How Tech Leaders Can Start to Think Like CEOs

At a recent CNBC Productivity@Work event, CEOs from Panera Bread and AMD discussed their transition from being IT leaders to CEOs, how to convey the value of complex technology in straightforward business terms, and how to be a leader who drives real progress.

How do you translate your technology vision into a CEO title? Communicating and actively avoiding distractions are key, but there’s more to it than that.

At a recent Productivity@Work event in New York, the second of a three-part CNBC series examining how new technology affects human resources, IT, and finance, Blaine Hurst, president and CEO, Panera Bread, and Dr. Lisa Su, president and CEO, AMD, discussed their transition from IT leaders to the top job, how to convey the value of complex technology in straightforward business terms, and how to be a leader who drives real progress.

Landing the CEO Role

Jon Fortt, co-anchor of the CNBC program “Squawk Alley,” started the conversation by asking panelists about their path to becoming CEO. Su, who was previously the CTO at Freescale Semiconductor, explained that the real transition in shifting from being a CTO to a CEO is about decision making, which can set the stage for the next few years at an organization.

“It’s important to have a good feel for what the key drivers for innovation are going to be down the road,” she said. “Do you ever know you’re going to be CEO? Perhaps not, but you know you have a passion for the industry and a passion for changing things in the industry.”

By contrast, Hurst’s background is in the restaurant world. He had been the president of Papa John’s, and then went into business for himself, opening his own barbecue restaurant. Hurst joined Panera as a tech consultant in 2011 to help improve what the team realized was a poor guest experience, with excessive lines and a long wait “in a mosh pit” before customers got their food. “We found that the degree of friction the consumer had would overcome their desire to eat at Panera,” he said.

Hurst thought he was going to be a Panera franchisee, but Ron Shaich, Panera’s founder, had a different idea: He viewed this poor customer experience as an opportunity to use technology to enable a better guest solution and he wanted Hurst’s help, which resulted in what Hurst has called Panera 2.0. “My job was to figure out how to get it done, make it happen, and then continue to evolve it. I did not expect to end up in the role I’m in, by any stretch of the imagination,” said Hurst.

Evolving Leadership Approach

Both Su and Hurst admit that their tactics evolved over time when they had to communicate to CEOs or to board members about strategy. When you have a technology background, Su explained, it’s easy to take for granted that people understand what you’re talking about, when in fact they may not. The best tech leaders, she said, know that “there’s a real art to translating what you know to be obvious to someone who isn’t as deep in your knowledge and profession. They don’t actually want to know the 100 steps, they just want to know that [your decision] is the right thing for the business and that you understand what the business needs.”

Su also finds it helpful to think about her job in broader terms. If you’re a CIO or a CTO, for example, “offer to go with your head of sales to a customer event. Or offer to sit in on some of the business operational reviews; understand the challenge and how we can use technology to help solve that challenge. The job scope isn’t just getting the technology right; it’s understanding what technology is needed to help the business grow.”

Hurst agreed. “Great CIOs and CTOs try to out-think where the business is going. You have to work really fast behind the scenes sometimes to keep up, but at the end of the day, the only thing that matters if you’re a CIO or a CTO is, ‘did you help the CEO move the business forward?'”

Intuition, Not Fear

Particularly at tech companies, said Su, leaders really do have to make decisions without knowing what the answer is. “We bet hundreds of millions of dollars in one direction, and we’re betting that in three or four years it’ll pay off and be the right product and the right thing for users,” she said. “It’s helpful to have some underlying intuition about whether it’s the right thing or not. You don’t have to be an expert in every field; I’m certainly not an expert in every tech field. But at least you can ask the right questions and that helps make the right business decisions.”

Hurst’s approach includes avoiding consensus and distractions. “I believe that transformational change requires a smaller team with the freedom to make mistakes without fear. As a CEO, I’m continuing to try to embrace that philosophy. In the first two years I spent most of my time in a Panera café, near Fenway Park in Boston. I skipped meetings. They were a distraction to getting the mission accomplished,” he said.

“If you’re a CIO or a CEO and you really want change, don’t try to do it by consensus,” he continued. “Get people who are focused, have the talent in a room, and turn them loose.”

Workday is the founding sponsor for this CNBC @Work event series.

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