An Open Letter to Mel, Pre-CIO

Mel Kirk, SVP & CIO, Ryder System, Inc
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Mel Kirk, SVP & CIO, Ryder System, Inc

When I was asked two years ago to take on the role of CIO at Ryder, the first thing I began to do was assess the challenge. I quickly coordinated debriefs with my predecessor, the IT team, internal stakeholders, and key vendors. From these sessions, I wrote down the five things I needed to focus on as the new CIO. Although I was comfortable with the strategy, I wanted to make sure I framed the challenges in an order and actionable way that would leverage my operational background.

By day 30, I had set the following as my top five priorities for success as CIO: 

1. Achieve transparency through collaboration and communication
2. Drive the strategy—accelerate the legacy transformation 
3. Learn the business from the application perspective
4. Drive operational excellence into IT
5. Establish my IT Board Of Directors

Having been a major customer of the IT organization prior to stepping into the CIO role, I knew that the business and functional teams were all looking for a great deal of change in the IT behavior around the area of transparency, collaboration, and communication. For many of my peers, just improving the visibility of things such as project development performance and even infrastructure capacity would be a sure win. Additionally, since I played a role in the development of the transformation strategy, I knew the importance and value of the second priority, accelerating the program. As a process-oriented industrial engineer, I saw the third item on my list as critical to evolving my view of the business from an operational perspective to the one that understood the linkages of applications, databases, and integration tools—all of which enable the business processes to be effective. It also stands to reason that with the last 18 years of my career being focused on delivering service products to the market, I want to make it a priority to implement “service operational processes and routines”  to make the organization the best service entity in Ryder. Lastly, I wanted to build a personal Board of Directors to help accelerate my learning, understand available resources, and make well-rounded decisions.

  ​To be effective at driving all of the above you have to look at talent differently  

Looking back over these, I applaud the ideas that these priorities represent. Nonetheless, now that I know what I didn't know, I can clearly see that these priorities reflect the orientation of an operations guy, who happens to be a CIO. I’ve come to realize, however, that the challenge requires much, much more. To that end, I drafted the below letter to the Pre-CIO Mel as a way of framing how I look at the challenge today versus how I viewed it in 2015.  

Dear Mel,

First off, congratulations on the promotion to CIO. I know you’ve been working diligently to organize yourself to lead this organization by crafting your top five priorities. As you arm yourself with these priorities, let me offer two critical points that will change your perspective on your planned priorities in a significant way. The first is the realization that the pace of technology change is even more accelerated than you can appreciate. You and your team have to be disciplined and make good choices with the shareholders’ investment dollars and do your due diligence. The second reality to consider is that your industry is an attractive disruption target with an array of technologists, developers, investors, and speculators taking actions that will either be a nuisance or contributor to the evolution of the industry and the company. With these two realities, in particular, I actively advise you to rethink your priorities and order them as follows:

1. Maintain–sustain, transform, and accelerate into growth
2. Blur the boundaries-disrupt from the inside
3. Talent, talent, talent
4. Focus on outcomes (every decision)
5. Build your Board Of Directors 

Yes, this looks very different from your more instinctive view, but this adjusts you to the urgency of every decision and investment and their ability to enable both the growth and defensive strategy needed in this environment. Where you would naturally want to accelerate your transformation strategy, it is more important to support the company with a three-pronged focus on:

• maintaining critical applications;
• transforming customer-facing experiences, and anchoring platforms; and
• accelerating into new growth areas with digitally-enabled technologies. 

If you only act to transform as your business needs grow and evolve, then you will certainly lose to external competitors. Secondly, I know you may be conscious not to overreach and leverage your operating background to make decisions that belong to the business leadership. In an environment of disruptive activity, you will have to operate with a split persona, first as CIO in the areas of “maintain-sustain,” as well as “transform,” but then shift to a “Business Disruptor” in an effort to accelerate growth. Ultimately you will need to forget boundaries in favor of bringing the full breadth of your diverse experiences, training, and perspectives to disrupt your business from the inside. To be effective at driving all of the above you have to look at talent differently. First, you’ve got legacy talent for legacy applications, and the pace of your transformation should inform your cross development strategy for that talent. Then, for accelerated or disruptive growth, you have to quickly take actions to liberate the rest of your team from today’s norms in order to leverage alternative development methods and technologies that create faster, flexible, and detangled business solutions. Lastly, hire disruption. Hire people “types” that have never been comfortable in the organization before. You want people who are strong enough to help you role model a “new normal.” Finally, you should work on building your own Board of Directors, but focus on four to seven individuals who expand your knowledge of the technology, create a counterbalance to your naturally operational and strategic tendencies, are well rounded vendors/ partners, and have done the job before.  

This reconstructing of your priorities is required in order to meet the challenge laid before the company and your team. To be successful, you have to approach the role as a new CIO, who happens to have the benefit of a strong operating background, taking over in an incredible period of technology development and potential business disruption. Change is accelerating in the industry with continuous technology advancements, and in turn, it requires a change in the role of the CIO.

Lastly, buckle up for an intense ride. And yes, you will have a blast in the role, as it will be an invaluable step in your continued development as a contemporary leader in these times. I can truly say you will love this job, the challenge, and this moment in your career.  

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