Rebecca Straka spent 22 years at Weyerhaeuser, then left the company for 10 years before they invited her to return as their new CIO.
Steve Rovniak: Can you provide a brief background on your career before joining Weyerhaeuser as CIO?
Rebecca Straka: I had spent 22 years at Weyerhaeuser earlier in my career, in a progression of business and technology roles. From there I went to a technology services company called Zones. Coming out of Weyerhaeuser, it was a good move for me to work for a technology company. I joined as Director of Business Process improvement and was promoted to VP of Operations. It gave me a great opportunity to really see business operations firsthand and get a better understanding of supply chain, customer engagement and sales. I wanted to become more well-rounded, and to get experience on both the IT and business sides.
I was recruited from Zones to REI, the outdoor recreation and sporting goods retailer, for an enterprise technology leadership role. This was a great opportunity for me in a different industry, for a company that was going through a major transformation. We would also transform IT to support the organization by adding new business capabilities through technology and connecting IT strategies to business strategies.
I had lots of great opportunities within REI, but this opportunity with Weyerhaeuser came up and that was really part of my overall career goal, to step up to a CTO or CIO role.
What made you feel you were ready for a CIO role?
I think there were a couple triggers. At REI, the CIO left for another company, and I ended up taking the interim CIO role. This gave me the opportunity to be a part of the senior leadership team, leading the IT organization, driving the strategy, and driving employee engagement. And I think it was then when I felt, "I'm ready for this. I can do this. I have the skills."
I received great feedback from the REI team. They needed somebody with more retail experience for the permanent CIO, and I agreed with their conclusion, but that was the point where I said to myself, "If I'm going to do it, this is the time to make that change."
How did you hear about the CIO opening at Weyerhaeuser?
Through networking. I had been at Weyerhaeuser for nearly 23 years, then I was gone for 10 years. I continued to keep up with my connections there, and when the CIO role opened, they called me. That is the power of keeping up with your connections, continuing the good discussions and touchpoints. I think it's really important in one's career to do so.
Weyerhaeuser Co. (NYSE: WY, $6.6B) engages in the manufacture, distribution and sale of forest products. The company was founded in 1900 and is headquartered in Seattle, WA.
Because you had worked at Weyerhaeuser all those years, did you feel like you knew this role, or had there been a great deal of change since you’d left?
It was drastically different. Weyerhaeuser had been was a $23 billion Fortune 100 company with 55,000 people. But during the 10 years when I was gone, they had changed into a real estate investment trust and had sold off a large part of their business portfolio. So, it was a very different company.
I did know the person who I now report to, from before, but we didn't work together closely. The whole senior executive team was new except for her. However, I knew some of the people who are now on my staff from before.
What was Weyerhaeuser looking for in their new CIO?
Their previous CIO left and they needed someone to come in, after several years of business restructuring and a large merger, who could build the IT organization and take it to the next level. So, the need was to build a team that could come to the table as thought leaders, drive innovation, and implement key strategies.
They needed somebody who understood the supply chain and who could come to the senior leadership team with clear ideas on how to bring in technology that would support the business strategy. The wording that they used was, “an inspirational leader.”
What convinced you that this was the role for you, your first CIO role?
I consider myself a transformational leader, an inspirational leader. And I like to raise people up and build outstanding organizations. And I really felt like this was a great opportunity to do just that. We had great people, and with a couple of strategic new hires, I knew we could do great things.
The business was asking for IT to come to the table and be technology thought leaders. There was just a lot of opportunity to build and grow, and that's what appealed to me.
Looking back, how would you say the arrival of COVID-19 less than three months into your tenure affected your plans?
It didn't necessarily impact the plans from a projects perspective. We still had a large project portfolio; a few were slowed down but everything else moved forward. It certainly changed the way I was being onboarded back into the company in terms of meeting people and traveling to the various business locations. It was really on me to make sure I set up calls with my colleagues to create relationship-building opportunities.
Luckily, Weyerhaeuser had made some good investments, so we did not have issues transitioning to work-from-home; that was very, very smooth. But the big change was really, "How are we going to manage these large projects when we're not all in the same room?" It really changed the way we worked – we had to become deliberate about frequent touchpoints to keep communication flowing; we had to learn to virtually on-board contractors who were new to our environment as well as to virtually test and implement the various systems projects. That was the biggest impact.
We've been able to deliver all of our projects. We've been able to build out a strategic workforce plan, technical investment roadmaps, all in this new reality, which we are proud of.
As a leader, did you find yourself having to lean on new skills or acquire new ones to be effective?
I leaned on my natural ability to interact with people and communicate. It forced me be very deliberate, especially around touching base not only with my direct reports and my peers, but also having more skip level meetings with team members. Video definitely helps. Sometimes I’d send someone an IM, "Hey, how are you doing?", especially if I’d heard they were struggling working from home and feeling disconnected from the team.
Who do you report to?
The Chief Administrative Officer
What is the headcount in IT?
Was anything in crisis mode or “on fire” when you arrived?
Nothing was on fire. Weyerhaeuser had already invested to resolve some infrastructure and applications technical debt. That was a nice place to start. It allowed me to focus more on where we were going next—on building out our bench strength, and focusing on the strategic roadmap and larger programs.
What was next? What were the larger strategic opportunities?
The digital investment is really around the connected supply chain. We grow trees and we manufacture wood products such as lumber and structural beams for buildings: connecting seedlings to the customer. So for me, it is about creating and executing three- to five-year roadmaps aligned with business strategy in areas such as finance, planning, transportation, and CRM. We have a large opportunity to digitize many of aspects of those.
Going hand in hand with our digital transformation is a focus on automation/AI/ML, and on data management and analytics. There's a lot of opportunity in our environment to automate business processes, and leverage data to help us make better, faster decisions.
What progress have you been able to make?
First, we were able to complete the strategic IT roadmaps aligned with business strategies, which was a major deliverable. We've been able to successfully implement a few large programs that had started before I had arrived: application migration to the cloud, new SAP finance program, and real estate system. I've been very impressed with our team being able to accomplish all of this during the pandemic.
We've been able to make good progress on understanding the technology skills that we are going to need in the future. Exactly what are those skills and how do we get ahead of the new technology? Who do we need to retrain, and for what exactly?
What changes have you made to the IT org structure, or to roles?
I re-established a centralized enterprise architecture team and PMO, which I felt was especially important at time of investment in technology. I've also done some restructuring that combines functions together for efficiency.
What are the keys to attracting and retaining top IT talent in a very competitive marketplace?
We have been very lucky. We've hired some top talent during this time, and I attribute this success to a few things. One is really stepping out and being part of the community; getting our message out about our company's commitment to sustainability, our high ethics, and our investments in IT.
It takes work. You only have a few chances to attract really good talent, so you absolutely must be very engaged and enthusiastic. It is important to get your people interested and excited about projects and the work they're doing; they become part of the recruitment efforts. It's just a never-ending process.
How do you know when your IT organization is succeeding?
When I hear comments from my business colleagues about things that have worked, and about where they are now compared to the past, that really helps me determine whether or not we're making progress. I mean, you can track a project, you can track an SLA, but it is different when business colleagues are saying, "This really worked and as a result, we're really seeing X, Y and Z results."
Also, we’re succeeding when people start reaching out to say, "We starting work on something big and I want to make sure that we engage with IT now." Getting invited to the party is a sign that we are building trust with people. That has to be earned and it takes work to do it, but I've already seen that start to happen with activities that we have going on. We're making good progress.
What does Weyerhaeuser plan to do regarding working-from-home after the worst of the pandemic is behind us?
We haven't finalized it yet, but we will be more flexible in terms of working from home. All our headquarters and regional office staff is working from home right now, and it's working well.
It is important for attracting new employees and it is important for retaining current employees. Employees are asking for work from home to continue. A large number of them are going to be eligible for retirement in the next three years, and location flexibility is a key that could encourage some individuals to stay longer.
What advice do you have for IT leaders who are interested to find their next great CIO job?
My advice is to make sure they are continuously building and connecting with their network, and participating in different events. I've participated and met people from all over the country. It is something that shouldn’t been done only when they're looking for a new job; they have to continually to keep that up. And when they see any opportunity, they should be very deliberate about stating what they want and what they're looking for, and being open to any feedback they might get.
Good CIO positions are few and far between. They might have to take a small step backwards to get into a company where there's the opportunity to eventually get to that next position. Or, it might mean moving to a different location for a desired role.
About Rebecca Straka
Rebecca Straka is CIO of Weyerhaeuser, a timber, land and forest products company. Earlier in her career she spent 22 years in business and IT positions at Weyerhaeuser. Before returning to the company in December 2019, she was VP IT - Enterprise Technology and Shared Services at REI. She earned a BA in Business from Washington State University, and a Master’s degree in Business, Management and Leadership from Western Governors University.