Energy Company's IT and Business Units Share Responsibility

At Energy Future Holdings, CEO John Young emphasizes the human factors behind IT, supports standardization and expects the CIO to work with business partners.

Energy Future Holdings is a 130-year-old company, with disparate systems developed over a long time. Maintaining all that must get expensive. How are you solving that problem?

Our IT department and business units understand we are in an industry where competition is intense, and success depends on our operations performing at the highest levels.

In addition to IT leading a major infrastructure transformation and virtualization initiative, we are standardizing our business processes and systems across the back office, which will enable a 40 percent consolidation in applications. We have many production facilities, and we need them to share a common set of platforms and tools. This not only offers cost benefits and operational improvements, it also lets people to move from plant to plant, using common tools and processes.

Standardizing back-office processes in a $6 billion business is a major effort. How do you keep business leaders accountable?

I think of processes a little differently than most people do. In a leadership team discussion, somebody may ask, "Who owns the process?" Well, I don't believe process ownership lies with just one person or department. Every process falls into four categories: governance, oversight, support and performance. That's an engineer's approach to driving alignment and accountability.

Once everybody recognizes that processes are owned collectively, with specific responsibilities around four governing principals, you get a lot more cooperation and shared accountability. This allows Kevin Chase, our CIO, to play the role of consultant, adviser and implementer of new solutions in collaboration with the business, rather than running a group that pushes technologies onto the business.

How can other CIOs build the kind of credibility that Kevin Chase has with you?

Being a CIO is about getting out to each part of the business and listening a lot. You need to put yourself in the shoes of your business partners and know what their real interests, objectives and challenges are. That way, when the three or four of you are in front of the CEO, or the board, it's evident you are truly aligned on how technology fits into the larger business strategy.

Presenting to the board is an area that some CIOs struggle with. Any advice?

When I became CEO in 2008, I got my folks around the table and said, "Look, whether times are good or bad, we are always going to be direct and honest." That's the advice I would give a CIO. Kevin gives quarterly updates to our board, and that's one of the reasons he's gained so much credibility. He presents critical updates in a concise manner, the good and bad, so that our board is informed and confident in the direction being taken.

How has technology changed your leadership style?

When you get hundreds of emails per day, you are in this rapid-fire communication mode, making decisions more quickly, and you get very few opportunities to read people's body language. As a leader, I need to remember that while technology gives us efficient ways to get the word out, at the end of the day, face-to-face interaction makes a difference.

Martha Heller is president of the executive recruiting firm Heller Search Associates and author of The CIO Paradox. Follow her on Twitter:@marthaheller.

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Read more about energy in CIO's Energy Drilldown.

This story, "Energy Company's IT and Business Units Share Responsibility" was originally published by CIO.

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