Kroll's CIO on Effective Alignment

By Brian P. Watson  |  Posted 07-13-2009

Kroll's CIO on Effective Alignment

The relationships between IT shops and the businesses they support can be a bit turbulent. Getting both sides to understand each other's wants and needs--and speak the same language--has burdened countless executives since IT first became an integral function inside the enterprise.

That's all old hat to Jeff Kubacki. In almost 30 years at work, he has served in practically every IT leadership role imaginable. He's also learned finance in the classroom and on the job, giving him that essential mix of skill sets that CEOs look for today.

As CIO of risk-management consulting firm Kroll, Kubacki has to balance the interests of four business units with those of his own IT operation. By building relationships with his C-suite peers and a specialized IT team, Kubacki has used tried-and-true tactics--and found a few new ones--to help IT boost business.

Kubacki spoke recently with CIO Insight Editor in Chief Brian P. Watson. What follows is an edited, condensed version of their conversation.

CIO Insight: You report to Ben Allen, Kroll's CEO. Do you think that makes your job different from a CIO who reports to finance or operations?

Jeff Kubacki: There is the stereotype about how reporting relationships impact what the CIO does, but it really depends on the company and the overall culture of the organization.

I once worked at a company where I reported to the CFO [chief financial officer]. That was the best structure for that company, and he was an awesome executive. Sure, he worried about finance, but he also worried about business strategy and alignment and all the things you would expect a CEO or COO [chief operating officer] to worry about. So, at that company, it was a perfect relationship.

It all depends on the culture and personality. How many direct reports does the CEO have, and is he or she going to be able to give you the time you need?

Our CEO is very technical. He came up through Kroll and managed a very technical business, Kroll Ontrack, which is driven by technology. So he can talk about disks and cache and stuff that IT leaders talk about.

But how much do you think the reporting relationship matters to CIOs?

Kubacki: I've never gotten hung up on whom I report to. I've reported to a CEO and a CFO. As long as you have the right governance and steering committees, and as long as you're a member of the executive committee--have that "seat at the table"--it's not that important.

I'm going to work on building all the right relationships with executives and learning the business. Business acumen and business relationship management are the top priorities of the job. I can be effective by focusing on those skills, regardless of whom I report to.

At the end of the day, it's about delivering value to the business--not so much who your boss is. Maybe I'm just older and wiser: Earlier in my career, it might have mattered more, but not today.

What about other C-level peers?

So your CEO is tech-savvy, but what about your other C-level peers?

Kubacki: It varies. We have four main businesses within Kroll, some of which have very technologically savvy executives. With them, it's very easy to have a discussion around storage or server virtualization. But you never lead in with that. You never say, "Hey, I'm going to do virtualization." Then they say, "Good for you!"

As long as you start with the business problem you're trying to solve and explain it in nontechnical terms, they'll buy in easier. Then you mention, "By the way, we're going to get an enterprise license agreement with X company, and we'll run our data centers with less power and less cooling, etc.," and they see the value proposition.

That's what it's all about. You have to understand that it's pure situational leadership, understanding how savvy the person you're dealing with is, and how deep you can go in technical terms. You end up having different types of conversations.

That can be pretty challenging for CIOs.

Kubacki: It's back to the old-fashioned situational leadership of knowing your audience.

I remember back to 1985, when I did my first board-level presentation. I was only five years into my career, and I was selling a global network investment. I told the board I was there to talk about a very technical issue, but I wasn't going to use technical terms. And the COO said, "Yeah, that's because you know we're a bunch of idiots!"

That broke the ice. It was all about the business benefits of investing in a global network and what we could do in the future that we couldn't do at that point.

IT leaders also have to try to make their staffs understand the business. How do you do that at Kroll?

Kubacki: I'm looking for a new IT director for our business in Nashville. When I sat down with the recruiter, I told him I was looking for three things, in this order: First, I want someone with business acumen and business skills. Second, I want someone who can communicate effectively with the business and bring that back to IT to articulate and develop a good vision of what we want to do. Third, since we're in IT, I want someone with technical skills.

I'm not looking for someone who can install a server. I want people who can not just deliver what the business wants, but who also knows the business, the technology and the capabilities of the team so well that he or she can actually push further with what IT can do. That includes building relationships with the business and their IT peers.

When people ask me what I do, I tell them I have a sales job. I'm constantly trying to convince people to do what I want them to do. We're influencing people to make the decisions we'd like them to make. We're constantly in sales mode.

That means you've built the relationships. You can understand the objections to any plan and be able to work with them. In my years here, I've had to make changes to the leadership team to get the types of people who can do all that.

The CIO as salesperson?

The CIO as salesperson--that's not something you hear every day.

Kubacki: But that's a big part of the job. All the vendors we do business with want to know my business and IT objectives and how they can help us achieve them. I don't want to have that discussion 15 times, so I get them all in one room--in January, in Minnesota, on a very cold day, so I know how committed they are.

We go through all our business objectives and my supporting IT objectives, set up account plans and document conditions of satisfaction: how I'll measure our satisfaction with them as a vendor. I want to make them a partner, not just a vendor.

One of the things I look at is balance of trade. We have a lot of services within Kroll that these companies could take advantage of. Some of them buy our services or resell software we develop, but there's a lot more we can do. So it's not about how they can help me save money, but how they are going to open doors within their organizations so we can communicate the Kroll value proposition to their teams. That's where that sales hat comes in again: My job, in part, is to generate qualified leads for my business.

Who from your staff takes part in those meetings?

Kubacki: I have a director of IT in each of my four business units, as well as my IT operations team, which includes our project management office and our global services team. They present to the vendors about their business unit: what it does--be it background screening, drug testing or data recovery--as well as their technical footprint and their objectives.

We've done it twice so far. The feedback from vendors has been tremendous. Some have even suggested that we package it into a consulting offering because they wish everyone did it. I'm not looking to sell it--I think of it as a best practice. It may not work for everyone, but it works for us.

All of this brings us back to alignment. What are you doing to make sure your IT strategy is in line with the overall business?

Kubacki: I want to be actively involved in the strategic planning process from the business side. Last year, when we went through that process for our four businesses, each business leader had a way that they were comfortable with attacking it. They used SWOTs (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats) and looked at their objectives, goals and strategies--but not as much on measurement as we needed.

I thought it would be cool if we were all doing this a common way. Selfishly, I wanted that because it would help my team and me make our strategic plan. I had a whole template that I had used in a different job based on OGTM--objectives, goals, tactics and measures--and then there are projects and measurements built in. One of the business units adopted it last year.

This year, I had one of my direct reports train in the methodology. She took last year's strategic plans and retrofitted them to the OGTM model and replayed that back to the business. Now I've got a common view across the business units. I walked our CEO through how he could use it, and I'm looking at using it more broadly for our 2010 strategic plan.

Less formally, we have an executive committee that meets every other week. The CEO chairs it, and it includes the heads of all corporate functions. We all produce a report prior to the meeting about our current status and objectives.

That's a great way to keep up alignment because we're all talking about the health of the business and where we're going next. You've got the heads up--there are no surprises. That's a fun place to be, from a CIO perspective.

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