Campbell’s Soup CIO Doreen Wright speaks out on HR, IT

Doreen Wright knew she would have a lot of work to do when she arrived at Campbell Soup Co. as chief information officer in 2001, but she didn’t expect to be doing two jobs at once. For almost a year though, she served as both CIO and interim head of human resources for the venerable food maker.

She assumed the second title in May 2002, just one year after signing on as CIO, when the previous HR chief unexpectedly resigned. The interim position was expected to last maybe three months, but as it stretched throughout the year, Wright discovered some unexpected insights into how to do her job as CIO.

Wright, 47, a former CIO at Nabisco who spent the early part of her career managing business lines in the financial services industry, says she came out of the HR experience a more effective CIO with a better understanding of how to build teams and spark creativity within the IT department. Working closely with President and Chief Executive Douglas R. Conant, Wright presided over a massive executive turnover—about two-thirds of senior management has been replaced since Wright arrived—and an extensive IT makeover.

All of which gave her a deeper appreciation of how Campbell operates across its many business lines. The experience convinced her that human resources is a critical and strategic function that can teach technology managers something about their own jobs.

While Campbell worked its way through a three-year plan to help reinvigorate its iconic but recently fading brands, Wright centralized information technology within a global company that was running 1,400 different applications when she arrived. Basics like robust security control and disaster recovery also had been ignored.

There had been a dearth of investment for a number of years,” she says. “It was a classic example of a company that almost had a monopoly and did not keep up as tastes were changing and alternatives were becoming available. In terms of my function, IT had acquired other companies over time and allowed each group to have its own IT infrastructure with a very low degree of interoperability.”

Since her hiring, the momentum has shifted at the Camden, New Jersey, company. Revenue has gone from $5.7 billion in 2001 to $7.1 billion in 2004, and net income has increased by almost 25 percent since 2002.

Wright spoke to Senior Writer Ed Cone about her role in the turnaround and what she learned by working a double shift.

CIO Insight: You had the unlikely experience of being a CIO who also headed up human resources for a year. What qualified you for that role?
Wright: I fell into an unusual set of circumstances, but it was one of the best experiences I ever had. When the head of HR left the company and we needed someone to fill in until a replacement was hired, Doug [CEO Douglas Conant] asked me to do this, in part because we had a strong relationship with a high level of trust.

We had a basis of knowing how to work together. He knew I could very quickly organize and structure what needed to be done on a short-term basis. We went into it thinking it was probably for three months and it turned out to be close to a year.

I have skill sets from my work in IT that were very helpful in running HR on an interim basis; I have very strong project management, program management and planning skills.

In IT we understand the business process from front to back, probably more so than any other part of the company. Even if we are servicing a slice of the company, we understand the input and the output, we can see something globally from end to end, so I probably already had a perspective that was unusual at this company.

What did doing both jobs teach you about being a CIO?
The amount of time I spend on leadership development, succession planning, recruiting and the development of the individual, is much greater than it was. I’m much more conscious of diversity and the value of diversity.

I’ve always been a very staunch advocate of women’s issues. I have set up day-care centers and done all kinds of stuff at companies I worked for, but I got a real bird’s-eye view of the issue here and had to deal with it in real tangible ways. I set up an African American network, a women’s network and formal mentoring programs.

I got an enormous amount personally out of these activities, and it changes the way I lead the IT function because I have a much better appreciation for the diversity of thought. When everybody is different, that’s what’s going to generate the best ideas and the most creativity. You can’t make a quantum leap if you stay too comfortable with people who are just like you.

Also, when I first started in the HR role, I was guilty of the same thing I accused other people of relative to IT, which is viewing the bits and bytes, the detail stuff.

When I looked at HR, I pretty much thought they were about compensation and benefit policies, transaction processing, that kind of thing. And I got a very different view when I was actually in that role.

I would disagree with anybody who says HR is not the most strategic role in the company. It’s like the right hand of the CEO, and you are responsible for organization effectiveness. It’s not just about comp and benefits and HR policies; it’s about much bigger issues.

It has to do with team dynamics, building highly effective teams and the effectiveness of policy across the company. I had the firsthand experience of taking things like a leadership model, which had been defined just as I was coming into the company, and rolling that out across the company globally.

Our leadership model defines the behaviors and leadership competencies that we expect of any leader, regardless of culture, business or location.

Doing that type of large-scale rollout and training, and building that into our performance management and rewards system, was quite an experience. It made me look not only at HR differently, it made me look at the whole issue of organization effectiveness differently. I’ve always been interested in stuff like this, but it gave me a very different view in my own function.

How did you manage the demands of two jobs at once?
It worked very well, and for me personally it was an extraordinary growth experience. The majority of people here were very supportive. But it was exhausting doing the two jobs. I worked 12 and 18 hours a day, on the phone around-the-clock. Personally, I will never work 18 hours a day again. You don’t have a life when you do that. I have children I was raising as a single parent, and it was difficult.

Was there a change in the way you perceive the overall business and IT’s role within it?
I think I have a different view of what it takes to be in other executive roles, because I saw those roles in a different way. I learned a new set of responsibilities, worked closely with the CEO and was on the agenda for every meeting of the board of directors. My appreciation for the complexity and the loneliness of the role of the CEO really increased. I could see you are ultimately alone with every decision. You could not pay me enough to be a CEO. That is one job I would never do.

One reason I look at things differently now is that I had a part in hiring most of the executives in the firm. Most of the execs got hired while I ran HR, and I have a real vested interest in them. I have a kind of special relationship with them.

Also, the way our business is structured, I actually sit on the leadership teams of the divisions in addition to sitting on the corporate leadership team. I love it. It keeps me close to the business. I see what’s happening with parts of the company and I have a real business role to perform. I really consider myself a business leader, a business manager with a functional expertise that happens to be running IT.

In general, do CIOs have a good sense of how they should fit in with the overall management structure of a large company?
I think individuals who did not come up through a technical ladder are more effective CIOs. Maybe that doesn’t hold true at a technology company, but it does at a mainstream manufacturing company. I’m effective because I had line management roles before this. Most of my background was in financial services, I did a lot of things before I landed in a senior IT role. IT in and of itself has no value. I can rely on a CTO for that. And I’m heavily outsourced to IBM and depend on them for a lot of technical knowledge.

What I bring to the table are strong leadership skills and the ability to manage a large, complicated organization—not the ability to make the right router decision.

I would not have an interest in working in an environment where I didn’t report directly to the CEO. I think if you don’t have a seat at the table, then your function isn’t taken as seriously; it’s viewed as a back-office, necessary evil kind of thing versus being a partner who is integral to the transformation of the company.

To not be at the table and part of the strategic thinking and the annual operating plan would not be something that interests me.

When you arrived at Campbell the company was on the threshold of big changes—including major turnover in the executive ranks. How did you, as a new CIO, sell that agenda to a global workforce?

Within the first few months I visited every location. I was the first CIO at Campbell Soup who had global responsibility, who had a direct reporting line to the CEO.

I felt very strongly that we needed to engage all the IT associates and the different groups around the world. I needed to communicate what the global agenda was and why. And I think just as important, I had to demonstrate sensitivity to the local business.

One of the problems we’d had was this independence and lack of interoperability. There was virtually no global governance over anything. We’ve come a long way in the last four years, but one of my observations coming in was that culturally we were the classic American company that had international units, but the American parent really didn’t understand the nuances of the individual markets, the cultural nuances, how you treat people, how you communicate with them.

We didn’t show perhaps the appropriate appreciation for the balance of what you have to do locally with what you can do centrally, so there was a lot of dictating from the center.

Weren’t all these changes threatening to some people in the company?
There were a number of changes, promotions and hires from outside. In the first three years, 200 of 300 senior managers changed. Within three or four months of when I joined, a number of the direct reports to me turned over. And that kind of goes with my belief that once you define where you’re going, once you have your road map, individuals have the right to decide if they buy into that or not. If you don’t buy in, however, then you really don’t belong as part of the team.

My priority is always to get the right players as direct reports to me.

Once you have direct reports with the competencies and leadership skills required for what you’ve laid out, they can be a very effective conduit and you don’t have to solve every problem yourself across the organization.

There is a tendency to treat people in a company like they are children—but they are smart, educated people. We sat down and explained why the company was not strong financially, why we would want to centralize decisions around infrastructure and configure applications to share resources.

The CEO described his vision of where we wanted to go—extensive topline growth, the ability to do acquisitions to increase scale, better turnaround time on new products to market, those type of things. We matched those against our capabilities and we had a pretty significant gap. So we knew we had to get our foundation correct.

It helped to explain, but the other thing was listening. You don’t feel respected if people don’t listen to you; you can’t explain your local pressures, your responses, what the barriers to you are. I spent a lot of time listening.

A focus when I was traveling was to hold town hall meetings with management teams and with business leaders and to hold videoconferences. We tried to give people a number of ways to be heard. I don’t think people were afraid. People are looking for leadership and hope when things get bad.

Doreen Wright served as managing director and senior vice president of both customer service and technology at Bankers Trust, later becoming senior vice president for operations and systems at Prudential Investment Group.

She came to Campbell as CIO in 2001, from Nabisco, where she held the same title. She holds a BA from the University of Pennsylvania and has served on the boards of the American Repertory Ballet and the Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts.

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