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.

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