FedEx's Rob Carter on CIOs Climbing the Ladder

By Brian P. Watson  |  Posted 08-31-2009

FedEx's Rob Carter on CIOs Climbing the Ladder

Thanks to the economy, two things are happening across corporate America more than before: Executives are starting to truly understand the reach--and potential power--of IT, and CIOs are coming to the realization that they must do a better job partnering with the business.

None of this is new to Rob Carter, though. Carter, the executive vice president of information services and CIO of FedEx, has long been regarded as one of the top IT leaders in the United States. His position on FedEx's five-person executive committee, which charts the company's strategic direction, tells you a lot about the role IT plays at the shipping giant.

Carter shared his thoughts with CIO Insight Editor-in-Chief Brian P. Watson on how IT leaders can rise above the status quo--and get themselves a more comfortable seat at the table. What follows is an edited, condensed version of their conversation.


CIO Insight: What are some of the primary barriers for CIOs in being looked at as a true strategic partner who could move up the ranks?

Carter: If you only think about the need to speak the language of the business, then you sort of put yourself into an apprenticeship role where you're looking out at the business and trying to build those relationships and understand the business better.

What really needs to happen to ascend to business partnership is to put equal focus on understanding the business and helping the business understand the value of IT.

I tend to get on my staff when they say things to their business partners like, "You don't need to come to that meeting--it's just a technical briefing." The better you foster understanding across this gulf that has traditionally divided us, the better off you'll appear as a business executive and the more value you'll bring.

Fundamentally, I'm waging a war to eliminate the gulf that exists between IT and the business. The reality is that this is business technology. It's the marriage of the business and technology to create sustainable value, sustainable competitive differentiation, sustainable productivity advantages, sustainable organization and control that helps the business operate more effectively.

Part of the answer is that we shouldn't always think of the problem as being between us and them, but rather we should think about the opportunity to leverage technology for business success.

What about CIOs at companies that view IT as more of a utility? How do they play catch-up?

Carter: Never be a victim. Never decide in advance, "This is what I'm going to be relegated to." If you're going to be a top-flight business executive in any discipline, you have to assume that what you bring to the table is worthwhile and worth being part of a big-league team.

If you want to play a behind-the-scenes role, that's what you'll find yourself doing. But you need to put on the mantle of authority that says these things are vitally important to productivity, customer interactions and the top line.

I do have a wonderful spot here where IT is respected, and IT is part of the fabric and leadership of the company. But I honestly believe that that's what drew me to FedEx--understanding that that's the role IT should play. I feel very strongly that we should aspire to be engaging business partners rather than behind-the-scenes brokers of activities.

Resolving IT's "Mysterious" Nature

What's been the most crucial piece of your success at FedEx?

Carter: I came up through the technology ranks. I graduated college with a computer science degree and started off as a classic IT practitioner. But through the years, I made it a point--and it was terribly important--to strike a balance between business perspective and technical perspective.

Most IT professionals did an average job, at best, of working hard to understand the business, being engaged with their business as partners, as opposed to coming in and being an order taker and going back to the mysterious world of IT and having something pop out six months later.

It's been very important to me to understand the businesses I've been involved in. I went back and got my MBA after I'd been working in the field for a while because I thought I needed a better understanding of the business constructs I was working inside of.

So to me, it's always been intuitive to work hard to strike the balance. It's not more important for IT to understand the business--it's equally important for the business to understand IT and its capabilities and for IT to understand the business in a true partnership.

True, but why is the emphasis still so strongly on IT having to understand the business, and not the other way around?

Carter: IT has a significant accountability for that. For too long, we've made what we do too mysterious--taking a "pay no attention to the technical folks behind the curtain" approach. In my mind, that's a recipe for misunderstanding and lack of clarity. You're always able to work better with people if you work hard to understand what they do. When you go to your physician, he or she much prefers that you be an informed patient, that you do work to understand what you might be dealing with.

The same thing is true in IT: There's a real responsibility to not make everything we do so mysterious, but to really pull our business partners in to give them an understanding of what it takes to deliver.

Most of the misunderstandings occur around, "Why does it take so long?" and "Why does it cost so much?" Those questions are best answered by a thorough understanding of what's really going on back there. It's not a mysterious set of activities; hopefully, it's a well-planned-out and orchestrated set of deliverables that look very much like building a home or a stadium. Sometimes the costs and staff hours are greater to or equal to those kinds of projects.

These are very large efforts, and they need to be treated more like engineering efforts so that people have a tangible notion of what's going on.

What skills do CIOs need to demonstrate to win favor with business executives and demonstrate their full capabilities?

Carter: There are few places where all the processes and activities about how a company accomplishes work come together more cleanly than in the world of IT. The systems are a lens into how the business operates. It's not the other way around: It's not, IT is making workers do it one way because that's how the system works. The systems are being engineered to support business processes and activities.

What that allows the CIO to do is be a process expert at the company to understand how the business comes together--how it's integrated, how the different functions work across boundaries. A lot of times, line-of-business executives don't have that ability. They don't have the perspective with a wider aperture that allows you to see how it all comes together.

So one of the key things is to use that unique lens to help make the business work better and more effectively, and to make recommendations about how to simplify activities and processes around the business.

You can gain a lot of respect from business partners if you do that smartly and tactfully. It's not just opinion--you really do have a fact base you can bring to the table and say, "Here's how we do it today. If we were to re-engineer some of these processes in the corresponding systems, we can be more seamless to customers or we could be easier to do business with." That's a key set of skills.

Building Business Skills

But it seems there are less CIOs talking the talk than actually walking the walk.

Carter: It's easy to tell people that they have to go out and build relationships or to not be so techie--and those are probably true statements. But the most important thing is to go out and add value to the discussion. You have to be someone who's engaged and a part of the discussion rather than sitting back.

So is an extensive business background the new must-have for CIOs?

Carter: IT or business technology is a true discipline. I sit on boards of directors and audit committees, I have an MBA, and I've spent a lot of time getting a general understanding of how financials work, but I would find it difficult to be technically savvy enough to be a world-class CFO. And frankly, I think the IT discipline is equally complex and oriented to experience and table-feel.

I hope I don't alienate the folks that have crossed over from the business side, but there's usually not a very good understanding in the business of what really goes on in IT. It's assuming you can drop someone in there, and it'll get a lot better.

There are some great examples of people who have been successful coming across, but there have also been some catastrophic failures of people that came in and said, 'I'll fix this thing,' but had little or no table-feel for what was going on. IT is an engineering discipline and a business discipline, and it has a great deal of structure when it's done correctly.

Much of the problem exists when those activities are not well-understood by the business and IT, and the business gets sideways, and misunderstandings occur, and the answer seems to be to put someone in IT that speaks the language of the business. But if they can't strike the balance between understanding the technology and understanding the business and the marriage of those two things, you could be asking for trouble.

Is rotating throughout the business to get broader exposure a necessity for aspiring CIOs?

Carter: Back to my theory that IT provides a lens into the business, my honest preference is to rotate IT assignments so that you support various parts of the business--operations, finance, customer-facing or e-commerce, etc., so you get a broad perspective of the business through the lens of working closely.

If you're doing that right, you'll find yourself sitting in those same staff meetings that you would have been in if you were in that on-the-line rotation, and you'll find yourself getting the same experiences in sitting side-by-side with the same teams.

My bias is certainly one of rotation, and I've forced a lot of rotation among the management team here. There are certainly occasions when those rotations make sense, like when you have a business expert who's imminently qualified and needs to be put in that job.

But in general, you shouldn't have to force it to happen. It should happen opportunistically based on that person's executive, managerial and leadership capabilities.

What other skills do IT leaders need?

Carter: IT professionals need to have a sense of confidence about their ability to bring value to the business--not just from a technology standpoint, but from a process and leadership standpoint in helping to architect the way business works.

That's what all executives are trying to do; they're trying to optimize the way business works, the way it interfaces with customers, the way it performs productively inside its own four walls, the way it reaches out across boundaries between suppliers and customers.

At the end of the day, those are all systems issues. None of those would exist without supporting technologies and capabilities that make them happen effectively.

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