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Secret CIO: Our CEO Has A Vision For The Future

Picking a direction is easy; getting there successfully is another story.

Some leaders are egocentric: getting to the top is not often the goal of the humble. Others feel blessed with good fortune and unpretentiously strive to be worthy. Then there are CEOs like my boss, Phil Whitestone. He's charming in social gatherings and decent to his underlings. He does, however, fancy himself a potential titan of industry, right up there with Sandy Weil and Jack Welsh--if only circumstances would permit him the opportunity.

Phil's fondness for bold new ventures is well known. The thrill of the chase and the heady rush of victory light up his eyes and invigorate his step. Hence, it was no surprise when he called an executive committee meeting to discuss his vision of the future for the company. Not too long ago our sessions were about cutting costs. But last quarter's earnings exceeded expectations--the analysts and ours; this quarter looks to be even better. Phil now smiles at everyone and talks of how quickly we will break out from the pack and establish our rightful place of respect in the business world.

As an international company, Phil emphasized, we need to do more to expand and seize (that was his word) the worldwide opportunities available to us. He said we have to leverage (his word again) our resources to strike while our competition was still wondering whether the recovery from the recession was real. "If we are smart and bold," he concluded, "we can achieve our goal of becoming one of the handful of strategic leaders in global commerce."

The reactions were mixed in the room. The majority, but not all, glowed. Talk of power, growth, and challenge excite most people. However, Kratmeyer, head of international operations, sulked in his chair. I suspect that he thought any new foreign initiative should be the product of a discussion between Phil and him, not the rest of us. Sid Gornish, our CFO, looked pensive, a rather unusual demeanor for him.

The next hour was spent in talking about our marketplace strengths and which of them could benefit from additional resources. We then trotted out that old word, synergy, and tried to figure out how we could take ideas from one of our businesses and apply them to other areas to achieve profitable growth. The exercise was fun. I even added that our ERP implementation expertise could be bundled with long-term product supply contracts as a value-add service, cutting costs for customers and us.

When we seemed to be running out of ideas--or perhaps it was getting too close to lunchtime to concentrate on anything other than our stomachs--Phil turned to Gornish and said, "Sid, you've been quiet. What do you think?"

Gornish started so softly that you had to strain to hear him. I had seen him use this technique before. It forces his listeners to pay close attention.

"We've talked about potential strategies. But, like the air we breathe, we've taken culture for granted. We're dealing with content and context. The content is what we plan on doing. The context is how those ideas contrast or complement the environment into which they are introduced. Our initiatives have to fit with the culture of the customer to be successful. Let's not forget that they, not we, decide if we'll be successful."

And on that note, Phil said we would meet again to continue our discussion.

Herbert W. Lovelace shares his experiences (changing most names, including his own, to protect the guilty) as CIO of a multi-billion dollar international company. Send him E-mail at

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