The Politics Of Being A Retail CIO

Todd Michaud runs Power Thinking Media, which helps retailers and restaurants tackle the convergence of social, mobile and retail technologies. He spent nine years delivering technology platforms to more than 10,000 retail locations as VP of IT for Focus and Director of Retail Technology for Dunkin' Brands.

Why is it that the same retailers who will replace a finance clerk's desktop like clockwork every four years will let their POS linger for eight, nine, 10 or more years? Why is it that datacenters can be consolidated and servers can be virtualized but E-Commerce still operates as a separate channel? The answer is simple: politics.

Becoming a CIO is a lot like running for office. You have to make a lot of promises to get the job. Once you get the job, you have high expectations to deliver on a lot of competing interests (a lot of people to keep happy). You find way more ghosts in your closet from your predecessor than you expected. You get about four years to make everything happen, or they will find someone else to do the job. Sound familiar?

No one likes to talk about the fact that many retailers change IT leadership more often than they turn inventory. After decades of high turnover in the IT leadership position, you would think CEOs and CFOs would learn that the grass isn't any greener on the other side. The CIO, no matter who he or she is, may be hamstrung by a large amount of technical debt, which means way too many resources are allocated to keeping the existing systems running and not to delivering innovation. That the organization may be either too bureaucratic or too free flowing to deliver quality projects on time. That vendor contracts may have been built around a price point rather than an expected level of service.

It's a dirty little secret that CIOs are faced with having to make decisions that often put their personal income and career trajectory at odds with delivering business benefit. Do they swing for the fences and try to undo a decade of poor technology decisions? Or do they bunt and virtualize their servers? Do they make the throw to home plate by standing up to the CMO when it comes to the best way to implement social strategy? Or do they hit the cutoff man and deliver iPads to the C-suite? Home-run hitters tend not to have the highest batting average, and this industry has little patience for strikeouts.

So CIOs are often left with the reality that although they may want to change the world, they have to be there long enough to do it. That they have to focus on achieving some smaller, often political, victories to give them more runway to tackle the bigger headache projects. The more time that goes by, the more technical debt invades an organization and the more difficult it is to undo. Couple this with the complexities of emerging technologies (nothing is easy to implement anymore), and you have a tough road ahead.So in some cases CIOs cheat a little. Just like a bill getting bloated with provisions as it passes through congress, CIOs are often forced to attach small cleanup efforts to other projects. When I recently asked a group of about 100 IT leaders if they had recently "bloated a project" for cleanup purposes, about 80 percent of the people in the room raised their hand.

This means timelines are extended and budgets are increased in an effort to carry the float. Executives start to question why projects are taking so long and costing so much.

At a CIO networking event a few years ago, a bunch of the local CIOs across all industries were standing in a circle and having a drink. Someone in the group mentioned the "curse" related to speaking at this event. At least one of the panelists had been fired within 30 days of speaking at the event. It had nothing to do with speaking on the panel; it's just the reality that one in five CIOs job is likely at risk at any given point in time. For this event, in particular, at least one panelist had bitten the bullet in each of the last three years (and the same has been true in the two years since the event I attended).

One of the CIOs in that group spoke up and suggested everyone in the circle look at the person to their left and introduce that person to their boss. He proffered that sometime within the next two years our own bosses would be unhappy with our performance and that it would be smart to make a connection with another CIO in the same group. At least then the role could be kept within the family, he joked.

Although we laughed hard about the concept that night, and I have since told that story dozens of times, the joke has a stinging truth to it: The odds are stacked against long-term tenure within a single organization.

To maximize both the business benefit delivered and their personal career income statements, new retail CIOs should do a few things:

  • Make sure they fully understand the scope of the situation they are about take on.
  • Learn how to effectively communicate what is going on within the IT organization.
  • Work hard to get away from traditional budgeting processes.
  • Carefully manage technical debt.
  • Assume everything you do will be twice as hard and take twice as long as you expect.

What do you think? If you disagree (or even, heaven forbid, agree), please comment below or send me a private message. Or check out the Twitter discussion on @todd_michaud.