JP Saini’s dual role as chief digital and technology officer at Sunbelt Rentals requires strategic relationships with his C-suite peers beyond just sharing a seat at the executive table. He’s also considered a strategic advisor and changemaker in the organization, and he’s often called on to speak with investors. He relies on his C-suite peers to give him a thorough, real-time understanding of the business.
“You really have to be fully homed in on the mechanics of the business and how it comes to fruition every day,” Saini says of IT leadership today. “You also have to be aware of where you can leverage new opportunities.” So Saini now holds daily discussions with the finance team and Sunbelt Rentals’ COO to discuss top-line and bottom-line growth opportunities.
“You need a hand-in-hand approach with the CFO, CMO, COO [and other C-suite leaders], so when you’re sitting with investors, or even when we’re in front of operational or sales leaders, you have that parity,” Saini says.
JP Saini, chief digital and technology officer, Sunbelt Rentals
Saini’s evolving role is just one example of the changing dynamics of C-suite relationships. Executives who used to stay in their own lane now find themselves needing closer alignment with one another to manage economic uncertainty, explosive growth, and digital and business transformations, and CIOs have become central figures as business strategists and changemakers.
This new C-suite dynamic requires three big shifts to be successful, according to Dan Roberts, CEO of Ouellette & Associates Consulting. CIOs must change the narrative of their relationship with their counterparts, they must prepare their IT teams to deliver on the new narrative, and they must convince the C-suite to share the technology load.
It’s a tall order for sure. “I would say just 10% to 15% [of C-suite relationships] are healthy and thriving and are in the trenches together with shared ownership and accountability,” Roberts says. But those CIOs who can look across the enterprise and find new ways to drive revenue or better orchestrate the customer experience and then can communicate and sell their vision to their C-suite counterparts are at the high end of the maturity curve, he adds.
Here, CIOs meeting that challenge share how they’re changing the dynamics of the C-suite.
Changing the narrative
CIO Max Chan’s relationship with his C-suite counterparts at Avnet took on increased importance after the digital team came under the CIO’s purview a year ago — doubling his team to 1,000 digital and IT staff. “Our relationship [in the C-suite] is now a lot more collaborative. We’re driving more things at an enterprise level,” he says.
Max Chan, CIO, Avnet
Chan changed the C-suite narrative by focusing less on technology talk and more on business strategy outcomes. When speaking with executives and business unit presidents, “it’s more about how we drive customer expansion, how do we improve margin expansion, reduce friction by improving overall productivity of the organizations and how each of these ties into our business strategy priorities,” he says. As CIOs, “we need to understand all those. We need to take interest in every single strategy priority in the business. This is table stakes.”
Chan and Saini are among CIOs who are “changing how they show up” to the C-suite, Roberts says. “They intentionally built a comfort level with a new skill set. They’re better at communicating a narrative, selling the vision, having influence in the conversation, and leading the change initiatives.”
Empowering IT teams to deliver
Great relationships in the C-suite can fall apart quickly if IT teams don’t communicate the vision downstream or can’t carry out the plan across an organization, Roberts says. The whole IT organization must focus on strategic delivery and becoming thought leaders and consultants to the business to drive innovation and transformations.
Grocery store chain Giant Eagle knows the power of the team firsthand. It disbanded its corporate office permanently after the pandemic and is now a completely virtual enterprise, but all efforts were made to maintain the close-knit culture it had, as well as transform the culture to one that’s more proactive and assertively aligned with business partners. CIO Kirk Ball and his technology team are central to that mission.
Kirk Ball, CIO, Giant Eagle
“My relationships with other executive leadership members are important, but equally important is the relationships that those in the technology group have with others,” who walk a mile in their business partners’ shoes and understand the objectives they’re trying to accomplish, Ball says. “You have to have good technology leaders and team members that you have confidence in, you agree on what you’re trying to accomplish” and communicate that shared vision, he says.
Shifting to shared ownership of technology
CIOs are doing a better job of sharing ownership expectations in the C-suite and “not having the digital monkey solely on their back,” Roberts says.
CIO Talvis Love set expectations early on that data would be owned by the individual business units at Baxter International. He set up a governance structure where each business was responsible for understanding how that data drives their business, whether it can be used commercially, and how it ties back to the enterprise. This way, “they understand their strategy and embed the digital component as part of that strategy. It’s not something that sits on the side, and they own it,” Love says.
Talvis Love, CIO, Baxter International
Conversely, to rein in digital initiatives that were being initiated by business units at Avnet, Chan required executive leaders to reach an understanding on how those initiatives would be prioritized.
“Everyone agrees that the focus must be on what’s best for the enterprise,” and the IT team is responsible and accountable for all technology, Chan says, but he’s not going to stop business units from adding value.
“If it’s something truly new that we can’t address immediately, we allow them to do what they want to do” but within some guardrails, he adds. “We have an agreement that whatever you do in the next 12 to 18 months could potentially be a throwaway because we could later roll it back into our environment” when the IT team develops a centralized capability. “Those are the guiding principles we have set,” he says.
Uniting to roll with changing market conditions
C-Suite alignment is critical when organizations face fluctuating market conditions or rapid growth.
At Merchants Fleet expectations are high as the transportation management company pushes to continue its 30% year-over-year growth while preserving cash in the midst of inflation and rising interest rates. Changing market conditions often require the company to quickly reshuffle priorities. One of those priorities, replacing an ERP system, was recently rescheduled to free up cash that could fuel growth. Senior VP and Chief Technology and Digital Officer Jeanine Charlton stepped up meetings with the CFO and finance team to come up with a “significant” contingency plan, as the project touches every piece of technology across the enterprise. They now meet weekly to discuss the project.
Jeanine L. Charlton, SVP and CTDO, Merchant’s Fleet
With contingencies like these coming up, Charlton has had to align more closely with her C-suite counterparts. “We’re getting a lot closer for sure, to constantly re-prioritize what’s most important for the enterprise,” she says.
Removing ‘blind spots’
It’s not always easy to step outside traditional C-suite behaviors. Collaboration with C-suite peers requires effective listening and meaningful communication, Sunbelt Rentals’ Saini says.
“There are blind spots with all of us as leaders,” he says. “Generally you’re in a mode where you’re short on time, you think you know it all, you’re relying on your previous experiences — we did it this way last time — and so you have these inherent biases,” he says. “But if you’re listening to understand rather than listening to form an opinion or listening to respond, you can overcome those biases.”
Healthy tension is OK
“It’s fair to get pushed and have that healthy tension” in C-suite relationships, Merchants Fleet’s Charlton says. “Part of it just comes down to you’ve got to continually prove your value and educate them in terms of what’s required to implement digital transformation for a company.”
This often requires mind-reading skills, she adds.
“How do you translate what’s in another human’s brain into good requirements and build tech around it?” she says. It all comes down to good collaboration and communication. “Technology is the easy part. It’s understanding what the other person wants — therein lies the work.”
Business IT Alignment, C-Suite, CIO, IT Leadership