The CIO’s role in customer engagement with Stuart Appley


In this episode, I’m joined by Stuart Appley. Stuart has served as the CIO for both Shorenstein and Walden International. He is currently the Managing Director for Digital and Technology at CBRE. In addition, Stuart serves on a number of advisory boards.

Customer engagement is one of the top initiatives for boards and c-suite executives. In this episode, we discuss Stuart’s perspective on the value that the CIO brings to customer engagement. As part of our discussion, we cover some of the challenges and advantages to leveraging the CIO in this business-critical initiative.


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Podcast Episode

Episode Transcript

Tim Crawford:               Hello, and welcome to the CIO In The Know podcast. Where I take a provocative but pragmatic look at the intersection of business and technology. I’m your host, Tim Crawford, a CIO analyst and strategic advisor at AVOA.

Tim Crawford:               In this episode, I’m joined by Stuart Appley. Stuart has served as the CIO for both Shorenstein and Walden International. He is currently the managing director for digital and technology at CBRE In addition, Stuart serves on a number of advisory boards.

Tim Crawford:               Customer engagement is one of the top initiatives for boards and C-Suite executives. In this episode we discuss Stuart’s perspective on the value that the CIO brings to customer engagement. As part of our discussion, we cover some of the challenges and advantages to leveraging the CIO in this business critical initiative.

Tim Crawford:               So again, welcome back to another episode of The CIO In The Know podcast. I’m Tim Crawford, your host. And today I’m joined by Stuart Appley, the managing director for digital and technology at CBRE. Stuart, thanks for joining the program today.

Stuart Appley:               Great, thanks Tim and thanks for having me on.

Tim Crawford:               Well it’s always great to talk to you. And I’m always learning something new when we chat. You know, you’ve got this really rich experience as serving as CIO for a couple of companies, and kind of shifting gears into a different role now. And so, I wanted to kind of kick things off by asking you about that experience and what’s different with the CIO role today?

Stuart Appley:               Well thanks, Tim. Yeah, no, it’s been a definite journey. I was the CIO at a couple companies before for about 16 years. What I was really looking for was really more client-facing. Those opportunities didn’t really provide me that role. And I’ve really gotten to see the CIO role change over that time. It’s interesting.

Stuart Appley:               The old digital customer-facing conversations that go on today have been going on for a long time. I think since we started working together many years ago. Those were always part of it, you’re just seeing it much more today. And more businesses accepting it, understanding it, leveraging the CIO in a role that is more business-impactful. I still think we have a long way to go for making that pervasive throughout the industry, but I do think it’s real today.

Stuart Appley:               So I take my current company, where we’ve brought in senior technology leaders that are really product-focused, where it’s a core compency. Creating the technology muscle in the IT area to create and leverage core differentiating products. But then, you know, leveraging the cloud and other great platform and SAS products for the commodity applications. So that growth just continues over the years. I think that is really where the CIO role is really changing, and it’s finally changing for the good, just more work needs to happen in the industry.

Tim Crawford:               Yeah, the more work. Let’s unpack that a little bit. Because there’s a lot in what you just said. And so, let me kind of start with the relationship between the CIO and the rest of the C-Suite. Because this is something that in the past has existed, but today really needs to exist in a really different way. And so, my question to you is, how should the CIO be relating with regard to the rest of the C-Suite? Whether that be the CEO, CMO, COO, et cetera. And then maybe you can compare and contrast where it should be versus where it is today.

Stuart Appley:               Yeah, it’s kind of a continuing conversation from just a minute ago of what’s changing. It’s really the same thought process. Ideally, businesses look at the CIO, and you can call it whether it’s CTO, CIO, CDO, you know, let’s combine those if we can. Leading the technology organization. Ideally, it’s a peer for the rest of the C-Suite. And ideally it’s a part of the C-Suite and the rest of the C-Suite looks at that role as just one arm within the business that can be a lever to create business growth, to grow that top line. Not from a cost perspective.

Stuart Appley:               So that again is changing. And I always draw a hard line where I’d say it has to report to the CEO, I think it gets a telling sign when it does. But the right organization, with the right people, and the right collaboration, and the right viewpoints, it could report to the COO. But as long as you’re a peer, from a where does technology fit in the organization? Can the business lines … Do they look to technology to growth? To help solve business problems? Collaborate on issues? That’s where it should be. And again, it’s a journey for where businesses today truly understand that. And the ones that truly understand that are the ones you’re seeing disrupting industries.

Tim Crawford:               But if I understand what you’re kind of pointing out there, is there’re two sides to this coin, if you will. There’s the CIO and what they individually are capable of and where they should be, but there’s also the rest of the C-Suite in terms of how they perceive the CIO and the role that the CIO, and ostensibly the rest of the IT organization, plays.

Stuart Appley:               Yeah, I mean, I like that point because it is … Those are two different aspects of it. And really important. So that the second piece, when you get into how IT is viewed within the company … And not necessarily … Let’s take the person away from that. Let’s just take the IT organization. So that gets into culture of the company. And that’s a thing we’ve talked a lot about over the years, and you see a lot of things about culture. It’s hard to change culture.

Stuart Appley:               With wins, and with the right communication, you can influence how culture can be changed. But you know, some of the companies I’ve worked for have been around a long time. People have been there a long time. Things improve, but you know you can still hit a wall. So there’s that piece of it. The company recognizing it.

Stuart Appley:               And then there’s the skills of the people. Is that the right person in the role? Are they thinking forward? Are they thinking digitally? Or are they just have this cost-centered mentality where they’re just trying to reduce costs?

Tim Crawford:               Yeah, and that’s tricky on both sides of it. I kind of want to drill into the C-Suite aspect maybe just a step further. When I have conversations with other C-Suite members beyond the role of the CIO, there seems to be an understanding that they need to engage digital. They need to engage technology. But they don’t necessarily see the CIO or the IT organization, and I’m using those terms loosely. Let’s just call it IT as a whole. They don’t see IT as necessarily the department to do that. There seems to be this gap. How does that gap get filled? And do you see the same thing? Especially in your new role, probably interacting with folks beyond just the CIO.

Stuart Appley:               Yeah, no, absolutely. I’ve seen that in the past. I see it currently. There’s always that dynamic, right? Of certain business groups owning technology for their area and feeling like they know it best. You need to be able to work with those groups and understand that they do understand … shouldn’t understand business the best. Ideally, you understand it just as good as they do. The job is to demonstrated to them on at least collaborating. I think the centralization of IT is not …

Stuart Appley:               You know, people talk about shadow IT, and shadow IT can be a good thing if it’s done correctly. Meaning that the business owns some of their technology in collaboration with the IT leadership, they work together, there are central ways that you say … Let’s just say from data perspective. There might be a great data foundation that you build centrally and it enables each business area to take that that is unique to that business area. They may have experts in those areas.

Stuart Appley:               So that’s something that you need to build that relationship. You need to build that understanding. So you might walk into an organization, or you might see start-ups today, it’s actually very common, it seems like, on start-ups that are growing. They start up very fragmented, very disconnected, and then they get themselves into trouble ’cause there’s not that centralized, at least, oversight from a best practice perspective. And sharing, and at least bringing some of those tools together so you don’t have different integration tools. You can do where it should be centralized. It can be helpful. So getting them back to that mindset.

Stuart Appley:               So it should never be a very central approach. You do need to work with the strong business groups and that can be healthy if done in the right manner.

Tim Crawford:               Let’s shift gears just a little bit here. Because it sounds like the CIO is not just the technology leader, but it’s really a business leader. And it kind of has to tie into the core tenants for that business. For any given business depending on the industry you’re in or particular segment that you focus on. And we often talk about, you know, how the CIO can serve in different capacities. Taking that technology expertise as well as that business expertise and apply it to other functions. Maybe customer advocacy. Which seems somewhat to 180 degrees from the traditional CIO.

Tim Crawford:               How does the role of the CIO kind of relate with customer engagement? I ask this of you because your role today is a little different from the typical CIO and so, can you talk about that a little bit in terms of the value that you’re finding? That that CIO expertise is really kind of coming to bear in your role at CBRE?

Stuart Appley:               Yeah. So I talked about earlier where I always wanted to do more client-facing work. And in the ideal scenario, and I think where the CIO and IT leader can be the most effective, is where there is a advocacy role. Where they are talking to clients, talking about clients, talking about the business. So my role, I think what’s great about it, is I am actually in the business now helping with new client engagements. Helping do thought leadership and talking to clients about how technology can serve the business.

Stuart Appley:               I think having that CIO expertise, and being able to walk into the room, automatically gives me some credibility. I mean, I think that was the hope coming into it and I’ve seen that. ‘Cause that’s not typical. You don’t get people who are speaking to clients who say, “Oh, yeah, I’ve been in IT leadership roles before.” And I think what has struck me is I think having this experience is so powerful that all IT leaders should, at some point, spend time in the business being customer-facing, being client-facing, because that really should just be the role of the CIO today.

Stuart Appley:               And so, I remember a job earlier, one of my heading up sales and marketing IT, it was for a mutual fund. So for the first week I spent on the phones in the client customer-service center, just listening to calls from brokers coming in and understanding it. And that was so powerful. It was only for a week, but it resonates that ideally you spend time in the business being client-facing roles and you put the client and customer hat on. And always think about that, is really to be most successful from an IT leader.

Tim Crawford:               So, if you talk about the CIO, or in your role at CBRE, kind of getting out with customers, how typical do you find that to be? You know, as you were going through your search, as you were seeking out opportunities to get more engaged with customers, is that something that’s really common? I’m gonna ask this question in two ways. One, from the CIO contingent, that they want to be more engaged with customers. And then separately, from the rest of the C-Suite, and maybe even the head of sales, that they want the CIO to be more engaged with customers. How common is that for each of those two contingents?

Stuart Appley:               I mean, I think it’s more common than it used to but I think it’s really more on the rare side, I think unfortunately. You know, I think some of the CIOs we engage with you know, maybe have been a little biased because there’s a lot that we know who do do that. But if you really do take a step back, I think it’s not as common as it should be. And the same thing with the sales organization leaders, right?

Stuart Appley:               At the very beginning we talked about the journey and how things aren’t as much different, as far as what people should be spending their time. And it’s growing but it’s amazing really how much more businesses need to understand and accept this. And the talent and perspectives of IT leaders are evolving and getting better, but still I think there’s a big gap on understanding that and wanting those roles, and really understanding that customer engagement, is really where the IT leaders should be spending most of their time.

Tim Crawford:               Yeah, I’m kind of curious, what is driving that gap and how do we close that gap? I had an opportunity to take part in a discussion around the country last year amongst a group of CIOs. And they were talking about customer engagement. One of the CIOs was talking about how they were going on ride-alongs, and how they were engaging with customers, with patients. This particular CIO worked for a healthcare services company. And I was just surprised to hear very specific information about how this individual, this CIO is getting first-hand experience seeing what the customer is actually experiencing. What their experience is with their company.

Tim Crawford:               And then fast-forward to, I think it was like a month later, I was leading a panel discussion at another CIO conference, and had a similar conversation with CIOs talking about customer engagement. And asking each of the CIOs on the panel how many of you actually engage with customers? And at first I’d asked the question “How do you engage with customers?” And I think it was somewhat telling that they all looked at reports. They don’t necessarily get out in the field and interact with customers first-hand.

Tim Crawford:               So I keep asking myself the same question, which is “Why?” Why are we still having this? How did this issue come up? And how do we start to bridge that gap?

Stuart Appley:               That’s a great point. Yeah, it’s not as pervasive as it should be. I think about one of my former roles where my boss gave me that opportunity early on to go talk with clients. I was just “Wow, this is great. This is exactly what it should be.” And then you just see other companies just don’t do that. I think it still gets back to … You know, you got legacy companies, and legacy thinking. I had one leader tell me once … This company had been around for a long time. We had this kind of conversation, he goes, “you know what, we’re skeptical because we’ve always been so successful. So why change?”

Stuart Appley:               And when you get certain companies that have been successful and they don’t see what’s coming, or they don’t think far enough ahead, they just kind of accept the status quo. And unfortunately there’s more than there should be. So I think just having thought-leaders like yourself continue to talk about it, continue to get that out there, and continue to push on it, I think it’s just going to be an evolution that’s unfortunately slower than it should be.

Tim Crawford:               And one of the things that comes to mind when you say that is, you know, past performance is not an indicator of future, right?

Stuart Appley:               Yup.

Tim Crawford:               You just look at the S&P500 over the last, what is it, ten, twenty years. Many of the folks that used to be leaders and stalwarts in the financial space and other industries, they don’t exist anymore. And they’ve been replaced by a number of other companies.

Stuart Appley:               Yeah, but the other point that you’d mentioned was also, so there’s to sides of the coin. Then there’s the willingness of the people stepping into these IT leadership roles to want to do this. So, I don’t know if historically people have come up things. I didn’t, my MBA and BA is both in finance and I was interested more in the business side and happened to be very good at technology and went into a leadership role. So I think … But when you get people who kind of just grow up pure technology, and then kind of just don’t think about the business, that’s not really the ideal IT leader in the future.

Stuart Appley:               Hopefully that changes. Hopefully as technology becomes more pervasive, what we do every day, we’re still gonna need people who are thinking about top-line growth, understanding how to grow the business, and then how do you apply technology to really lever that.

Tim Crawford:               To get into that. You really have to put yourself … If you’re the CIO or the head of IT, whatever the particular role or title that you have is, you have to put yourself in the shoes of the CEO. You have to do that and understand what drives business and what the initiatives are, and how you can contribute in a meaningful way from a business perspective.

Stuart Appley:               Absolutely. I used to have this quote, I forget what it was now, but I had it pinned on my wall. It was really all about thinking of your IT as a business. Right? And not a “How do you source, what costs … ” but more from a customer perspective. I think, at a minimum, if people could just take that away as a take-away, just always thinking of the customer. And your employees too. I mean, employees, the experience. How do you grow customers? That just has to be the top mind-set of every IT leader.

Tim Crawford:               So Stuart, what excites you most about the role of the CIO today? And where does technology kind of fit into that?

Stuart Appley:               I think we’re still so early in some of these … A, there’s two things. One is cloud, you know, geez, I think we worked together even before others. Probably ten years now, have been dabbling originally and fully under the cloud. I think we continue to see the explosion of the platform and SAS products. So I mean, that excites me in how those continue to grow and be true business value.

Stuart Appley:               But then artificial intelligence. The role of data, quality data, making data-based decisions.

Tim Crawford:               There’s a tongue-twister for you.

Stuart Appley:               Exactly. Not data base, but data-based. You know, we are just so early in that. Getting back to the cloud, the democratization of AI is really starting to happen now with some of the cloud providers and the other providers on that. I think that is what really excites me today. I think mobile, and the user experience, which we’ve already been there, but really artificial intelligence is just gonna change how we work, how our companies work, how our customers engage with us. And I would think IT leaders really need to understand that, really need to understand how the quality of data is gonna drive that. That really excites me. I think both for my role and just CIOs in our businesses going forward.

Tim Crawford:               Really important nuggets to live by. And really insightful. Especially coming from that customer advocacy perspective and engaging with customers probably more than most CIOs today. Stuart, thank you so much for taking part in the program today. It’s been a pleasure to have you on. I always enjoy our conversations and I’d love to have you back some day too.

Stuart Appley:               Great, thanks again, Tim. I really appreciate the opportunity and thanks for the conversation. It’s been great.

Tim Crawford:               All right, thank you. For more information on the CIO In The Know podcast series, visit us online at Or you can find us on SoundCloud, iTunes, Google Play, and Stitcher. Don’t forget to subscribe and thank you for listening.

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