3 traits of transformative CIOs

How CIOs from Couche-Tard – Circle K, Gap and REI plan for success

Digital illustration: The CIO’s new mission: Change agent

What was formerly relegated to the back-office workings of information systems has evolved along with customer needs, bringing the responsibilities and rewards of the chief information officer role into the forefront. Today a CIO is a critical member of a retailer’s executive team, responsible for driving strategy and outcomes — and being accountable for them.

At NRFtech in San Francisco last month, CIOs from Couche-Tard – Circle K, Gap and REI joined Facebook’s Martin Gillard to talk about making IT part of strategic conversations and influencing and contributing to corporate strategy.

NRFtech 2019 CIOs new mission session
The panel at NRFtech 2019


Christine Putur, CIO of outdoor supplier REI, believes CIOs act as storytellers and educators, bringing the art of the possible to an executive team. REI is more than an outdoor supplier: Its product offerings include travel experiences, events, classes, expert advice — along with gear for living an outdoor life. Putur said the company wants to bring all of those things together from a customer perspective, allowing them to see what’s relevant to them and their desires.

The entire convenience store sector is ripe for transformation: Couche-Tard – Circle K CIO Deb Hall Lefevre pointed out that there are more than 150,000 convenience stores in the United States, which presents tremendous opportunity to become part of customers’ daily lives. It’s more than people stopping by to put gas in their vehicles; 60 percent of Couche-Tard – Circle K customers aren’t coming to its locations for fuel, so the company is looking for ways to engage busy families as well as road warriors. Couche-Tard – Circle K uses data and analytics to ensure its offerings evolve as customer needs change, looking to “converge physical and digital in a way that makes sense for their lifestyle,” Hall Lefevre said.

That means “locking arms” across an organization, she said, and clarifying and committing to roles and responsibilities. “CIOs have a horizontal view across the business” that gives a system-first perspective and provides objectivity on resource allocation.


Being an active member of an executive team starts with understanding the business’s growth strategy and the series of capabilities needed. “It’s a team sport,” Putur said. “You can’t forget any one piece, or it will fall apart.” A big part of that is speaking up about what might seem obvious to a CIO but unclear to others in the room: “Too much of the time, the conversation is happening in our heads,” she said. It’s important to be clear about risks and implications — and to get everyone on board. At REI, that includes one-on-one meetings with stakeholders to ensure the conditions for success are in place.

Talking about customer desire for things like buy online, pick up in store, Gap CIO Sally Gilligan pointed to the many teams in a company that must come together to make it work. “BOPIS is a fully integrated customer experience that can’t go wrong,” she said. It’s important to understand how customers live, what their experience is and how that relates back into the organization. “You have to think end-to-end,” she said, fundamentally understanding aspects of the company like finances and operations.


“Standardize, simplify, digitize while we stabilize.”

Deb Hall Lefevre, Couche-Tard – Circle K

That end-to-end view of a business is key — “from design through fulfillment,” Gilligan said. “You must have a long-term plan and be able to commit to it.” It helps to communicate benefits to business partners — highlighting things like speed and effectiveness can open a door further down the road, and demonstrating incremental, tangible results encourages people to see their role in a company’s success and become advocates for new technology and solutions.

Couche-Tard – Circle K has a mantra it uses to help stay on track: “Standardize, simplify, digitize while we stabilize,” Hall Lefevre said. Executives understand “standardization is speed at scale, and digitization is how we’re going to do disruption.” For instance, “Fueling cars is a chore,” she said. “We’re looking forward to disrupting that.”

Hailing from backgrounds in technology, supply chain and operations, CIOs are called upon to use more than technical expertise when contributing to corporate strategy. Today it’s the soft skills of communication and collaboration — along with a clear, unbiased view of the business — that facilitate change at the executive level.

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