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The latest subject in our series, "How I Landed My CIO Job," is David Behen, CIO of La-Z-Boy. Previously, Behen was CIO and Director of the Department of Technology, Management and Budget for the State of Michigan, and he had no experience in retail or manufacturing.

Heller Search: Where were you prior to joining La-Z-Boy?

David Behen, CIO, La-z-boyDavid Behen: I was the CIO and Director of the Department of Technology, Management and Budget for the State of Michigan. I was in the cabinet of Governor Rick Snyder for six years, which was a fascinating and wonderful experience. For the first three years I was CIO. Then starting in 2013, I was asked to add Director of the Department of Technology, Management and Budget responsibilities, so I was wearing two hats. I got to work every day with extremely smart people and collaborate with CIOs all over the world.

What was the size of your team and your budget?

I had 1,800 employees in IT and another 1,000 in the Department of Technology, Management and Budget, and was responsible for about $1 billion in budget altogether.

Were you actively looking for a new CIO role?

The State CIO role is a political appointee, which means that when Governor Snyder leaves office in January 2019, the incoming governor will bring in his or her own people, and appoint a new CIO. So, I had decided to start networking around for future opportunities and came to La-Z-Boy through that avenue.

This was quite a big change.

A totally different situation from being the CIO for Michigan. La-Z-Boy is a publicly traded company. When they contacted me, I said I was happy to come and talk but in all honesty, I may not be what you they were looking for. I had no prior experience in retail or manufacturing.

What were they looking for in their new CIO?

They were really looking for a leader – a strong manager and coach. They wanted to integrate IT into all areas of the business, which is what I had done at the State. I integrated IT across 22 different state agencies.

They had just recently implemented a new infrastructure and ERP and optimized their supply chain. Next they wanted to integrate technology across all areas of the business and they needed someone who had that type of experience. Really, what they needed was a leader to help them transform the company.

For anyone who is not familiar with La-Z-Boy, can you briefly describe the company?

Sure. La-Z-Boy is one of the world's leading residential furniture makers. While we are most famous for our recliners, we produce and sell furniture for every room of the home. We have 350 retail stores across the U.S. and Canada. We have about 9,000 employees and last year had annual sales of $1.5 billion. Our world headquarters is based in Monroe, Michigan, near Ann Arbor.

What were you looking for in your next job or CIO role?

When I started thinking about what may come next in my career, I reached out to five people who were my mentors and coaches. One was a venture capitalist who was up-to-date on startups and emerging companies, an area in which I was interested. Another had been the CEO of two large IT companies. Another one of my mentors ran IT at University of Michigan and is now a Provost. From him I wanted to learn what the higher education world was like. I met with a partner at a consulting firm, and I also consulted Governor Snyder, who is a valued mentor and friend. He had been the Chairman and CEO of Gateway Computers, knows a lot about technology, and is passionate about its potential to change the world.

After those discussions, I created a list of three primary attributes I was looking for in my next position. These were my three “non-negotiables:”

  1. An innovative company;
  2. An interesting, progressive culture; and
  3. A CEO from whom I could learn the business side.

It was clear to me that La-Z-Boy checked all three boxes. I really wanted to learn the business side of technology, and the private sector is where I wanted to go.

Did you have an interview strategy?

I have always had interview strategies in the past, but this time I didn’t because I didn’t have any expectation that they were going to select me. Even though they told me that leadership experience was far more important than industry experience, I still didn’t think I had any real chance. As a result, during the interviews I felt zero pressure. I was just myself, and it worked. I was genuine, and they were too, and we really just hit it off.

Was there a particularly memorable question you were asked during your interviews?

They asked me to explain my “philosophy about technology.” I remember thinking to myself, “this question is either going to get me the job or sink me.”  My response was something I had heard Governor Snyder say, and that I also believe strongly: “Standard good. Custom bad.” They laughed.

How did you prepare to start your new CIO role at La-Z-Boy?

La-Z-Boy was flexible on my start date so I took a vacation. I needed to decompress. My old job was very high pressure, and 24/7.

Who do you report to at La-Z-Boy?

The CEO, Kurt Darrow.

What is the headcount in IT?

110

From Day One, how did you learn this new industry?

The nice thing here was that they knew I was new to the industry, so the CEO and the team encouraged me to take my time, learn and meet people. I traveled to our plants, distribution centers, and retail stores. La-Z-Boy also has a really good onboarding process, and the outgoing CIO would be transitioning with me for nine months, which is pretty much unheard of. Then I just listened and was kind of quiet, and learned a lot. I’m still learning a lot, especially from my team in IT.

What changes did you want to make at first?

My vision was to come in and add a renewed focus on customer service. We are raising the bar across IT, but especially with regard to customer service which, to me, requires three things from the entire team:

  1. A sense of urgency;
  2. Accountability; and
  3. Personal responsibility

These are required of a world class IT team.

What else have you been working on?

We are finishing up an assessment of IT, working with a top consulting firm. It is a complete review of our current reality in IT, and the organizational structure – essentially the three key areas: people, process and technology. We are also looking at how to innovate as well.  I have engaged not only our executives in the assessment, but also my team. It has taken a lot of my time.

Will there be changes to the IT organization?

We are going to add Business Relationship Managers (BRMs), who will sit at the strategy table with our customers and be the liaison back to IT.

We will also hire or develop more highly qualified, certified project managers. I strongly believe that PMs need to be certified if they are taking on large, complex projects.

We will also put more of an emphasis on cyber security and ensuring our organization will have a culture of cyber awareness.

What is the biggest difference between your role as CIO for the State of Michigan, and CIO role for a commercial sector business such as La-Z-Boy?

The state CIO position was such a big job with many different components to it. I was also in many ways a Chief Administrative Officer (CAO). I spent 25% of my time on cybersecurity. We co-founded a cybersecurity initiative, the Cyber Resource Center in the National Governors Association with the state of Maryland. Besides operations, I was doing a lot of external things that placed demands on my time, like speaking and travel. For example, we had a huge partnership with Israel that focused on cyber security and water technology, with an additional focus on economic development.

Here at La-Z-Boy the focus is singular: we are helping transform houses into homes. The skillset is the same but the group is smaller and more manageable from a time perspective. I can have a more personal relationship with my entire team. Previously, I had to travel all over the state, doing town halls regionally just to be able to have face time with all 2,800 team members once year.

What does transformation mean at La-Z-Boy?

For us, transformation is about how we grow as a company and add more value for our customers, and what technology’s role is in that. In addition to reducing the cost of doing business, which is still important, how do innovation and new technologies transform the customer experience? We are going to stub our toes here and there, but if we focus on how technology can transform how we do business every day, in and beyond the supply chain, we will succeed and become a stronger company all around.

How do you know when your IT organization is succeeding?

It is pretty easy for me to envision. We are not there yet but we will be in 12 to 24 months. You want to be able to look at the scoreboard at any time to see how things are going, so first we need to define what our measurements are – our key performance indicators - then measure them. And, let’s measure ourselves against the best customer service companies in the world. I want this team acknowledged for being a great team, which includes awards and validation, but it is really about how the company is doing.

What new consumer technology do you find exciting personally?

I’m an Apple junkie, but I always wait a little while before getting the latest new products. I just got the iPhone 10. I am a big runner so I use all the health apps. I also love the fact that you can stream all your music, movies and TV programs now.

What advice do you have for rising IT executives who may wish to hold the CIO position one day?

The most important thing, I would say, is to be a mentor and a coach. The best thing any executive can do is make people better at what they do. My other piece of advice is to be humble, and to retain the humility that got you to where you are. When you are a CIO or other senior executive, people will often put you up on a pedestal. But it’s important to show people that you are a regular person, just like them.

About David Behen

David B. Behen joined La-Z-Boy, Inc. as Vice President and Chief Information Officer (CIO) in June 2017. Previously, Behen led the Information Technology organization for the State of Michigan as Chief Information Officer and Director of the Department of Technology, Management and Budget under Governor Rick Snyder from 2011 to 2017.

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