My first year as North America CIO: Lessons learned

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Last winter, I embarked on the largest endeavor of my professional career when I became the SVP and CIO for Schneider Electric North America. This role was something I was both proud and humbled to take on. Although I had spent 20 years prior as a commercial leader within the industry, I found myself an outlier who didn’t quite fit the bill of the typical technologist that is often operating within this role. Along with the excitement I felt coming into this role, I also experienced anxiety and pressure ahead of what I knew would be a challenging year. 

Instead of seeing this as a disadvantage, it struck me as an opportunity. I quickly recognized that my commercial experience not only provided me with a unique perspective, but also increased my ability to collaborate with my colleagues and customers in ways that could advance the future of IT at Schneider Electric. My hope is that my story, and my whirlwind experience, provides useful insights and approaches for leaders moving onto the next chapter of their professional journey and incoming CIOs.

Lesson #1: Define your mission and protect your scope 

Defining a mission statement is a critical first step for any project or organization. This is especially true when leading a diverse team of hundreds of employees. A clear mission connects team members under a unified umbrella of purpose and serves as guidance and strategic intent. In essence, clarity will come when we are able to ask ourselves: ‘What actions and decisions will best accomplish our mission?’

As an IT team within a large organization, we are often faced with a myriad of demands. Not all of which we have the capacity to take on. Achieving success means that we must perform our due diligence to protect our scope of work. We should prioritize accordingly and prevent overcommitment of our resources. The sheer act of overcommitting has a cascading effect that can negatively impact our IT team members, the business, and the relationships we have with our stakeholders. To prevent this, we engage in a formalized, robust exercise of creating, deploying, and managing a roadmap that balances capacity planning with meeting the needs of the business.

Lesson #2: Understand your talent

The most important assets to an organization are the people who comprise the workforce. To achieve success aligned with your defined mission and scope, you must know your team and ask yourself a few questions:

  • How do we develop and sustain the trust of our organization in our leadership and mission?
  • Do we have the right people? Are they in the right places? Do we have the right number of people?
  • What is the employee value proposition? Do our team members have opportunities to continue advancing their skillset and career?

The answer to these questions will help to guide you in further developing the team. Trust and proper allocation of talent alongside growth opportunity will have a snowball effect on employee trust and performance. The key to eliminating the fog and maintaining momentum is to continue asking questions. Lean on your staff for input, clarity, and ongoing assessment to build a high-performance culture.  

Lesson #3: Create and communicate a system of management

Schneider Electric is a large and diverse company of 150,000 employees. I have found that creating and communicating a System of Management is extremely useful in navigating such a large organization. Implementing one is a priority of mine upon entering any new leadership position. In this System of Management, it is important to detail ways of working and communicating, stakeholder management, organization structure and how to exercise the matrix. Our System of Management also helps us drive a culture of opportunity and accountability. Read more about our System of Management in my previous blog: ‘A Winning System of Management’.

Bobby Cain NAM CIO Officer at Schneider Electric

Lesson #4: Sustain business partnerships

We are working in times of constant change, particularly the speed of digital transformation is exponential. It is critical that we keep up with the advancements of technology in the industry and that we are collaborating and co-inventing with our business partners.  This is where establishing and sustaining business partnerships becomes crucial. We are working in a multi-stakeholder environment, with hundreds of demands coming to our team each year. Therefore, these partnerships and trust are key to succeeding in the market. In support of this effort, we have been working internally in the IT organization. We aim to increase the business acumen of the team so that we are better equipped to partner with our stakeholders. We need to be able to ask our stakeholders the right questions and better understand the context of their environment. This only can ensure we are providing the best solution to the problem. As discussed in my blog linked above, this is where partnership and our Power Couple model are paramount.

Lesson #5: Shift the perception of IT – become a margin driver

IT used to be seen as a black box, a cost center that exists solely to keep the lights on. I came into this role convinced that this perception is false. I believe IT should be a margin driver. This means we need to come to the table ready to partner and prosper, as opposed to presenting ourselves as a legacy IT department focused exclusively on run costs, licenses, etc.  IT is more than a collaborator fixing day-to-day technology issues. IT is a profit optimizer, and it enables a company’s growth through making every part of the organization do their jobs more efficiently. Your company can leverage IT to unlock new margins.

Lesson #6: Partake in thought leadership

Coming into this role, I had limited experience in digital thought leadership. It can be intimidating, but an expected part of the job in a highly visible role. My advice for aspiring leaders, and what I have learned myself, is to become familiar with public relations activities. Lean on your Communications and Marketing experts that support you. Be sure to ask for and accept help with things such as talking points, presentations, and follow-ups for interviews, among others. When it comes time to partake in interviews, speaking engagements, articles, etc., be prepared and show up ready to engage. I have had many fulfilling opportunities that have come from being open to these kinds of opportunities.

Bobby Cain as the North America CIO

Long story short

I have learned a great deal over this past year, and if you’re reading this, I thank you for your interest in my journey and these lessons. I am a lifelong learner and will continue to enthusiastically embrace new challenges as they come. For incoming CIO’s and other leaders taking the next step, I hope you will consider prioritizing the actions outlined above and committing yourself to learn every day.

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