CIOs: Where Information Technology Meets Management

Friday, January 14, 2011

Rahul Neel Mani

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As his responsibilities changed, from long-time CIO at HP to Royal Dutch Shell’s first CIO-from-outside to an EVP with Juniper, Mike Rose found the best way to get the job done is not to preach technology or business. He saw his role as helping people find that middle ground, Rose told Rahul Neel Mani in an interview.

Q: From a CIO to a business manager and a part of a larger corporate support you have seen it all. How did you handle the changes in responsibilities? How did you manage the transition?

A: The most important thing in a board situation is that you are not managing, it's an oversight position. Your job is to protect the shareholders, to help and assist the management. Many directors confuse that with their old job where they were very good managers.

The transition can be really difficult because all of your training, all of your experience is hands on, to solve problems, to work with colleagues who are trying to solve problems mutually. So one thing is telling yourself that it is not your job to do that.

Once you do that, you look to apply the skills and knowledge that you have, to the job of a director. Once you do that, it's quite fun actually. You get to see the company from the highest level. You get to support the CEO.

CEOs have tough jobs and its quite a lonely job. You really are the top of the organization and there is no colleague inside the company for you, you're the top person, so the board can serve as a tremendous support system for the CEO, if there is a  good relationship between the CEO and the total board and the directors as individuals.

I always looked to try and make that connection with the CEOs, so that they would trust me and open up to me and I could help more. It's a difficult balance, so there is a little bit of tension in there.

Q: How should one handle these situations of tension?

A: I think you have to be prepared for it. I can say that I was prepared for it. There were times where I brought up positions as a director, which were positions of commitment. 

And there were certain requirements for me stay on-board and participate. They had to be ethical, open and transparent with the directors and we had to agree on objectives for the  company and live by them. I wouldn't tolerate any deviation.

Q: When you were the CIO both at Shell and HP. What was the true perception of a CIO and the IT organization that you were leading of these companies?

A: At HP, I became CIO in 1997. One of the things when you're a CIO at a technology company is that everyone is a CIO, everyone has a lot of knowledge and they all have opinions. So one of the challenges is working with very smart tech savvy colleagues and getting them to appreciate the operational nuances and requirements of running a large IT company.

At Shell I had a very different experience. They were, for the first time, going outside to find a CIO. It was the first enterprise CIO that had a lot people reporting directly to him. In the past they had small coordinated teams.

They decided that they wanted to have a more modern approach with the intention that I could come in and learn about the business and teach them about IT, so that they could handle it once I left. My successor there was Alan Matula, a very good CIO. He was with me 4.5 years and he took over once I left.

Q: In these 2 organizations did you do anything in particular to change the perception within the stakeholders of the company?

A: Yes, very much so. I worked very hard at having that business level discussion. Back 15 years ago there was the discussion about the business savvy tech people and tech savvy business people. And then we asked ourselves in CIO positions, what are we? The answer is we have to be both. The goal actually is to help everyone meet in the middle.

So if your strength is business, teach them how to infuse technology and help catch up with competitors and likewise if you are a technology person, you don't lead with technology, you lead with business.

So we had conversations at my level and we encouraged them at different levels. Since these organizations were very large, all you could do is lead and teach by demonstration.

Q: Were you assertive also at times?

A: Very much so. If you are in a CIO position, then you're waiting to be asked and many times you may not be asked. If you are simply serving and giving people what they ask for, it might not be what they need, so it's always good to create some healthy tension.

The fascinating thing is that the stakeholders are all different people with different views of IT. Very few came from IT. Many of them didn't understand why it was all so complicated, they tried to simplify it. So you really did have to lean into them. You were serving them, you're supporting and enabling the business. But you needed to be assertive else they would trivialize the job and your contribution and ultimately not listen.

Q: Did you ever hate being a CIO?

A: I never hated being CIO, but there were times when I had self doubt. I thought was I sharp enough to work with my colleagues because I worked in very capable environments with people technically and intellectually strong. 

I just sometimes challenge myself to do the job well because you lead a lot of people and if you did not do a good job, the company would not be successful because if you are weak, then the company can overpower you, the stake holders can overpower you.

That doesn't mean they want anything that wasn't good for the company. Strength respects strength and there were days when I felt that I was not being strong and articulate enough to convince my colleagues to do something different, maybe even when they were asking me to do it.

Q: What were the things you did to be strong from within?

A: When I started in HP in the 1970's, I asked myself if I had the ability to move up. Frankly the decision I made was that I probably didn't, so I probably would work there for 5 years. I learned whatever I could, asked as many questions as I could.

And I followed the advice of Dave Packard, one of the founders, which is - make a contribution. The profits will follow. That's a great way to approach any job at any level. Just make a contribution, don't try and win an argument and don't try being in the spotlight, and I ended up spending 23 years there instead of 5.

Q: How did you deal with vendors -- as just suppliers or partners?

A: I was really clear with suppliers. I wanted them to make a profit on my account because if they didn't then I would I have a lousy team supporting me. They would be complaining all the time. But I didn't want to be the most profit making account, I wanted to pay in the top quartile for price performance.

I wanted to be among the very best in the world in terms of efficiency and proficiency. That means you have to narrow that down to number of intimate suppliers and keep that healthy tension there. So when somebody says that you're getting a great deal, I do not take that at face value.

I say prove it to me, with me, show me what companies can do when they're working with a vendor because you can't do it alone, you have to do it with collaboration, not through negotiation and you need transparency and work very hard to get the right ecosystem in the company.

Q: How do you balance your role with outsourcing?

A: Trust and transparency is important. That said, you have to build a sufficient intellectual base in the company, so that you can guide things architecturally and you can prove to yourself with your supplier that you're doing things the right way.

The last thing is you have to be very cautious of people claiming to be your strategic partners. In an industry that has consolidated such as IT outsourcing, the game is really getting economies of scale by doing things in a  very effective way, the same way for lots of customers. It's hard to see how you're a strategic player if you're doing this for my competitor and everybody else in the industry the same way for economies of scale.

If you want break away and be different from the pack, you better have the intellectual horsepower in the organization because that is not how the industry is going to support,  they are going to try and help as many people as possible to get economies of scale.

Q: You've said CIOs are actually bolted to infrastructure and have failed to focus on business models, how does that happen?

A: When you think about such a CIO, it happens in a couple of ways. One is the structure of an enterprise: CIO is often really a proxy for centralized infrastructure and not for business IT. I always said to the CEO, if you see me as central IT, as Infrastructure, don't use the term CIO, hire an infrastructure manager, you don't need me. But if you see me as business IT for the enterprise, that's what is important to get unbolted.

There are many times business leaders want to bolt you and sometimes CIO's bolt themselves to the infrastructure because it's the one place in IT where  you get very quantifiable data, you go out and deal with vendors, do comparisons, you get into the business process arena, you get into working very intimately with go-to-market and business models, that is where the outside world actually competes, that's the most difficult part.

That's where you go from being a tech person to being a business savvy tech person.

Cross-posted from CTO Forum

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Bryce Mitchell Now THAT is fascinating!! I always like learning from others' prior experience!!
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