Bob Willett, former Best Buy CIO turned Global Chairman and Board Member, asserts that CIOs are better suited than some other “C”-level leaders to take greater executive roles at their companies.
Bob Willett is an example of an executive who started on the shop floor and worked his way up to the top positions in the retail industry. He began at Marks & Spencer in his native United Kingdom in 1968 and would leave that company a decade later as a store executive. Before taking on the role of chief information officer of Best Buy, he had been the CEO of one company, head of Merchandise Operations for another, and then global managing partner of the Retail Practice and a member of the executive committee at Accenture. He advised many of the best retail operations around the world about matters of strategy.
It was during his time with Accenture starting in the early 1990s that Willett realized how essential IT had become and would continue to be to the industry that he knew so well. He leveraged the many smart colleagues he had at Accenture to learn, having had no formal training in IT. He learned enough to be asked to be CIO of Best Buy in 2001. He would become a CIO-plus by virtue of also being CEO of Best Buy International and the executive vice president of Operations. As Willett details below, he offers insights into what he learned during his successful run as an IT executive has served him well now that he is on a number of companies’ boards.
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Peter High: Bob, you had an unusual path to the CIO role. You do not have a traditional IT background either by virtue of education or experience. You began in store management at Marks & Spencer in the UK. How did you find your way to the CIO role?
Bob Willett: It was an unusual path, I suppose, but one that was invaluable. At Marks & Spencer, I learned the retail business from the ground up. In those early days, technology did not have much of a role beyond point of sale systems and to some degree loyalty programs. Through the 1970s, I had a number of roles in leading European retailers, and with each transition, it forced me to learn a new business, a new culture, a new client set, and so forth. A big inflection point for me in terms of my career in IT was joining Accenture. I rose to the role of global managing partner for Accenture’s retail practice. Naturally, my exposure to retailers of various kinds in many countries exploded. I learned more about what separated the best companies from the also-rans. The number differentiator and source of competitive advantage has been people, of course. The best companies have inquisitive leaders who are willing to have their hypotheses tested, and in turn are willing to test hypotheses. For me, the worst kind of colleague was the know-it-all. That is the person who will be acting upon inherited logic, and not changing with the times. I always wanted to surround myself with people who would be stretching, reading trade journals, attending conferences, investigating new technologies and new ways of thinking. I also looked for leaders who were at least as good at listening as they were at speaking. The know-it-all pontificates. The listener seeks out the knowledge from others, and looks to collaborate. They also tend to approach problems with the humility to acknowledge that they do not and will not have all the answers. This is the path to sustainable competitive advantage.
The second differentiator increasingly became the organization’s ability to incorporate technology into the organization. So much is brought to life through the creative use of technology. This became readily apparent, and thankfully I had a number of colleagues who were among the brightest IT minds in the business. I learned from them, frankly, and was able to operate at the intersection where business acumen meets technology. That is where so much value can be created. From supply chain to brand review to gaining customer insight to strategy; it all involves technology and the harnessing of data to draw insights.
As we have discussed before, today all businesses are technology businesses to one degree or another. Some companies will recognize this and seize the opportunity. Others will stick their heads in the sand, and the competition will pass them by as a result. People are the secret sauce of any company, and technology has the ability to release people from the mundane to exercise and optimize points of difference. Which ones will leverage technology most creatively so that people can collaborate, and so that those collaborations begin with better data available real-time and faster, better, and more well informed decisions can be made
Additional topics covered in the article include:
- What advantages did you draw upon in your subsequent roles from having been a CIO?
- There is a lot that is written about the influence that the chief marketing officer will have over the technology budget. What are your thoughts on that topic?
- Since your time as a “CIO-plus” as CIO of Best Buy and CEO of Best Buy International, you have moved on to become the Chairman of Meta Pack, Chairman of Eagle Eye and Chairman of Occahome. You’ve also joined the boards of multiple companies in industries ranging from mobile phone retail (Vietnam-based Mobile World) to visual customer intelligence (Canada-based LightHaus Logic). You are an advisor to Sabanci Holdings, the parent company of Teknosa, the dominant electronics retailer in Turkey and to Carrefour in France. Talk about the leap from CIO to Chairman and board member.
- What kinds of people or organizations would you suggest a CIO network with in order to increase the possibility of sitting on a board?