From CIO to CEO: XPO’s Mario Harik on leveling up

With technology increasingly central to business value, CIOs stepping up to plus-size roles and even making the leap from CIO to CEO is no longer the rare feat it once was. Still, earning that corner office is an achievement few IT leaders can list among their career accomplishments.

As XPO’s first CIO, Mario Harik played a key role in making the logistics company an industry leader and innovation powerhouse. Now, as XPO looks to capitalize on that foundation, Harik’s deep understanding of both IT and the business has made him the perfect candidate to helm the company in its next phase, having become CEO and a member of the board last August.

Here, we discuss Harik’s vision for growth for the logistics firm, how data and IT play a vital role in that, and how CIOs who aspire to be CEOs should approach IT as an innovative means for achieving high returns on invested capital.

Martha Heller: As CEO of XPO, what is your vision for growth?

Mario Harik: XPO completed the spin-off of our asset-light business back in November, and now we are one of the largest less-than-truckload carriers here in North America. Our focus is to grow that business, both in terms of gaining market share, as well as expanding our profits and margins.

We will continue the customer-centric strategy that we put in place when I took over the business nearly a year ago. Technology innovation has been in our DNA since day one of the company, and it continues to be central to who we are today.

Our three major focus areas are to provide best-in-class service to our customers; invest in the business by adding terminals, equipment, and people[ and leverage our technology edge to optimize margins and grow market share.

Ever since we started the company back in 2011, when I was CIO, we’ve been using data to improve our operations. Data will be central to our growth as well.

What are some examples of how you are innovating in your use of data?

When you leverage data in the right way, you can transform how you operate a freight business. We are working on an initiative that uses machine learning to optimize how we move freight through a network of roughly 294 terminals. These are machine learning–based models that look at which trucks need to move where, what we are loading onto the trailers, and how many trailers the trucks should haul to maximize efficiency.

Another example is our SMART platform, a dock efficiency and labor management platform that allows us to predict how much volume we will get in any given terminal and ensure that we are properly staffed to handle the volume.

Finally, we have API-based capabilities that make it easy for us to onboard customers into our systems so that they can do business with us digitally. Customers can quote, book, track, and manage their entire shipment lifecycle online, all with self-service.

How did you move from CIO to CEO of XPO?

Our executive chairman, Brad Jacobs, hired me back when he founded the company in 2011. As the third person on the team, I was part of a small group of people who ran the company during our early days. Over the years, I’ve expanded my role. I’ve held the roles of CIO, chief customer officer, where I ran our global sales team, and in the year before I became CEO, I ran our less-than-truckload business, which is now our sole business in North America after we spun off our asset-light business.

In each of those roles, I was entrenched in how we run our operations, expand our business, grow our profits, and deliver shareholder value along the way.

Before XPO, I had an engineering background. I graduated from MIT and worked in the technology sector, then moved to the waste and recycling industry where I was the CIO for a large asset-light company. The combination of a technology background, working in several different executive positions, and the fact that XPO has always been a technology-driven company, all gave me the opportunity to become CEO.

What advice do you have for CIOs about how to build credibility with the board so that they receive board support when put up for a CEO position?

Be very commercially focused. Does the technology solution you are proposing allow the company to gain market share, provide best-in-class service for customers, or expand margins through operational efficiency? CIOs who aspire to be CEOs should think about their current roles as driving technology innovation that leads to high returns on invested capital. That perspective will resonate with the board.

What new skills did you need to develop as CEO?

As CIO, I was already using the two most important skills of a CEO: a commitment to a high ROI across the entire business, and a focus on people, because people deliver results. CIOs who become CEOs need to expand their focus to the company’s entire employee base, with strong feedback loops to ensure a high level of engagement across the workforce.

As CIO, you are focused on the technology programs you are driving and the desired outcomes. As CEO, the programs you support expand beyond technology to process improvements, sales, service, and every aspect of the business.

As CIO, you are primarily focused internally on your own teams and employees, and whether they have the tools they need to be efficient. As CEO, you have a much broader set of stakeholders, including the media, because you are the public face of the company.  When I became CEO, I did not need to learn new skills as much as expand my areas of impact.

What advice do you have for CIOs who would like to be CEOs?

Familiarize yourself with all aspects of the business and how technology can drive business outcomes. Spend time with your customers to understand the value that your business can offer to them. Understand how to integrate your company’s capabilities with your customers’, and always look at technology with an ROI angle.

Have strong feedback loops. When we deploy technology solutions, we ask a lot of people to give feedback, especially people in the field. The biggest learning I have had in my career is the importance of spending time in the field, in the terminals, and talking to our drivers, dock workers, and frontline supervisors about how we can improve our business. This is essential when you are CEO, because you get a very different vantage point than looking at metrics or talking to executives.

CIOs who become CEOs give their companies a distinct competitive advantage. When you are a CEO with a CIO background, and you understand the inner workings of the technology solutions you are building as well as their intended commercial impact, and you increase your focus on building a world-class senior leadership team, you can have a powerful impact on your P&L.

CEO, CIO, IT Leadership