Many CIOs talk about the importance of aligning with business strategy, getting buy-in from executives, showing leadership, communicating and mentoring. But it’s relatively rare to hear them talk about listening to customers, the audience which is in many ways the bare metal indicator of execution. Mark Settle, CIO at tech industry heavyweight BMC Software, says you can’t rate it highly enough, however.
That intimacy, he believes, is best achieved by accompanying executives on sales calls, in meetings and, most importantly of all, in talking to customers to understand their real needs.
“It can be a very humbling experience,” he admits. “A lot of time there’s a big gap between what the company is offering and what’s wanted.”
Taking as an example his current industry of enterprise software, he bemoans suppliers who bring out version after version of moderately improved HR, financial or procurement programs.
“That’s just polishing the apple,” he says. “You’re already 80 or 90 per cent there in a financial system.”
Settle spends time mentoring the next generation of CIOs and he notes one area of paramount importance: spending time building relationships with executives.
As a complement to this, Settle also points to the importance of building thinking time so that the CIO is a true strategist rather than a back-office functionary.
“I spent time trying to be smartest guy in the room,” he recalls, before he realised that shutting up, listening and learning was a more productive modus operandi.
Settle is also a big advocate of getting out of the workplace in order to see the bigger picture.
“Don’t become a captive of your own organisation,” he advises.
“I can read countless emails, see PowerPoints, get mentoring and coaching internally but that makes me increasingly introverted. IT and finance are the only places you get to see across the organisation. That creates a lot of opportunities from a career development point of view.”
He calls this freedom “the precious gift of discretionary bandwidth” and contrasts it with the plight of those condemned to come up with quarterly P&L calculations and therefore don’t have that bandwidth to think long-term and strategically. The CIO, he says, can’t be “a narrow technology specialist who doesn’t have any business savvy”. In this way, the CIO can win empathy from C-suite executives, he contends.
“It sounds trite but there are certain functions only the CIO can perform. Goodwill and good relationships are essential. Building that relationship should be your number-one priority. Your effectiveness will depend on how the other executives think of you. You never want to ask for money or be apologising the first time you meet a member of the executive committee.”
This is Settle’s “fifth turn at the wheel” as CIO and he has worked across the petroleum, finance and aeronautics industries. As he recalls, 10 years ago there was much talk about CIOs becoming CEOs, COOs or divisional managers but in large part this has not materialised. However, other roles have emerged such as chief security officer or chief supply-chain officer.
“My issue with the title of CIO is it doesn’t effectively illustrate the business value that we offer,” he says.
“The problem is, IT is complex – few others in the organisation typically understand what it is, and so they tend to segregate the CIO as ‘the guy who looks after the bit we don’t understand’. I think in the future we will see the CIO have a greater remit outside of the typical IT function, engaging a lot more with financial, operations and sales functions, and crucially the customers themselves.
"The real key to success will be the ability of the CIO to build a team below him that can liberate him from the day-to-day IT operation, allowing him to step up to a more strategic level that bridges the gap between IT and the rest of the business.”
According to Settle the CIO might be helped by the unstoppable force of cloud computing, although there are caveats to his articles of faith.
“I think we are getting to a point where we are unlikely to see a regular stream of radical shifts or technologies coming into play. We are going to see increasing levels of best practice and doing more with less as a result. CIOs need to be careful to avoid going on a major crusade by trying to get cloud to solve too many problems at once.
“Cloud, like any other resource, strategy or process across the infrastructure, is just one cog in a very big machine. The trick is to get all the cogs synched, in the right place, tightly managed and working together to ensure IT does what the business needs.
“When cloud does get deployed effectively we will see dramatic rises in hardware utilisation levels across distributed computing environments. The knock-on effect is that productivity across all business groups will show improvements, with the time taken to provision these groups with new resources shrinking to hours or days from weeks or months.
“I think we will also see a rise in innovation and R&D over the next two years, as the barrier to experimentation that the IT organisation posed in the past will be gone and scalable computing resource readily available. For the CIO, this makes the future pretty exciting.”
Settle has “ridden the waves of the ERP phenomenon, the internet, the supply chain third wave and touched the edges of CRM” with “much more of a technology focus”. Now he prefers to build a team and liberate himself to think bigger. But how big? Might the COO role be a likely upgrade?
“COO would be attractive, particularly in a company with significant growth plans,” he says.
As with many IT industry CIOs he is called on to test and review products and showcase BMC to the outside world.
“We use the majority of BMC products, keep up with the most current versions and kick the tyres of beta products. We also kick the tyres of competitive products; no toolset is perfect but we wouldn’t purchase a competitive product. R&D really do pay attention and ask us to surface any issues.”
Running the IT operations through delegation, thinking strategically, visiting customers and peers: it’s a busy life but Settle says that, so long as it preserves that discretionary bandwidth, he is keeping matters in perspective.
A day in the life of Mark Settle
Morning: I’m usually up at 5.30am, almost irrespective of whatever time zone I find myself in, and like start the day with a strong coffee... I owe the early successes in my career to a near pathological addiction to coffee. Typically I get into the office between 7am and 8am to go through emails and plan the day – I’m not a fan of regularly scheduled meetings, but I do hold a senior staff meeting every Tuesday morning.
Lunch: I like to stay healthy. I like fresh-cut veggies and a half-sandwich, but don’t have a regularly scheduled lunch break – I could end up eating anytime between noon and 3pm because my schedule varies so much. I try and fit in one-on-one meetings throughout my day with other CIOs to compare notes and also like to spend time with the product line managers at some of our major vendors to learn more about new technology developments. Most days are spent in the US although I do like to get out into other regions to meet peers and customers, and I usually go a major overseas trip once a quarter.
Evening: My office day comes to an end around 7pm, although I sometimes like to meet with other customer or peer CIOs for dinner to talk through some of the trends and issues we collectively face. I also like to talk to individuals outside of IT to ensure that my perceptions of our operational performance and business value are properly calibrated – I have a daily conversation with my wife and she provides a similar service with respect to my family.
After hours: I love relaxing at home over a glass of wine. In California drinking wine is considered to be a civic duty, and of course I try to be a good citizen!