It really is different at the top

On Aug. 1, 2002, when Christopher Lofgren reported to work at Schneider National Inc. in his new position as president and chief executive officer, he didn’t feel any smarter or any more powerful than he had felt in his previous roles as chief operating officer and chief information officer with the transportation and logistics company.

Yet, he had changed – immediately – in the minds of his colleagues who had seen him come of age at the Green Bay, Wisc.-based company. Suddenly, everyone from the receptionist to the CFO was reading into Lofgren’s every word and action, looking for hidden meaning, as if each frown and furrowed brow were biblical signs. It was an outcome that Lofgren had never anticipated but turned out to be a valuable leadership lesson from his first year as CEO: He’s had to raise his awareness of how people perceive him and to adapt to being in the spotlight, nonstop.

“You look at the [CEO] job when you don’t have it but operate close enough to it, and you think you understand it and what’s going to be required of you when you move into it. In general, what you think is true. But all these subtleties of the role that you couldn’t predict surface when you actually step into it,” he says.

As CEO, Lofgren avoids dominating meetings so that others feel comfortable expressing their views.

Lofgren says he has also had to adjust to the inherent differences between the tactical, short-term obsessed COO role and the strategic, long-term focused CEO post.

As COO, Lofgren’s job was to push people to do their best work. While he still does this as CEO, he has learned to know when to be demanding. For example, during one meeting of the company’s top executives, Lofgren was dissatisfied with the level of discussion and was trying to advance it. His demands for a more pointed discussion, however, shut down the conversation entirely. He understood people could tell he was unhappy with the meeting. Afterward, he realized that he should have let the conversation run its course rather than force a change.

“You want [as CEO] to create an environment where everyone is engaged in discussions. To the extent that you express your unhappiness, you can shut them down,” he says.

Lofgren has also learned that IT is even more important and more strategic than he ever thought – even when he was chief information and logistics officer. That is not to say, however, that he’s a pushover for IT investments. Lofgren says as CEO he’s more demanding of the analysis that goes into business cases for IT investments and of the returns expected from them.

For example, Lofgren says he put the brakes on the implementation of an imaging system that used optical character recognition technology to turn paper-based information into electronic data. The system won approval because it would improve productivity; but when Lofgren learned the character recognition levels weren’t high enough to yield the expected benefits, he stopped further spending on the project. Schneider National found a different use for the system, though, so it wasn’t a complete waste of money, he says.

In another case, Lofgren says he gave the green light to a “very, very large capital investment” in a system that will enable the company to track its untethered trailers. These expensive trailers, which are very important assets, move around the supply chain from Schneider’s locations to customer locations and to locations of Schneider’s customers’ customers. If Schneider knows where these trailers are and whether they’re full or empty, it can put these assets to better and more efficient use.

“IT has to position us long-term in our strategies. I see it as a capital expenditure that has to generate a return, and that return has to be pretty quantifiable. The CEO’s seat is all about how you manage capital,” he says. Both IT assets and human capital, it turns out.

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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