Ron Blahnik explains how his varied background, including both military and private sector careers, has enabled him to lead organizations going through challenging changes.

Ron Blahnik’s path to CIO started in 1977, when as a high school senior he decided he wanted to become an IT executive.

He did not waver from that goal as he built his career.

He enlisted in the US Army, where he trained to be a computer programmer and analyst and held a series of roles with increasing responsibility during his 20-plus years of active duty and then Army Reserves service. He retired as a chief warrant officer in 2004.

Blahnik’s private sector roles include 11 years as an Electronic Data Systems consultant and a 15-year stint at Lowe’s Companies Inc., where he ultimately served as vice president of IT infrastructure services.

He then had his own consulting firm for six years, which resulted in him landing his first CIO title in 2011, when he joined Hudson’s Bay Co., a Canadian retail business group. He went on to work for The Home Depot, first as a CTO services consultant and then as senior director of IT operations and shared services. 

Blahnik is now CIO at retailer Hibbett Sports, which he joined in 2016. Blahnik led the company’s digital transformation, launching its first-ever e-commerce site in 2017. He helped guide its 2018 acquisition and integration of City Gear, an upscale seller of specialty athletic footwear, apparel, and accessories. And he co-steered the company through the Covid-era disruptions.

Blahnik spoke with The Heller Report in June 2024 about his unusually expansive list of responsibilities as Hibbett’s CIO, the value of being “uncomfortably comfortable,” and how Hollerith Punch Card Code set him on his professional path. His comments are lightly edited for length and clarity.

Mary K. Pratt: Your title, CIO and SVP of strategy, innovation, customer experience and retail analytics, is particularly long. Can you tell me about how that came to be?

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Ron Blahnik: When I was hired, IT reported to finance and I was a vice president. But over time and as the company grew, the CIO role was expanded. I became a direct report to the CEO and was promoted to senior vice president. I was given strategy as part of that. But unlike many CIOs who have responsibility only for IT strategy, I have responsibility for corporate strategy.

Similarly, the innovation in my title isn’t about IT innovation; it is focused on business process innovation and change.

Now the biggest part of my job is spending time with my business partners and helping them evolve their organizations, their capabilities and their offerings.

I also should point out that the customer experience responsibility is now being moved back to our merchandising organization, so I am going to drop that from my title. However, if you had interviewed me two years ago, I also had supply chain in my title. When the pandemic hit, we realized that supply chain challenges were going to be the biggest source of disruption for the business. So, because of my process-oriented background, I was given responsibility for maintaining the flow of goods to our stores and making that flow happen faster.

Why list all these specific responsibilities in your title?

The general impression is that CIOs are responsible for the technology strategy and that they then roll that up to a strategic business plan. However, I own that strategic plan for the business, and so the IT strategy and IT initiatives are a byproduct of the business strategy, as opposed to IT trying to say, “Here is the next shiny penny and we need to chase that.” In fact, if I could solve a business need without a piece of technology, I am all for it. That is why it is called out in my title.

It is the same thinking with innovation, because I am focused on business innovation, not just technology innovation. And it is similar thinking with the other responsibilities listed in my title.

The shift in reporting structure speaks to a longstanding topic of discussion among CIOs. Do you think reporting to the CEO is critical for CIOs to be successful?

The reporting structure is incredibly important, because if you as CIO are reporting to someone other than the CEO and then are one step away from the room where everything happens, then all you can do is react. But if you are in the room where everything is happening, you can bring more value.

However, I did not let the fact that I reported to a CFO keep me from talking to his peers to make sure that I understood how I could support them better from a technology perspective. That led to really deep and meaningful conversations about the business strategy, merchandising, operations, supply chain, logistics, human capital, financial controls and analysis.

Does it take a certain skill or mindset to adjust to the multiple shifts in responsibilities as CIO?

Yes, there is a challenge associated with that change, and there are long hours associated with that. But you do what you need to do to help the company succeed. But change is a cornerstone function of any CIO role, and not just technology change but also organizational change. So it is important not to be afraid of changes.

At Hibbett we call this being uncomfortably comfortable. If you are comfortable today, you need a little more responsibility and you need more challenges.

It is not necessary that you live on the edge and be wringing your hands all the time, but a little bit of the unknown forces you to put that thinking cap on, talk to people, and figure stuff out. That is how you move forward. Otherwise, things can get stagnant. In fact, if my role were the same today as it was when I was hired in 2016, I would not still be here. 

How did you learn to be comfortable with being uncomfortable?

I spent close to 16 years in consulting, and in consulting you are constantly faced with the new and the unknown, and that creates a lot of uncomfortable situations. So you learn how to deal with them.

 

Related article:

My CIO Career: Frank Iannella, CIO of Heineken USA, on Learning How to Lead Change

 

What key experiences prepared you for where you are now?

There are three.

The first is the military. I was one of nine children in my family growing up, and because I was not going to have support or scholarships to go to college even though I was a straight-A student, the military was my route to an education. The military focuses on discipline, mission and accomplishment. It also focuses on learning from experiences – learning from what works and what does not and then applying those lessons. The military has After-Action Reviews, so even if something went well, you and the team can consider how it could have gone better, and if something did not go well, you can ask why it did not and what we could do differently next time. That is how people grow. I completed my associate degree during my initial enlistment. I was also constantly being thrown into things over the 20 years I spent in the military. I spent time in military intelligence, psychological operations and ordinance. My last tour was as a senior warrant officer in Iraq in 2003, during which I ran the largest captured enemy ammunitions facility in theater. We had not done that since World War II, so there was no one I could ask about how to do this. I established a doctrine and put governance in place and leveraged the best skills and knowledge of the folks on my team, so I could find a way to bring home all the people that went over with me.

The second key role was my consulting experience. I spent 11 years as an account manager with Electronic Data Systems. If you survived more than three years with EDS, you were considered king, because it was definitely a churn-and-burn organization where you were working 70 hours a week. For my first account I was in charge of consolidating 33 facilities into 18 information processing centers over a three-year timeframe. There was not a night or weekend that we were not working. What I learned through that was to work smarter, not harder; to stay true to your course, that you cannot let up; and to be tenacious about the outcome.

The third was my work at Lowe’s. I spent 15 years there. I went from a project manager to the vice president of architecture and engineering. I became involved with strategy there, and I was asked to build out an analytics program.

How did you decide as a teenager that you wanted to be a CIO?

I took a computer class my senior year of high school and learned Hollerith Punch Card Code. That is math and patterns; it makes sense. And I just fell in love with that. So I did some research and thought about what I was going to do for a career and with my life. Certainly, technology was just burgeoning, and I saw it had so much potential. After I researched positions to learn about the top job in the field, I made becoming CIO my goal. I never wavered from it. You have to set long-term goals and recognize that there are a bunch of interim goals to get there.

You returned to college to earn a bachelor’s in IT in 2018, after earning some college credits earlier in life and attending Wake Forest University and Harvard Business School executive education programs. Why?

I am a lifelong learner. When I went back to college in 2016, someone asked me, “Why would you do that? You don’t need this.” I said because I go to college campuses to recruit, and if you do not know what they are doing, how am I going to lead them? You have to refresh skills.

Do you have any other big accomplishments that you would like to highlight?

My daughter and my wife were training for a January Disney World marathon, but my wife suffered a stress fracture in her foot on Thanksgiving. So, after 45 days of training, I ran that marathon with my daughter. Running a marathon is one of those things that is about a mental process. Yes, it is about the physical and endurance, but it is about strength of mind, knowing what you want and being relentless in the pursuit of that. Ten years later, I am still running.

What thoughts would you share with up-and-coming professionals?

Recognize that if you are going to run a hundred yards on a track, you are going to run in a straight line because there are no obstacles. But if you are on a football field, you may have to zig and zag, but as long as you stay within the left-and-right bounds and you advance the ball, then you win. So do not worry about the long shot all at once. Take a measured approach. Just move the chains in your career. Be curious; never lose that. On the first day of your job start working your way toward your next job, by making sure you are preparing someone to take yours – because it is about being available, not just being the most qualified. Be humble. Stay humble. There are a lot of successful people who have huge egos, but people do not generally enjoy working with them or for them. 

 

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