Understanding the role of the CIO and beyond with Bryan Ackermann


This week I’m joined by Bryan Ackermann who is the Chief Information Officer at Korn Ferry and the Managing Partner for Korn Ferry Advance.

We discuss how the CIO must stay immersed in technology but also understand the rest of the business. Bryan acknowledges that the CIO role is complex but critical to the business beyond just considering IT a cost center. We discuss the muscle memory that leads to this and how the CIO can change it. Bryan emphasizes that, today, someone in the organization will lead technology. The question is, will it be the CIO?


Bryan Ackermann Twitter: https://twitter.com/backermann

Bryan Ackermann LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/backermann/

Korn Ferry: https://www.kornferry.com

Korn Ferry Advance: https://www.kfadvance.com

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 between business and technology. I’m your host, Tim Crawford, a CIO and strategic advisor at a AVOA.

Tim Crawford:               This week I’m joined by Bryan Ackermann, who is the chief information officer at Korn Ferry and the managing partner for Korn Ferry Advance. We discuss how the CIO must stay immersed in technology, but also understand the rest of the business. Bryan acknowledges that the CIO role is complex but critical to the business beyond just considering IT as a cost center. We discuss the muscle memory that leads to this, and how the CIO can ultimately change it. Bryan emphasizes that today someone in the organization will lead technology. The question is, will it be the CIO?

Tim Crawford:               Bryan Ackermann, welcome to the program.

Bryan Ackermann:         Hey, thanks for having me, Tim.

Tim Crawford:               Bryan, you’re the CIO of Korn Ferry, but you’re also the managing partner of Korn Ferry Advance. I’m looking forward to hearing more about both of your roles at Korn Ferry.

Bryan Ackermann:         Absolutely. It’s been a crazy six years at Korn Ferry, but very appropriate for the conversation today.

Tim Crawford:               I think you bring this really unique perspective on the CIO role. We’ve had an opportunity to talk a little more about this and how you look at the CIO role. What do you see as some of the issues that are facing CIOs today?

Bryan Ackermann:         Well, I think it’s pretty common understanding that technology, because of its ubiquitousness and how it’s embedding itself in every aspect of the business, that the CIO has to step up and play a much broader role in the management and the strategy and the execution of the business.

Bryan Ackermann:         I think, though, as part of that, there’s this concept that has emerged that somehow CIOs have to transition from being a technologist, that’s becoming a little bit of a dirty word, and become a business leader, and that somehow there is a single threaded element to this, that we’re going to wake up one day and stop being technology focused and be the business.

Bryan Ackermann:         I understand the point of that, but I would submit that that’s the wrong way to think about it. The analogy I like to use is, if you need medical attention, and you’re trying to find the best doctors in the world, and typically these folks are the heads of their departments and the leaders of their hospitals’ units, you certainly don’t want to walk into that doctor’s office for your initial consult and hear, “I used to be really technical, but now I’m part of the business.” That’s the absolute wrong thing you want to hear when you’re looking for the best medical care.

Bryan Ackermann:         At the core, why would that be different for the leader of technology in a company? It is admittedly a much harder job to stay technical, to really continue to immerse yourself in technology, and then at the same time develop your skills, and your understanding of your customer, and your understanding of how the rest of the business works, and the role that you play there. But that’s the ask. That’s really the expectation, that you understand how to apply technology, and in order to do that, you have to stay a technologist to at least a large extent, to the challenges facing your customers, your markets, and your business. It’s not as simple as either or.

Tim Crawford:               But let me challenge that a little bit, Bryan, because that’s easier said than done, right? We’ve heard this comment in some of the things that you’ve said for a period of time, yet we’re still not seeing that across the masses of the CIOs today. They’re still struggling with this en masse. Why is that?

Bryan Ackermann:         You’re absolutely right. Not only does the CIO struggle with that, I think our teams struggle with that. I think there are a lot of elements to it. One is just the time, the enormous pragmatic, tactical demands on our time, given the changing role of technology. It’s not the thing that you can gently contemplate how I learn the rest of the business. You really do have to force it.

Bryan Ackermann:         But I do in some ways think, I hate to sound maybe confrontational about it, but I think it’s also a little bit of an excuse. I think it’s easier to be the utility player, and part of the cost side of the equation, and stay in the comfort zone that most of us have been in our entire careers. No one has that first job that’s the mini version of the CEO. We all start from, generally speaking, this technical competency. It is an absolute transition that requires any business leader, but certainly the CIO, to have a big moment where they say, “It’s okay to step out of my comfort zone. It’s okay to change the way I think about my role.”

Tim Crawford:               Let’s unpack that a little bit, how the CIO role compares to how business leaders think. You’re talking about two vastly different personas, historically, but what we’re talking about is how those two need to come closer together, right?

Bryan Ackermann:         Yes, absolutely. I’m not at all implying, don’t get me wrong, that somehow the CIO role is simple and easy to get your head around, and single dimensional. We deal with, quite frankly, quite the opposite, just broad differences between governance and infrastructure and applications and security and privacy and all of that stuff. It’s not minimizing the complexity in any way of the CIO role.

Bryan Ackermann:         But if I contrast it with the traditional business leader, these folks are constantly in a balancing act. New business versus delivery of a backlog, balancing revenue growth with the cost base of the company. How much are you protecting your core business to disrupting yourself on the other side of the scale? Constantly dealing with the impact on your teams and your people versus the pressures of, if you’re a public company, the quarterly expectations, or if you’re investor backed, those expectations, right?

Bryan Ackermann:         What I think is happening is that, as complex as the CIO role is, the alignment is beginning to come along that way. At the end of the day, the risk management that we play very effectively in the technology space, extending that understanding to business initiatives, and then playing a part in the execution of them, not just talking about the technology components of them … I’m sorry. If you all you talk about is cost, that’s all you’re ever getting an opportunity to influence.

Bryan Ackermann:         Unless you can continue that ability to balance all the elements that drive a market or your customer’s requirements or business forward, you’re going to find yourself in that box of being the cost person. That’s a very difficult thing to do, admittedly. No one’s job’s getting any easier, but at the end of the day, my CEO says he asks miracles of his leaders of his business every quarter. Korn Ferry is publicly held, so it’s that lovely 90 day march. If it isn’t different for the CIO, then the CIO is never going to have the same kind of role. I think that that starts with a change of how you think.

Tim Crawford:               Yeah. There’s often this conversation about cost. I look at IT as a cost center. This has been a mantra that I’m sure you and I and many others have heard, and maybe even worked in those organizations in the past, where IT is seen as a cost center. I really question whether you can get to cost efficiency, or whether it’s really a value conversation, meaning you have to bring some context into that cost, right?

Tim Crawford:               You spend $1 here or $1.50 there. Okay, well, what are you getting for that $1 or $1.50? It’s not just about which is cheaper, because when you think of cost, it’s about which is cheaper, but I’m thinking the importance is really about value as it pertains to revenue growth or customer engagement or some of the other business drivers.

Bryan Ackermann:         I think you’re right, and I put 10 exclamation points on that one. Obviously this will vary by industry, and certainly IT costs as a percent of revenue or as a percent of the cost base varies, but almost in no scenario, I’m sure there are exceptions, is the IT cost actually the predominant cost, right? It’s people. It’s often physical facilities. It’s the cost of sale. It’s the cost of consult conversations, right?

Bryan Ackermann:         There are lots of other larger costs in a company other than the IT cost, but somehow the business leaders are doing exactly what you said, constantly. They are saying in order to achieve a revenue growth of X, I need to have X number of business development resources in the company, and that operating expense is balanced against the expectation of revenue, right? It is a very natural muscle memory, in other cost areas, to relate it to the value that’s provided to the business, or the value that is provided to the customer, or the market, or the industry, right?

Bryan Ackermann:         For some reason, that muscle memory of talking about IT costs in the same way isn’t nearly as well developed. Another way to think about it is that that’s also another role of the CIO, is to help develop the business’s muscle memory in thinking about the value of IT costs the same way they think about the value of every other cost that goes into the business.

Bryan Ackermann:         That doesn’t mean it’s a free ride, obviously. Companies make difficult decisions around operating costs every second, but at least getting it to the table that just like every other cost of sale or cost of delivery, technology costs also make a material change to the value you provide or the value the company has.

Bryan Ackermann:         I think that that’s actually getting easier to describe. It’s much more obvious now than when I was coming up in technology, and I was trying to explain why SAP was adding value to the organization, but it’s still on the CIO to predominantly lead that discussion. No one else is going to step up into that role. Otherwise, you’re in a different situation where you’ve got somebody co-opting the role that the CIO arguably should be playing.

Tim Crawford:               This goes back to a prior episode where we talked about who’s going to take the leadership for technology? Is it going to be the CIO, or is it going to be someone else, and who’s going to lead that conversation? You might be the CIO, but if you don’t take the leadership role to lead that conversation, someone else will.

Bryan Ackermann:         Another difference between, I’m old, so when I was coming up and now, is it was perfectly appropriate, for a long time, for nobody to take that conversation up. The true back office cost, it was someone deep in the organization deciding what that cost should be in a lot of cases. Now given the changes in technology and the role it plays, a company has no choice. Someone in the organization will own the strategic decisions about how technology is used to provide value to their customers. Period. End of sentence. No company can opt out of that anymore.

Bryan Ackermann:         It puts a kind of a knee of the curve, an inflection point to the CIO sitting in the seat at the time, exactly to your other point. Someone will do this. This is the moment in time when the individual CIO or technology leader, however you’re titled, is going to prove to the leadership of that company that they’re the right person. You can’t hide anymore. You can’t sit in the back office. You have no choice.

Tim Crawford:               Yeah. Well, I think it even gets even further exacerbated in the sense that if you go back 10, 20 years, we could hide behind technology, because others didn’t understand it. I can remember back many moons ago where we would write manuals on telling people how to turn on their computer. Today, you don’t have to do that. Today, people understand technology. They understand the fundamentals of technology. If you don’t lead that conversation, there most definitely is someone somewhere else in the company that is perfectly capable of leading that conversation.

Bryan Ackermann:         Yeah, it’s not a black art anymore. It’s a lot more … Obviously I’m generalizing hugely. There are huge areas of emerging technologies that are still black art, but by and large, isn’t impressive anymore.

Bryan Ackermann:         Our story is, we’re recording this on Zoom. Korn Ferry just transitioned to Zoom ourselves as a corporate customer. We’ve got about 8,000 people using it now. We did that transition in three weeks. It was just an enormously successful program. Without discounting how complicated it was to actually do it in 60 countries in three weeks, nobody’s impressed. I got to tell you, nobody is impressed anymore that you can do the basics, right?

Bryan Ackermann:         Again, CIOs that their thinking and the way they project the value is still the way we were doing it 20 years ago, even though it’s still hard, and it’s still important, and you have to value the teams that do it, it’s a difficult and subtle conversation to not acknowledge the difficulty of what technology delivery really still is, but that it’s table stakes, folks.

Bryan Ackermann:         To your point, unless you reach out and grab, the window is closing. Somebody else will talk about this. But interestingly enough, in anything but the smallest companies, that’s not a single person either. A lot of this is how the balance between the technology strategy for your marketing organization with the more early adopters in your company. Even the whole conversation about shadow IT, the self aware CIO has to change that discussion.

Bryan Ackermann:         At Korn Ferry, we have some very different offerings. Our executive search business is very, very different than the products business, so we have a software company stuck in the middle of Korn Ferry, and now we’re outsourcing businesses. They’re very different. You have to be able to latch onto what used to be called shadow IT, and make it the early guard, and get more people into that conversation.

Bryan Ackermann:         It’s a difficult challenge, and admittedly a difficult challenge to balance all of this, but that’s what the other leaders of the business have to do every second, so why can’t the CIO do it?

Tim Crawford:               Well, it comes back to looking at the organization as an organism just like the human body. You can’t just take one organ out and expect everything else to function by itself or without that one organ. IT is no different from that. Maybe we’ve been able to get away with it for a long period of time, because we’ve been able to sit in the back office and have this complexity.

Tim Crawford:               I can remember many moons ago where people just never came to your building. You went to them every once in a while, but they never came to your building. Now, I couldn’t imagine not being in front of not just other players within the organization, but in front of the customer. It seems like you’ve got to be out there. You’ve got to be ingrained what your organization does beyond IT.

Bryan Ackermann:         Yeah. If are not a CIO, and as I said, it’s not just the CIO. If your teams, if your leaders are not spending a nontrivial amount of time in front of your company’s end customers, you will completely lose any context as to how all the hard work that you do as an organization, as an individual, what impact that actually has. If you lose that context, then you’re not going to have the credibility in front of the rest of the business to do anything other than what you’re doing. It really does become a self fulfilling prophecy.

Bryan Ackermann:         The CIOs that, and again, I’m probably over-dramatizing this, but the woe is me, it’s always about how much IT costs, and, “Look at how hard my job is,” and, “People don’t appreciate how complicated this really is to do. They take it for granted, because they have an iPhone” … We’ve all heard these things, but okay … Korn Ferry Advance is a career coaching service. Our coaches would say, “All right, snap out of it. Join the ranks of everybody else that’s got really difficult jobs in an increasingly complicated global multi threaded business environment.”

Tim Crawford:               Yeah. This is where there has to be an appreciation within the CIO and within their own ethos that yes, you are responsible for a very complicated role, but it’s also not just about you. You’re delivering an organization. You’re talking about how do your lieutenants come in.

Tim Crawford:               I used to do this math problem with different teams. What I would say is, “Okay, there are this many hours in the day, this many days in the week. Here’s the total amount of time I, as the seniormost IT leader, can get in front of customers. Now, let me look at all of my direct reports and do that same math problem.”

Tim Crawford:               The reality is, your organization is in front of customers far more than you could ever want or hope to be. How do you start to bring that organization together to have the same set of values and the same kind of integration with the rest of the company, with the rest of your customers outside of the company?

Bryan Ackermann:         I think that’s a great point, and actually solves a somewhat different problem that I don’t think we talk about enough. We like to talk about the CIO having us to the table or not. Sometimes it’s easy to get, it’s hard to maintain. Everybody’s got their metaphor. But what happens, and it certainly happened here at Korn Ferry, when I got the opportunity to begin to participate and have the quote unquote seat at the table, what happened was that my already very, very, very busy team got three times more busy, because the expectations go up, and the change management activity, the development activity for the teams is, again, it’s a different story.

Bryan Ackermann:         We’re no longer complaining about just being under huge cost pressure, or reducing resources, or having to do more with less, all of which stay true under the covers, but it’s exhausting to constantly have high expectations of the impact technology has on the firm. That’s not just true of the CIO. The IT organization and the technology organizations have to learn that one of the indicators that technology has the level of prominence that you aspire to, in the terms of the impact it has all the company, is that it never stops being that busy, isn’t a project that’s going to end. It’s the next quarter’s expectations, and, “What are you going to do to drive the EBITDA improvement that Wall Street expects this quarter or this month?”

Bryan Ackermann:         That seat at the table isn’t an easy place to be. I’ve had some transition out of the organization because not everybody is comfortable with that, but that’s also part of this that I think a good CIO will proactively manage. Frankly, the best way to do that is getting your teams in front of customers, because then they understand the why. Then they see the impact. When they see the impact, that’s a huge motivator.

Tim Crawford:               Well, they have an appreciation for it too.

Bryan Ackermann:         Yeah, absolutely.

Tim Crawford:               I want to transition a bit and talk about a relatively new role that you have at Korn Ferry, and talk a little bit about Korn Ferry Advance, because I think this is an interesting transition for you personally, but also for an example of someone who has served as a successful CIO, but then is now taking on something very different but interrelated in some ways. Introduce Korn Ferry Advance, but then talk about what your role is and how that integrates with your role as CIO.

Bryan Ackermann:         Yeah, absolutely. Korn Ferry is about 50 years old, and has been in the business of helping people move their careers along since we came to be, but a little bit of the dirty secret is that we’ve never actually worked for the individual. We always work on behalf of the organization, either the organization that they are working for and doing assessment and development and coaching activities there, or a company will hire Korn Ferry at a certain level of the organization to find people, but we never actually work for the individual.

Bryan Ackermann:         Korn Ferry Advance, which is now about a year and a half old in the market, was our answer to the question of, “What if we could take all the great things that Korn Ferry has, and all of our intellectual property and our data, and what we know about how people perform, and what they get paid, and how they move in their career and, actually make that available to an individual when they need it for big problems and small?”

Tim Crawford:               Wow.

Bryan Ackermann:         It was a very interesting problem statement. A couple of years ago, our CEO, it’s one of his priority projects as a way to continue our organic growth strategy, because originally it was envisioned to be a technology pure play, he asked me to help try and get it off the ground.

Bryan Ackermann:         We very quickly discovered what we could do that was different in the world than what is already existing is actually have a lot of technology in it, and the offering does, but make sure that there are lots of humans in the equation. It’s technology to bring a human to another individual when they need help.

Bryan Ackermann:         It’s become a little bit less of a technology pure play, but it’s been tremendously exciting. People really seem to resonate with having access to the skills and capabilities of a company like Korn Ferry to answer not just, “I want a new job,” but, “How do I be the best in the job I’m in?” Or even, “I’m a new leader,” as an example, or a new manager, “and I have to have my first difficult conversation with an employee. How do I do it? There’s no manual for that.” What if I could tap somebody on the shoulder, a gym coach, so to speak, for your career, and ask that question?

Bryan Ackermann:         Advance is a very interesting offering that is just exploding. We’re about 18 months in the market, and about 60,000 people are using Korn Ferry Advance today, so it’s not bad from zero. It’s been an enormous opportunity for me to start a new business, completely different adjacent market, while capitalizing on the assets of the larger Korn Ferry.

Bryan Ackermann:         We got about a year in, then when it became obvious that we were onto something, that this was something that needed to now scale, because we’re going to get pretty close to 2 billion in revenue, so what moves the needle for the company is a decently large number. But as we were transitioning this, and our board and CEO were deciding this has merit, and transitioning it into a real business, so to speak, there’s a really difficult decision that had to be had.

Bryan Ackermann:         I’m honored that the firm made the decision it did. They could very well have said, “Hey, Bryan, thanks for shepherding this along. Great executive sponsor. We’re going to go hire a pro to scale it,” which would have been disappointing, although I think I probably would have respected the decision, but because I’m pretty focused on staying in front of the customer, and personally driving revenue and selling and then delivering and implementing the technology, all the things we’ve talked about today, the firm asked me to lead the business permanently. It’s what happens, I think, when a CIO demonstrates an ability and not an aspiration, but an ability to handle all of the complex aspects of the business, not just the technology ones, there’s a pot at the end of that. The companies recognize that and give you the roles that really show that ability.

Tim Crawford:               That’s great. If folks want to know more about Korn Ferry Advance, where would they go for that?

Bryan Ackermann:         KFAdvance.com is the best place, or certainly you can see it off of KornFerry.com, but we’re tremendously excited about Korn Ferry Advance, and we’ll expanded dramatically over the coming year.

Tim Crawford:               Very cool. As we wrap on this episode, I have one question. As you look out, and you think about your role today both as leading Korn Ferry Advance, but then also as CIO for Korn Ferry, what excites you most about the CIO and where it’s going and where you’re headed?

Bryan Ackermann:         What has always been a unique aspect of this role is the fact that by definition it’s all inclusive. You have a role that demands that you understand how everything in your business works, how its processes are designed and operated, efficient and non efficient. You have an obligation to understand how the big picture actually operates. It is an incredibly challenging role.

Bryan Ackermann:         We’ve talked about some of the challenges of it, but to me it’s also, I can’t think of too many other roles in a company that have the opportunity to make the impact that the CIO role has. It is absolutely exciting, and we’re not in a position to have to defend our job anymore. Everybody gets it intellectually that technology is a huge part of a company’s ability to grow and deliver value. Most companies are just desperate for that individual to lead that discussion.

Bryan Ackermann:         It is an incredibly exciting moment in time, a terrifying moment in time, in some cases, but that’s okay. They did an internal podcast that said, “If you don’t have something in the pit of your stomach, then you’re not pushing yourself hard enough.” If you’re a CIO with an incredible pit in your stomach about the role that you can play and the obligations of it, turn that pit into an incredible excitement and trust yourself.

Bryan Ackermann:         We’ve been saying it’s incredibly exciting time to be in technology for years, but I do think we’re at an inflection point where there’s never been more acceptance of the role technology can play, never been more difficulty in doing it well. If that’s what excites you, it certainly excites me, the opportunities for a CIO to really move the needle in ways that they would never have signed, and frankly we were never trained to do, has never been greater. I hope you can tell from my tone or my voice it’s incredibly exciting.

Tim Crawford:               Yeah. You don’t seem very excited.

Bryan Ackermann:         That is true. It really is true.

Tim Crawford:               Yeah, definitely best time to be a CIO. No question. We’re going to have to leave it right there. Really appreciate the time today. I always enjoy our conversations, learning something new from you, especially with Korn Ferry Advance. Really looking forward to seeing how that progresses. Love to have you back on the program for a future episode too.

Bryan Ackermann:         Would love to. Thanks for having me today. It’s been great.

Tim Crawford:               Thanks, Bryan.

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

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