29 May Visions: Matheys says CIO role is good training for executive suite
Green Bay, Wis. – For six years, Steve Matheys served as the chief technologist for Schneider National, and his experience during that period – 1998 to 2004 – convinced him that serving as a CIO can be a great training ground for bigger and better things in the executive suite.
Provided the company entrusts you with a high level of accountability, that is.
Matheys, who now serves as executive vice president of sales, marketing, and customer service for Schneider, is one of two former CIOs who have climbed the ranks of upper management at Schneider. The other is Christopher Lofgren, who just happens to be the president and chief executive officer for the global transportation firm.
Matheys believes his role as the chief information officer prepared him for the executive position he now holds. As the CIO for Schneider, he operated with an enterprise focus. He did not compartmentalize on any particular line of business; he was accountable for all business lines, geographic locations, and customer segments, which gave him a broad business perspective.
Not every CIO is entrusted with this level of accountability, which strikes Matheys as odd. “I’ve always believed that if you want to know how a business functions, ask the guys who wrote the programs,” he said. “As a CIO, I owned process engineering and process design, and I was exposed to all the major business processes.”
He also was exposed to a diverse workforce. Mathey’s information technology group had roughly 500 people, requiring him to develop strong leadership skills within a large organization, and also develop the ability to work with people who possess a range of skills and backgrounds. That rich set of leadership experiences would prepare him to manage very different skill sets in sales and marketing, but his technical knowledge still pays dividends.
When he came out of information technology, he had a keen sense of how technology can help, where it helps, and perhaps just as importantly, where it does not help. In short, his perspective as a technologist has taught him that technology has its limits.
Matheys’ experience as a technologist tells him there is plenty of process ground to plow before any technological seeds are planted.
“It’s an enabler of business processes that are operated by people,” he noted.
In sales and marketing, Matheys has implemented the Siebel customer relationship management software, and the department is in the process of implementing the automated Siebel salesforce automation tool.
In and of itself, the Siebel software would not be the defining factor in building and maintaining better customer relationships, but combined with the right business processes and people who are capable of executing them on a consistent basis, the CRM tool can offer marketing professionals better information visibility and help them achieve a higher level of customer intimacy and satisfaction.
Similarly, salesforce automation is designed to help salespeople decide which business to pursue with the goal of bringing in more “quality” revenue from the market. However, without button-down processes and customer-centric sales professionals, the software would be of little use.
“The way I’ve always thought about it is to step back and understand the business problems you’re trying to solve, what processes do we have, what processes do we need, and how do we fill the gaps?” Matheys stated. “Can you build on the current system, or do you need something new and revised?”
Since Matheys is not the only high-level executive at Schneider National who was a technologist in a previous life, he has a special kind of simpatico with CEO Chris Lofgren. Lofgren has walked in Matheys shoes, and the two are aligned on the value of the CIO role in preparing people for higher executive-level positions.
Neither has been pigeonholed into a technology career, and both have been delighted to demonstrate that CIOs can be every bit as much the “heir apparent” that vice presidents, chief operating officers, and chief financial officers can. In Mathey’s view, that’s especially true at Schneider, where the CIO is given a remarkable degree of responsibility and is expected to possess keen business acumen.
Case in point: When Schneider needed a CIO to replace Matheys in 2004, the company searched for one with business experience and eventually found Judy Lemke, who had served in a variety of executive capacities in the Twin Cities, including 18 years with the medical technology company Medtronic.
Schneider was able to lure Lemke out of retirement, and Matheys can’t imagine hiring a CIO that does not possess some knowledge and understanding of business.
“Judy didn’t necessarily have a strong transportation background, but she had a strong business background,” Matheys said. “She was a business-oriented CIO.”
The significance of the CIO role in a company’s long-term success cannot be overstated, especially as businesses become more adept linking their processes to information technology, and as IT labor shortages (and skills) become more acute.
As a result, Matheys believes more CIOs will be groomed for COO or CEO roles, especially if they entered the workforce with a broad academic base that includes business training, and they have demonstrated the ability to successfully manage information technology implementations.
Given the multi-million dollar IT failures in business and in government, Matheys says technologists in both spheres should have learned some hard lessons and have a better understanding of how – through well-crafted business processes and realistic timetables – to significantly reduce the possibility of failure.
This is now a prerequisite to demonstrating a CIO’s fitness for a top-level executive position, but one that can be part of good grooming.
“As you build succession plans, you should make sure to consider the CIO role as one you can use to help groom people,” Matheys said. “It’s something you should weigh.”