In the past six years, Kevin Turner has occupied three of the most senior offices in the corporate C-suite: CIO, CEO and COO. He talks about what's different and what's the same, and shares the secrets of his success
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 $US37.1 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 $US40 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.
CIO: 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?
Kevin Turner: 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.
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