Retail CIO For President

Franchisee Columnist Todd Michaud has spent the last 16 years trying to fight IT issues, with the last six years focused on franchisee IT issues. He is currently responsible for IT at Focus Brands (Cinnabon, Carvel, Schlotzsky's and Moe's Southwestern Grill).

I can think of no other public sector position that is more qualified to run for public office than the CIO of a large, franchised retail chain. Most CIOs are hired under the "It's time for a change" campaign platform. They then spend the rest of their time trying to undo what their predecessor did, working to make changes within a broken system that doesn't want to change and doing so within a budget that's not big enough, all while hoping their popularity stays above 50 percent so they can make it a full four years in office. Sounds like a natural fit to me.

The similarities don't stop there. Let's take a look at what it means to be successful as a Franchise Retail CIO:

  • They need to know how to remain popular while trying to implement complex standards (laws) the average person doesn't understand. (If you can pass a PCI Level 1 Audit, you can easily pass Healthcare Reform; it's a piece of cake).
  • They need to know how to debate openly with people who are not technically trained (but did stay in a Holiday Inn Express last night).
  • They must know how to take a beating from upset constituents.
  • They have to figure out how to tell people "no" and make them feel happy about it.
  • Most importantly, they need to know how to sell a little bit of their soul each day to make their business partners (special interest groups) happy while still delivering on campaign (interview) promises.
  • And let's not forget "Strategery"--my all time favorite Saturday Night Live quote.

Hey, I Could Do That! Michaud for Senate in 2012!

When I was in high school, I was selected to attend an educational program where a handful of kids from various high schools were sent to a camp to learn about politics. It was a real eye-opener for me. I had no idea how complex government was or how it worked. I learned that the majority party can pretty much do whatever it wants and that being in the minority party really sucks.

I also learned that social engineering is the key to success. It turns out that no one in our "town" had decided to run for the House of Representatives (whoops!). Our counselor was not happy with us. I came up with a plan. I ordered three large pizzas from the campus restaurant and walked around handing out slices with a list of write-ins for the ballot that night.

Ten people from our county (consisting of two towns) were elected to the House. The other town had nine names on the ballot; we had none. However, our "Pizza for Votes" campaign strategy worked out much better than expected. We took 9 out of 10 seats.

I tell you this story because the lessons I learned at this camp are still relevant. It seems like every day I am doing some sort of horse trading to get things done. If I have any hope of standardizing on a single smartphone platform, I'm going to have to buy a lot of pizza.In my worlds, Republicans are people who think that IT is a "cost center" and Democrats are people who think that IT is a "strategic asset." Depending on who has the majority in the C-suite greatly impacts my ability to impact change. You do not ask for additional budget when the "cost center" has the majority, and you don't talk about server consolidation when the "strategic asset" group has control. This majority changes over time, so your approach must change as well.

The biggest challenge, and the biggest area where good political skills can make a difference, is when it comes to IT standards. Most CIOs I think would agree that the more standards in place, the higher the likelihood of success an IT team has. I argue that every time you make an exception to a standard, you increase your risk of failure dramatically. It is the outliers that tend to cause problems.

Yet to be successful politically in an organization, sometimes your "slices of pizza" become exceptions to a standard. It might be a business partner who wants to skip part of the process or wants a non-standard piece of hardware or software. Or, in some cases, it could be as big as a skunk-work project. No matter what, CIOs are forced to weigh the risks of compromising the standards versus the political fallout of not doing so.

It is a very tight line to walk, and in my opinion very few people do it well. Compromise too much, and you take on significant risk of systems outages, project failures (or delays) or team mutiny. Compromise too little, and you may find the business partners outsourcing IT projects to third parties or hiring their own IT teams.

So how do you strike the right balance of "bending" but not "breaking"? Here are a few of my suggestions:

  • Decide upfront what is non-negotiable and make sure everyone knows what those items are. Communicate openly and honestly with your business partners and with your team.
  • The number of "rule bending/breaking" incidents is more important than how far the rule is bent/broken. In my experience, you are more likely to die by death-of-a-thousand-cuts than you are from one major issue.
  • Look at things from the perspective of both your current role and your career. As an example, compromising on an information security standard may have a long-term impact on your career (I'm not going to hire the guy who let "that" happen).
  • There is plenty of grey to work with. Many IT people see the world as completely black or white. A CIO's success depends on how well he or she uses the grey. If you do not make any exceptions at all, you will be ousted even if you are delivering solid results.
  • More decisions are made on emotion than on logic or facts. Make sure you have strong personal relationships with your peers; it will take you a lot farther than being either "good" or "right." Make it a priority to get out there and "shake hands and kiss babies."
  • Communicate well with your team when you bend/break a rule. (Something I need to do a better job at.) They will use rules and standards as their guard-rails to do their jobs. Changes may be seen as a violation of trust. Make sure you explain to the team what the exception is and why you chose to make it.

What do you think? Do I have a chance for a Senate seat? Any pizza chains out there that want to contribute to my campaign?

Leave a comment, or E-mail me at [email protected]. You can also follow me on Twitter: @todd_michaud.

And don't forget to follow my Ironman training progress at www.IronGeek.me. (This week I ran a 10K race and learned there are some REALLY big catfish out there.)

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