Secrets of CIOs Unmasked

It is an exciting time in hospitality — and for business in general. The lines between being a company and being a technology company become increasingly blurry, as businesses focus on keeping up with the rapid pace of innovation. To many, the CIO is the hero the hospitality industry needs to bring balance and unity to the enterprise. Hospitality Technology played Lois Lane to its subscriber list of CIO superheroes, be they Superman, Wonder Woman or Batman to find out: what special powers they regularly wield; their corporate kryptonite and how they battle it; and what technology they think has the most potential in the near future.  
Super CIO’s arch-nemesis: 

Security & supporting a nimble innovative enterprise
With hospitality remaining a favored target for hackers, security concerns perpetually weigh heavily on the minds of technology leaders. Balancing strategic investments in technology and innovation with the need to protect against complex cybersecurity threats and changing data privacy regulations is increasingly challenging. CIOs are often tasked with concerns and duties that would be better defined as part of a CISO role, a pattern that will likely continue. 

For Joe Tenczar, CIO, Sonny’s BBQ, the biggest challenge he faces as CIO is mitigating risk. “I love the innovation of technology and aligning it with the company’s vision. Unfortunately, innovation can also be used to the detriment of the company,” he explains. “Practically every day there is a new threat to the security of our infrastructure, our intellectual property, or our guests’ personal information. I try to limit risk by housing data in highly-protected cloud storage and limiting the sensitive information that passes through our systems.”

When not battling the issue of security, CIOs wrestle with how to lead a technology team while having a seat at the table to discuss the big picture and the role technology must play. Barry Shufeld, interim CIO of Hurricane Grill & Wings, admits that “keeping the CEO focused on IT strategic initiatives,” is often a cause of consternation.
“Keeping up with the speed of technological advancement is a constant challenge,” Laura Rea Dickey, CEO (former CIO), of Dickey’s Barbecue, states. “As a technology leader in the industry, there is pressure to be constantly forward-focused. There is always a new innovation or trend, and so many factors to weigh when considering if a solution makes sense for your system: cost-effectiveness, scalability, agility.

“There is a challenge of how to deliver the kind of service and products the business requires while ownership demands cost reductions,” Brian Garavuso, executive vice president & CIO, Diamond Resorts International, agrees.

Tackling such challenges requires CIOs to have a “split-brain” approach to the enterprise. This allows IT to control mission critical systems while fostering a collaborative atmosphere where others in the organization can play an active role in innovation and rapidly adopt new technology. 
Superpowers of Future-Ready Tech Leaders: Adaptability & Communication 
Today’s CIOs must be equal parts “visionary and general contractor,” according to Ames Flynn, executive vice president & CIO, Extended Stay America. Flynn asserts that CIOS must be quixotic and “stay ahead of business partners in terms of creating an architecture, infrastructure, talent and IT capabilities that can respond quickly to business needs.” He advises blending this with the traits of a general contractor that “can recruit and motivate talent, enlist strong vendors, communicate plans clearly and deliver projects on-time and on- or under-budget while working collaboratively across many constituents.”

Tenczar echoes the importance for future-ready leaders to possess a general business acumen, citing that IT leaders cannot hide behind technical knowledge. “They must be able to use the same vernacular as the other company leaders to describe how technology should be aligned with business goals,” he says. “I find myself talking concepts for solutions rather than specific technologies. That way, non-technical people can understand the method instead of getting lost in acronyms and tech-speak.”

One executive, who preferred to remain anonymous, believes that future-ready IT leaders “must be intensely curious about the latest trends and 'disruptors,' both inside and outside the industry.” Even more important, he believes that successful IT leaders must be able to evaluate these trends for potential business opportunities and impact. IT leaders best positioned to do this not only have technical knowledge and experience, but also strong business acumen and analytical skills.

The rapid pace of digital disruption in the industry has made adaptability a critical skill for CIOs. Several executives stressed that the ability to be flexible is essential.  

“You must possess the desire to continuously learn new technologies and drive adoption as they evolve,” Vivek Shaiva, CIO & senior vice president, La Quinta Inns & Suites, asserts.

Dickey agrees that flexibility and context are the two most significant skills for IT leadership, followed closely by communication. “As IT leaders, we have to avoid being rigid to meet evolving business needs, and then understand the context of our technology to improve it beyond what is initially requested,” she explains. “Communicate effectively so there is successful user adoption. Communication is crucial for bridging the gap with non-tech individuals. Speak their language, instead of asking that they speak yours.”
Tech Isn’t  a Fortress of Solitude: Prioritize  “IT” as Integral Part of Overall Biz Strategy
The leaders queried agree that IT executives must take a holistic approach for IT to be viewed as a way to support the entire enterprise. IT cannot exist in a silo. The IT leader must support the larger goals of the business with an immense knowledge of not only technology, but bigger picture service and processes. This will require an IT professional willing and ready to collaborate and promote an atmosphere that encourages reciprocation from other department heads. 

One CIO of a 200+ property corporate-owned restaurant company offered his viewpoint that he refuses to be in a “keep the lights on” situation and therefore will only work for an organization that values the strategic contributions from IT. 

“Even if the organization doesn’t understand technology, you have to get them to understand that technology is an enabler across the board,” he says. “Every single department and project has a technology component that should be considered. Find the wins, the low-hanging fruit, solve the age-old problems, build credibility, figure out how to make people’s lives easier.”

Shaiva believes that CIOs should focus on understanding business strategy and how technology can help drive business results. He recommends having a formal process to foster collaboration that is signed off on by the CEO. Scott Scherer, CIO, Jersey Mike’s Franchise Systems agrees that IT is an integral part of any business strategy. For a CIO to be successful, Scherer believes a key trait is the ability to understand all aspects of the business and how to use IT to take each area to the next level.

“I think of myself as an investment advisor for the company’s technology investment portfolio,” admits Jeffrey Kent, CIO, American Blue Ribbon Holdings, a franchisor of multiple restaurant brands. “My job is to understand the business’ investment goals and tolerance for risk.”

For Dickey, the definition of leadership brings to mind a Latin phrase, “Aut viam Inveniam aut faciam,” which translates to, “I will find a way or make one.” 

“I think that is particularly true for CIOs,” she says. “Find a path and develop it better or see the path others have overlooked and develop there. Balance that with simplicity and an evolve-or-fail outlook, and you have a solid leadership philosophy.”
Counteracting Business Kryptonite: Super CIOs Share Top Leadership Habits
Successful technology leaders have adopted best practices that work for them in their organization. These rituals range from being involved strategically from the beginning of any project and not after the fact, to building relationships both internally and externally. One CIO of a corporate hotel chain, whose decisions impact roughly 1200 properties, believes it’s important to find ways to stay connected to technology initiatives that are being implemented. “I select one to two projects that I still ‘own,’” he says. 

Balancing ownership of projects with delegating is an ability that successful CIOs must come to master. Tenczar suggests making it a habit to run every significant decision through a value filter. This initial assessment will not only help to prioritize, but allows CIOs to decide whether or not something demands personal attention or can be delegated.

Keeping up with the rapid pace of change is a top challenge for CIOs, but also a key goal to ensure success. La Quinta’s Shaiva admits that he is in a permanent state of learning when it comes to technology. “Technology leaders cannot afford to stand still and need to hone and sharpen their technology skills on a permanent basis — even at the CIO level,” he stresses. “Technology leaders should not just be adaptable to change — rather they need to have a high desire to lead innovation and change.”
Tech Utility Belt: CIOs Identify Top Tech Trends 
Mobility has clearly left its mark on society and all industries. Guests are more connected than ever and CIOs agree that this is a trend that will continue and grow. This has revolutionized how brands interact with customers and has put digital engagement at the top of strategic goals for technology for both restaurants and hotels.  

“Our guests can now search, purchase, and engage with us all on their own terms,” one CIO from a major hotel chain notes. “This presents a tremendous opportunity and challenge to continually evolve and improve all customer touch points to meet their expectations from a technical and service perspective.”

Thinking longer-term, CIOs are looking to data and analytics as a technology with the power to effect great change. Flynn sees this growing exponentially with the Internet of Things, generating new types of information from guests via connected devices. “It is already driving robotics, driverless cars, artificial intelligence, medical advancements, and new business opportunities,” he asserts. 

One CIO respondent from a corporate hotel brand, whose decisions impact thousands of  locations, believes that data management and insights will be a driving force in his business. “Real-time analytics will play a role in every transaction we execute within our environment and leveraged in some way to drive revenues for our franchisees.”

CIOs are excited about taking data and analytics to the next level with the rise of the machines….machine learning, that is. One CIO from the restaurant industry expressed that not just having access to big data, but having machines learn from it and make recommendations, will have major potential for businesses from staffing, pricing, and when/if to discount and how. The CIO of a luxury hotel group with 30+ properties under her purview, foresees guided machine learning, particularly in back-of-house, having the potential to streamline highly repetitive tasks.  

Artificial intelligence is also garnering excitement with voice applications — especially from the guest perspective.  “There are many issues to overcome but I think there is potential,” Garavuso states.  

Laura Rea Dickey is less hesitant and sees voice smart appliances as the next evolution in fast casual technology. “These tools are completely revolutionizing the kitchen, and what is really exciting is how user-friendly they are,” she says. “Speak instead of type, is the first truly kitchen friendly tech I’ve seen. Our goal is for our systems to be easily voice accessible, so folks can speak to their tech needs for data while continuing to pay most of their attention to more important tasks.” HT

Great Power, Great Responsibility: Leadership Advice
Build trust with everyone that you want to follow you. If others don’t trust you, nothing else matters in terms of trying to be a good leader. This means holding true to values, telling the truth, being accountable and transparent, putting others before yourself, keeping confidences, promoting others, not talking behind someone’s back, keeping your commitments and being humble. 
— Ames Flynn, EVP & CIO, Extended Stay America
Begin with the end in mind. You have to be a consultant to the business, everyone is in customer service, align your projects and goals to the strategy of the company, and don’t be afraid to fail — just do it fast.
— Anonymous Restaurant CIO
Learn when to stop a project or initiative, even if it’s expensive or important.
 — Anonymous Hotel CIO
Operate IT as a consultancy. 
— Jeffrey Kent, CIO, American Blue Ribbon Holdings
Don’t be afraid to make a mistake. Learn from your mistakes but don’t make them again. 
— Barry Shufeld, Interim CIO, Hurricane Grill & Wings
Listen! Seek to understand the real issue before you try to solve it. 
— Brian Garavuso, EVP & CIO, Diamond Resorts International 
Do the right thing and be guided by your values; be bold in your vision; and trust in your team, and be open to learning from others. 
— Anonymous Hotel CIO
Our company’s leader always emphasized the importance of listening. By actively listening to my team, customers, and business partners, I get a true sense of what’s working, what’s not, and receive new ideas and suggestions. I also make it a point to loop back and let my colleagues and customers know that I’ve heard what they had to say, and that I appreciate and will try to act on their feedback. This ensures the conversation keeps going, and we keep improving together. 
— Anonymous Hotel CIO
Listen, read and be curious. The best habit is to have a curious and open mind, followed closely by a good sense of humor. 
— Laura Rea Dickey, CEO (former CIO), Dickey’s Barbecue
SuperCIO Code: 5 Primary Responsibilities 

  1. Develop overall business strategy and related IT vision and strategy 
  2. Build  and motivate a highly capable IT team 
  3. Ensure the IT vision, plans and goals are clearly communicated to and supported by all constituents internal and external to the company
  4. Empower IT staff with the capabilities and processes necessary to deliver on plans
  5. Lead the IT team to be valued business partners, not just technicians