CDIO Salumeh Companieh on putting the product mindset into action

Making the shift from project- to product-based IT requires more than just an operational map of capabilities and the cross-functional teams that will own them. It takes an organization-wide shift in mindset that gets people thinking and working in ways that align with the client’s definition of value.

Salumeh “Sal” Companieh, chief digital and information officer of Cushman & Wakefield, has done exactly that since she signed on in March 2022 to lead the global real estate services company’s IT organization in a relentless quest to create better experiences for its clients.

“We have two major client-facing groups of professionals — Services and Advisory,” she says. “What we’re really trying to do, among those colleagues and our technology team, is create a closer proximity to the client demand.”

Many CIOs, for all their zeal in shifting to a product-oriented operating model, get mired in operational logistics at the expense of execution, often because they don’t know how to put the right attitude into action. For any CIO seeking to make good on the promise of product-oriented IT, Companieh offers three actions they can take to drive a client-centric mindset throughout the organization: Get closer to the client, think “experience,” and pivot without pause.

Get closer to the client — and the problem

In her first few months as CDIO, Companieh quickly established herself as a leader with an intense focus on client experience. Each time we spoke with Companieh, she was coming from a client meeting — a somewhat rare devotion from a CIO that we felt compelled to ask her about.

“Sitting in the CDIO seat, it’s very easy to tinker,” she said. “It’s easy to create roadmaps that sound great from a technology point of view, but that don’t take people’s experience or existing capabilities into consideration. The further you are from the ask and the client demand, the less likely you are to make an impact with your technology.”

When CIOs don’t attend important client meetings, they set up business partners to effectively craft solutions without the technology team. Instead, IT leaders and their teams should get closer to clients, Companieh says, in order to get a clear understanding of their problems.

“We get much better collaboration when we hear it from the client ourselves — whether that client is an internal one like an employee or broker, or an external company — and our people get the chance to understand the issue through all of their own lenses,” she says.

This shift is critical to product-oriented success. Organizations must break out of what Companieh calls “self-solve” culture, in which the business is put in a position to decide which technology solutions fit best. Instead, IT can have a more meaningful impact if your technologists have a deep understanding of not only the full spectrum of technology solutions that can address an opportunity, but also the relevant business operations and experiences.

To accomplish this, and establish yourself as a true business leader, you must assert yourself. Ask to join rather than wait for an invitation. The closer you are as a leader to the client or the operations of the business, the more opportunities you will have to solve problems — and those opportunities will always require close partnerships to help maximize the impact of the digital footprint.

Think ‘experience’

Another reason Companieh puts herself in front of clients is because technology increasingly serves as the connective tissue of the entire business. This wasn’t the case just a few years ago.

“When prop-tech first came out, it was about creating a lot of technology touch points,” Companieh says, referring to the technology the real estate industry uses to digitalize the way people buy, sell, market, and manage a property. “Now we’re starting to see many of those touchpoints converge into integrated experiences.”

Managing those experiences requires a tight link between IT and other parts of the business. To achieve this, Companieh has deployed three business information officers (BIOs), two for the revenue-generating Services and Advisory parts of the business, and one for enterprise-level internal efficiencies. Her BIOs operate in a two-in-a-box model, each working closely with a business partner to enhance a specific experience. When solving problems, BIOs pledge no allegiance to a specific tool or technology.

“We use these amazing colleagues and their teams to try to embed an architectural mindset that creates accountability for the experience,” Companieh says. “Tools and data don’t do anything on their own. They should serve the problem you’re trying to solve or the experience you’re trying to create.”

Commitment to experience also requires reassessing how technologies are organized and managed, including decentralizing certain tools. For example, to empower client-facing professionals to solve problems, IT may need to manage data and business intelligence as a service that individuals can access when and how they need it.

Pivot without pause

No matter how carefully you map client experiences or define the products that support those experiences, you undoubtedly will have to pivot, Companieh says, adding that IT leaders should learn to see pivots as a good thing.

“Something we decide today, I have no doubt, will change in nine months. Not because we’re wrong, but because our ability to be agile to our clients’ demands and what’s happening at a macro scale in the market has to be there,” she says. “What we can’t do is be forceful with our thinking and not look back.”

If you’re not pivoting, you’re likely neglecting what Companieh sees as one of the most important attributes of growth-focused CIOs: welcoming and implementing feedback.

Communicating early and often is key to pivoting effectively. “Don’t hide behind the technology,” she warns. “Explain what you’re doing to gain insights for your strategy, how you’re going to communicate it back out, and how you’re going to take action. And learn to balance communication between your employees and your clients. It can be a difficult balance to strike, but it’s a critical one in your first 120 days.”

If instead you work from the safety of your CIO office, far from the client, you will proportionately dilute your impact as a leader. And if you show you don’t care to solve problems holistically or regress to siloed, project-based, tool-oriented thinking when it’s time to pivot, then your employees, consciously or not, will adopt the same thinking to the detriment of the enterprise.

Finally, she says, “Remember that the lack of a decision is far worse for the organization than making a decision of whatever impact.” As a new CIO, it’s easy to overanalyze a situation. For Companieh, it’s important to make a decision and execute, be transparent when you make a mistake, then pivot.

Business IT Alignment, IT Leadership, IT Strategy