Leadership Award Winners Utilize IT Governance, Good Relationships

It All Comes Down to Relationships

The Power of Peers

For John F. Schindler, the CIO at Kichler Lighting, one of his most important professional relationships is outside his own firm, with a colleague at another company.

When Schindler became the first CIO at Kichler, a lower-midmarket private company, he reconnected with an old peer in the Cleveland, Ohio, area: a CIO of a multibillion-dollar public company. At first Schindler was nervous that as the new CIO of a midmarket company, he wouldn't have a lot to offer his peer. But the two started talking at least weekly, and they meet in person every six weeks or so to compare notes.

As it turned out, both CIOs were working on similar issues: how to retool an IT department. "We've both been up and down in different companies," Schindler says.

"This was the first time I had been a CIO, [and] the shop was struggling tremendously. He was two years ahead of me as a change agent at a much bigger company. As a team, we developed a checklist. I also took notes on the things not to do. My first 100 days, I had a mentor and a sounding board."

The relationship helped Schindler reshape Kichler's IT department and bring the company into the 21st century. Prior to 2004, for example, the company had no functional Web presence or internal skills to deliver one. With advice from his friend, Schindler launched a business-to-business portal that gave more than 5,000 locations access to product availability, order status and entry.

The portal was a very difficult project to sell to a privately held, conservative company. It took 24-plus months to educate the business on what a portal was and how it would benefit the customer experience. The project was a success, cutting customer calls by 100 a day and saving as much as $7,500 a month in sales and customer service expenses.

Schindler found open conversations and support from his CIO friend reassuring when he confronted unfamiliar management issues or needed to make technology decisions. In some cases, he just wanted a second opinion.

"I was downsizing ideas from [his] big-company experience," Schindler says. "I was able to cherry-pick the process of change management. A lot of our ideas we bounced off each other, [such as] how far could I push and still keep the business relationships with the people I needed."

The two still meet regularly, sharing metrics, strategy and ideas. But today the roles are reversed: Schindler's friend left the multibillion-dollar company to be the first CIO at a $100-million company. "We're going to meet for breakfast as he tries to do the same thing I did at an even smaller company than mine," Schindler says. "Now we're switching roles. It'll be fun."

This was first published in July 2006

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