CIOs today have more opportunities than ever to move out of IT and into other C-suite positions, including that of CEO. Yet many IT executives worry that they lack the knowledge and leadership skills to achieve success in a new setting. Not so for Kevin Turner. His career could serve as a how-to for CIOs who are aiming for the corporate ladder’s highest rungs. Turner became CIO at Wal-Mart, one of the world’s largest companies and most successful users of IT, at 34. At 37, he was promoted to run Sam’s Clubs as its president and CEO, with more than 46 million members and US$37.1 billion in annual sales. Last year, at the age of 40, he left the company where he’d spent his career to become COO at Microsoft. There he leads a global organization of more than 32,000 employees, including field sales and marketing professionals who delivered more than $40 billion in revenue during fiscal 2005. As COO, he is responsible for product and customer support services, branding, advertising, public relations, market research and relationship marketing. He also oversees corporate operations and internal information technology that supports the work of 71,000 employees worldwide. Turner serves on the senior leadership team that sets Microsoft’s strategy and direction. Turner spoke with CIO Editor in Chief Abbie Lundberg during a recent visit to Microsoft headquarters in Redmond, Wash.
When you were Wal-Mart’s CIO, what were the three most important things you did to prepare yourself for a broader role in the business?
When you’re in a company that believes in the value of IT and where there are high expectations on the delivery of that value to the business, the ability to work with people and teams [is critical. You need to be able to] pull together a focused agenda with clear definitions of success. So building self-managed, high-performing teams in IT was a necessity that proved very useful on the business side.
Next would be building relationships with peers in the business group. When you work closely with people to deliver results, audit the payback, review what’s been implemented and come up with a mechanism to drive improvement, it gives you a good understanding at a high level of how the company or the operation works. That became something I relied heavily upon in my next role [as CEO of Sam’s Clubs]. Finally, an understanding of what’s possible with technology and the ability to map it to business problems and solutions to drive results [is critical]. Applying that knowledge in the business role was instrumental for me.
What it takes to be a successful CIO sounds similar to what it takes to be successful moving into that broader business role.
You have to tailor your terminology and your approach, but the principles are solid and they very much transport.
Has technology hit a tipping point in terms of its relevance and importance to the business?
I think so. In the early ’90s, I would have characterized the CIO grade card [this way]: being under budget, enabling the company to grow and keeping the systems running. Those were the main drivers that could get you a decent grade as a CIO.
You still have to do those things. But now the world-class companies are saying, “How can IT really help us change the world? How can IT help me change my business model and change our game against the competition?” That’s the biggest fundamental shift.
Wal-Mart was perhaps on the front side of that change. It is in a very low-margin business [where you have to make] sure that every dollar spent is accounted for and that we got the payback out of it. I had a lot of help from senior management to say whether we got what we said we’d get, and if not, why? Was it a bad decision, or was it something that we simply didn’t execute as well as we should have? Having that follow-up was important.
Of the positions you’ve had since being a CIO–COO and CEO–which is the more natural next step for an IT executive?
The CIO could graduate into either of those roles, or head of a division or head of procurement or marketing, depending upon the operation. The sophistication of what’s required [to run a business] is escalating like crazy. Staying on top of that is something CIOs are used to doing. They’re used to a lot of change coming their way. That dynamic environment really puts them at an advantage as they go into the business.
Which is the harder job: CIO or CEO?
Well, it depends upon the amount of change you’re trying to introduce and the results that you’re up against. They both have their moments. With everything the CEO faces today from the standpoints of governance, competition and shareholder expectation–let’s just say there’s less under your direct control than with the CIO role. The CEO role has a lot of external complexities. But the CIO has some moments that would be very comparable to the most difficult day of the CEO.
Why did you leave Wal-Mart after almost 20 years?
It’s an interesting story. My relationship with Microsoft went back 14 years with Steve Ballmer. I worked directly and indirectly with him during my time in Wal-Mart’s IT department, then when I was CIO, and after I moved into the business.
Being at one highly successful company and making the transition to another was, with the exception of marrying my wife, the greatest single decision I ever made. It was a great chance for me to get back to technology, which is what I loved, but it was also a great opportunity to learn from another successful company. If I hadn’t moved [to Microsoft], I probably would have finished my career [at Wal-Mart].
What advice would you give CIOs who are ready to move to a different role?
Take inventory of what you’ve been exposed to and learned. Make sure you have an understanding of how the business operates, the external marketplace and how the customer responds. And remember: Creating and driving business value is really meaningful to taking that next step.