CIO Ramon Baez: Leadership Counts

By Brian P. Watson

Ramon Baez is not hiding in the data center. "This is the time when you get out of the office," says the Kimberly-Clark CIO. "Get into those conference rooms and meet with the business people on how you can help them through these difficult times. That's when they see you as a true business partner."

That's the only way CIOs can convince the business that IT can be a value creator and not just a cost center. In tough times, Baez says, business leaders must understand that IT can provide a competitive advantage.

Clearly, that's not an easy task, and it's become tougher as events have made a mockery of the planning process. When his team plotted its strategy in April 2008, the focus was on flexibility. By July, the Dallas-based company was dealing with inflationary hurdles: Think oil reaching $147 a barrel, with petroleum commodities a key component of Kimberly-Clark products.

Baez and other executives had no idea when the inflation issues would subside, so they worked to reduce fixed costs to free up capital for investments to help make the company more efficient.

Then came the Wall Street meltdown. Executives became more jittery and asked Baez, "How can IT help us next year?" "Top of mind for all of them wasn't what IT could do to add value from a strategy perspective, or what's the next great technology," he says. "They were viewing IT as, 'Wow--you cost us a lot. How can you help us continue to drive down costs?'"

When the economy imploded, Baez kept close to his executive team, offering ways IT could help

Kimberly-Clark weather the storm and come out stronger. He didn't see any of his projects or budgets cut. He acknowledges that his IT shop may have to make some course corrections this year, but any changes will be closely aligned to corporate strategy, he says.

In the meantime, Baez is focusing on optimizing his IT assets in 2009 after a multiyear, multiphase outsourcing project. Today, he's managing more than 800 in-house IT workers, with another 1,000 outsourced contractors. In-house workers, embedded into various business units, get a close-up view of what each department needs. That, he says, allows them to discuss priorities and opportunities from a business perspective--all while anticipating what's expected from IT.

"It's being proactive--instead of being told what to do," Baez says. "It's coming to the table with ideas to make the company more profitable, improve margins and be more effective in dealing with customers."

Baez also says it's time to focus on your people. Cutting for the sake of cutting runs the risk of alienating talented IT staffers, which can make them seek greener pastures. As he points out, the most talented workers usually have no problem finding a better job, despite the economic climate.

So Baez is ramping up some leadership development initiatives he enacted this year, and he aims to keep his staffers motivated toward the post-recession era. "You have to demonstrate strong leadership so they feel like they are where they want to be," he says. "Too many [CIOs] get this deer-in-the-headlights look, where they say, 'I don't know what hit me--this global economy is falling apart!' No one wants to work for that type of person."

Above all, Baez emphasizes more face time with the business, not hiding in your office. "The last thing you want to do is hide because you think the business will cut your costs," he warns. "Forget about that. Get out there and ask, 'What can we do to help?'"


This article was originally published on 02-16-2009