The CIO Interview: Martha Heller's interview with Barry Libenson, CIO at Land O'Lakes.

Barry Libenson, CIO, Land-o-LakesWhat is the most valuable project, program, or innovation your IT organization has delivered in the last 12 months?

We recently completed a $35 million ERP implementation for significant part of the business, and it has completely changed the customer experience that we provide. We went from an outsourced model, where we were taking orders through a third party, to doing all of that ourselves through a very sophisticated composite application that gives a personalized experience for the user.

We have also completed other projects that have had an incredible impact on the business. One is providing business intelligence on tablets to 400 sales people out in the field. They are now able to analyze information in ways that they never could before. They can use this information to enhance overall sales success and customer service.

We have implemented a satellite imagery application that allows our sales force to stand in a field or sit at their desks and see what the most productive fields in their territory are, and where the underperforming fields are. The database is updated every day with the most current satellite information. This is pretty cutting edge for agriculture, and it has been great for the farmers’ businesses by improving yield potential.

You talked about a major ERP transformation. What are three critical success factors for an ERP implementation?

I’ve been in IT for more than 20 years, and I don’t think I’ve seen a single ERP implementation that has gone exactly according to plan. But for an ERP to be a success, first and foremost, it has to be business-driven.  If the business isn’t embracing the ERP, and it winds up being an IT project, it is more likely to be doomed from the get-go. 

The second is that architecture must be well laid out and fully vetted before anyone does any implementation work. It never ceases to amaze me how many people are architecting their solution at the same time that they are coding it.

And the third is to measure everything. You need to measure your existing environment, understand the improvements you would like to gain, then measure the environment after the implementation. If you don’t measure the right things, you will never know if you were really successful. Also, measuring performance on the business side allows you to change certain behaviors. People won’t necessarily change their behavior just because there’s a new system. 

"If the business isn’t embracing the ERP, and it winds up being an IT project, that is more likely to be doomed from the get-go. "

What does your IT organization do best?

In the last two and a half years, we have gone from being a service organization to being a partner to the business. We understand the company’s strategic plan, and we ensure that the technology is in place to make that happen. Not only has this shift generated some significant business results, it’s made everybody’s jobs more enjoyable.

Did you reorganize to make that happen, or did you drive this cultural change in other ways?

Our first move was to reorganize the organization so that it was better aligned with the business and there was accountability at the highest level. The team that reports to me has much more accountability to their respective line of business.  We also brought in some new talent. We now measure performance less on whether I am happy with results, but more on whether the business is happy with the results. But at the end of the day, we are only successful when the business says we are, not when I say it.

How would you describe your leadership style?

Everybody who has ever worked with me would tell you the exact same thing. I believe that great ideas come from all levels of the corporation. If you limit your exposure within your organization to your direct reports or one level below, you are missing out on a lot of great ideas and opportunities. I’m not a big believer in big hierarchal structures. I have an open door policy.

I bring my entire team together four times a year so they can ask me any question they want. I believe that they’ve learned over the last few years that there are no bad questions and there is nothing they can ask that will get them in trouble. That level of approachability and transparency is the key element of my leadership style.

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What is some advice you received that has helped you in your career?

This was more than 20 years ago, but I remember it like it was yesterday. I was working at Oracle back in the 1980s when things were moving very quickly and it was a tough environment. I reported to an executive vice president, and remember going into his office and listing out a bunch of challenges I was having. He looked at me across the table and said, “Okay, those are your problems, but what is your solution?” And I realized that I could have come up with a solution, but I didn’t. Instead, I made the mistake of going to him with a bunch of problems without offering any answers to them.

So one of the things I tell my team is that they are closer to the problem than anybody else is and are more likely to have a good idea than I am at first blush. And they probably will have thought about it a lot longer than I have. With this in mind,  I ask them to bring me a proposed solution when they encounter challenges. 

When you are interviewing candidates for your senior roles, is there a particular question you use to assess their skills?

“Tell me what you would do in the first 30 days if you got this job. What would your strategy and your approach be?” Their answer gives me some idea of how good a listener they are, how strategically they think, and what their approach to management is, especially in the first 30 days, because that’s when people are the most open to changes.

My view is that in the first 30 days, you should be doing more listening than talking. I want to hear them say, “In my first 30 days I’m going to get out there and meet the people in my organization;  I’m going to learn how the company functions; I’m going to visit the plants; I’m going to talk to the executive leadership team and understand how the company works.”

I don’t want to hear, “The first thing I would probably do is to restructure the support organization and change out the infrastructure.”

What technology innovation or business trend are you most excited about?

Remember when the big buzz word was “object-oriented programming,” and everybody got excited about it? Now we actually work in service-oriented architectures that are the first usable manifestations of what we were talking about. We’ve been talking about cloud computing and software as a service for the last 10 years. And up until three years ago, it was just time sharing; applications weren’t specifically designed around that model. Today, cloud computing has really arrived, and software as a service has really arrived. These technologies are having a major impact on companies.

I am also excited about mobility. They tablet market is huge. Everybody wants an iPad, and the price point is at a level where we can deploy and benefit from these devices and apps.

The CIO Paradox is a set of contradictions (IT “and” the business, for example) that prevents CIOs from delivering maximum business value.  How do you know when you have broken the Paradox?

One sign is when the CEO invites you to report on IT strategy and update the Board of Directors. The Board of Directors is comprised of our members, and our members own our company. I regularly provide an update on how we are using IT to benefit the company and the members who own it.

The other sign is how my PMO team works with their business partners across the company and helps lead projects. We want to show our executive partners—and I believe we have shown—that our PMO team knows not only the IT part of the project, but understands the business as a whole, and can help ensure the overall success of a project, and not just the IT aspect. We have an enormous project that impacts everyone in the company. Someone on my team is in charge of the IT for the project. He works with his business partner and is able to contribute beyond implementing technology, consulting on best practices for business processes.

If you didn’t become a CIO, what would you have done?

If I weren’t a CIO, I would love to run a very successful restaurant somewhere. I love to cook, and my current quest is to make the perfect pizza. I’ve bought a ton of pizza equipment lately, and I’ve been making four pizzas every weekend. I’ve got a mountain of leftover pizza in my refrigerator right now.

What’s the trick to making great pizza?

Believe it or not, it is all about the flour. Most people can get the top of the pizza to be pretty decent. You can put anything that you want on top of the pizza; there’s no science to it. But it is a mistake to assume that the dough is simply a carrier for what’s on top.  To achieve the perfect dough is a science, and the first key is called “double-zero Italian flour” which can only be sourced from Italian markets. That’s key number one. The other key is just a brutally hot oven.

About Barry Libenson

Libenson was appointed Vice President, Chief Information Officer for Land O’Lakes in January 2010.  Libenson is responsible for aligning Land O'Lakes’ technology strategy with the company's business objectives and he has been instrumental in moving the companies IT resources to a highly efficient, centralized operating company model.  Prior to joining Land O’Lakes, he served as Vice President and Chief Information Officer at Ingersoll Rand. Libenson holds a bachelor’s degree in Information Systems from Colgate University and a master's degree in Business from the Fuqua School at Duke University.

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