. You have to have someone with more of a strategic view."

Neil S. Novich

Age: 46

Company: Ryerson Tull Inc., Chicago

Type of business: Metals distributor and processor

Annual sales: $2.8 billion

What was Ryerson Tull looking for when it appointed Darell Zerbe its current CIO? "Understanding of the business world and business issues," Novich explains. "The CIO does not have to be an expert in every aspect but must understand the basic guts of the business."

For instance, Novich says, part of understanding Ryerson Tull's business is knowing when people in the field need software with flexibility built in. "We have a system that computes the projected profitability of any contract, and that system is very flexible. If you can't get the price you want, but you can get better terms than usual, it can make those calculations," Novich says.

The most effective way for an IT organization to meet the needs of the business units it supports is to have IT staffers and their business constituents "meet in the middle," he says. "It requires everybody to have one foot in the other person's camp. And it can't be one-sided. You can't say, 'I'm looking for the perfect CIO,' without also training your staff to work with IT.' "

A good CIO can help with this training, Novich adds. Every month, the dozen or so executives who head Ryerson Tull's business units meet for a high-level discussion, and Zerbe is always present at these meetings. "He can provide information, and he can also say, 'Let me teach you a little about what IT is about. And here's a new type of application - does anyone think it's useful for us?' " Novich says.

A good CIO can help keep the entire organization excited about IT by implementing new technology regularly, Novich adds. So, while the IT group works on an important long-term project such as Ryerson Tull's new e-commerce system, Novich says he encourages it to also complete small projects that can help with users' day-to-day frustrations.

"It seems like people are doing a lot of X out there in the field, so you design a system for reporting X," he says. "That's less important than an e-commerce project, but people can see that there's good stuff coming from systems all the time."

Joseph E. Laughlin

Age: 36

Company: GlobalNetXchange, Belmont, Calif.

Type of business: Internet-based marketplace for retailers and manufacturers

Annual sales: Unavailable (private company)

"We don't have a chief information officer. We have a chief technology officer. In our business, it's all about technology. It's about leveraging the Internet and exchange-enabled technologies to provide value to trading partners, which are retailers and manufacturers," Laughlin says.

"I need the CTO and the IT organization to really think out of the box as to how we can apply technology to solve real business problems and issues today. I'd like our IT organization to be the best applier of not necessarily the latest and greatest technology, but proven technology. We have to be willing to experiment, but we have to provide real solutions that really work," he adds.

"We're a service business, so the IT organization has to deliver an operating environment that is absolutely, positively secure, available and fast.

"IT also has to be involved in the creation of strategy, because our whole business is built on leveraging the Internet to drive inefficiencies out of the retail supply chain," Laughlin says. "When we want to come up with a new product or service, it's primarily built upon technology.

"We're trying to take manual processes and older processes, like electronic data interchange, and replace them with faster and more robust technologies. Our whole job is to provide buyers and sellers with access to information which previously didn't exist and to provide collaboration between partners. IT is critical to everything we do every day," he says.

King is Computerworld's national correspondent. Zetlin is a freelance writer in Woodstock, N.Y. Contact her at Minda@mindazetlin.com.

Copyright © 2000 IDG Communications, Inc.

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