Going from selling cookies to selling tyres is an interesting learning challenge.
Just as there are ‘third culture’ kids, children raised in a culture or a country other than those of their parents and gaining a more open, global perspective of the world, there are many executives who share the same experience in their globetrotting careers.
That is, starting a career in their homeland or one region, then moving to other countries in various roles and industries, demonstrating how to take portable leadership skills and experience across the global economy.
Marcelo de Santis is one such executive. In his case, he took on executive business technology roles in Latin America, then moving to the United States, Europe and Asia Pacific.
At various times in de Santis’ career over the past two decades, a different country acted as a base for his global CIO roles.
His academic background and executive training programme is also diverse. He has a bachelor’s degree in computer sciences from the Universidad Argentina de la empresa, and has an MBA from IAE (Universidad Austral). He also postgraduate studies in business administration and digital marketing from Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University and Singapore National University.
This month, De Santis joined the tyre manufacturer Pirelli, best known as the exclusive tyre supplier for the Formula One championship, as global CIO.
De Santis is based in Milan, Italy, but will travel regularly, particularly to the United States and Asia.
His latest executive stop comes after 20 years in the CPG (consumer packaged goods) industry at Kraft Foods and Mondelez International, where he was CIO Asia Pacific, CIO North America and head of global IT strategy.
He shares his thoughts about transitioning to a new industry and country, the technologies in the CIO’s arsenal as organisations are striving to become more customer centric, and preparing for changes ahead in the CIO role.
CIO New Zealand: You are moving from one global CIO post to another. Tell us about your new role.
I am joining Pirelli as group CIO. I will be responsible to evolve technology, business and information to support the company’s vision to digitise its products, business model and end to end operation with a strong focus on leveraging advanced analytics. I am very excited about joining the Pirelli team; their passion for the brand and their commitment to innovation is highly contagious.
You spent 20 years in the consumer packaged goods industry. What are the experiences in the sector that you hope to bring into your new role?
I am in my early days in my CIO role at Pirelli and there is certainly so much to learn from a team that is extremely professional and successful; you might imagine that going from selling cookies to selling tyres is an interesting learning challenge.
However, my ‘consumer centric’ approach to develop and deliver digital strategies can be a valuable contribution to Pirelli. For instance, having worked on enabling marketing technologies to improve the return of digital marketing campaigns, the enablement of digital asset management platforms to ensure consistent brand presence in the E-commerce channel and the implementation of big data analytics to gain insights on our omnichannel consumer journey, are a few examples of experiences that can be leveraged to advance Pirelli’s consumer vision.
You have worked as a CIO in different countries. How do you prepare for this shift in each case?
I had the pleasure to work and live in Latin America, United States and Asia Pacific, so I developed a playbook in terms of transitioning to new roles and cultures.
First is about considering the opportunity not only from career perspective, but also from the family perspective. Sometimes it’s just not the right time to move and you need to make those choices early on. I do a lot of research around the future new location, while connecting with friends and colleagues that live or have lived there. I focus on learning about the culture, housing, transport, health-care, the ability to continue to enjoy my hobbies and extracurricular activities with my family, along with the political and economic situation of the country.
Second, I connect early on with my professional network – mainly through Linkedin - to get a reading on the country’s technology readiness, talent availability and any other specific company, market or industry conditions that might be useful to know in advance.
Third, and once I land in my new role, I spend a significant amount of time connecting with my boss, my new team, colleagues, peers, business partners to get to know them and learn about the company, the business and our main challenges and opportunities. Additionally, I align with my boss on my ‘100 day plan’ to make sure that I balance learning with doing.
Pirelli has been great in welcoming me to the ‘family’ and has provided a significant amount of support even before I arrived in Milan.
How has the role of CIO evolved over the past few years and how can they prepare for more shifts in the digital era?
The expectations on the CIO have shifted dramatically. It is not enough to deliver against pre-existing business requirements or SLA, but to redefine what is possible.
The so called ‘digital disruption’ - the proliferation of technologies like mobile, social, cloud and big data - allows the ecosystem of consumers, companies and business partners to interconnect and change established paradigms on how companies are operated, how brands engage their consumers and how business value is created for the whole ecosystem through a combination of physical and digital products.
In this environment, we have the opportunity to become ‘business innovation ambassadors’. While demonstrating how these new technologies can deliver business value in the form of revenue growth, margin improvement, consumer engagement and employee collaboration.
In order to deliver to these expectations, it is critical we rethink talent needs, organisational operating model, system architecture and IT partnerships that can deliver agile innovation, and still continue to provide the sound, compliant and efficient ICT (information and communication technologies) foundational services.
I think great CIOs will keep their companies from being disrupted from the outside-in, through leading the disruption from the inside-out.
From your experience, what are new challenges CIOs face today that they did not have in the past five years?
To me the main challenge is enacting a cultural change in our companies. Delivering rapid innovation takes the whole organisation - not only in information and communications - to embrace a culture of experimentation to deal with projects with ambiguous scope, ambiguous ROI and delivered in small increments leveraging agile methodologies.
On the technology side, it’s establishing a flexible and responsive cloud-based system architecture that enables a ‘Lego Approach’ for business capability building.
This architecture should also enable partner integration through APIs, as well as advanced analytics technologies that can process, analyse, enrich and visualise business insights.
On the financial side, the challenge is that cost pressure is always on and many of the new capabilities will require a self-funding approach.
The good news here is that digital technologies require less upfront investment than the traditional legacy systems and companies are learning to adopt industry solutions to speed up innovation, and enable collaboration with other partners in their ecosystems.
Finally, digital talent availability is becoming a real challenge across industries, since practically we are all requiring the same type of skills. While augmenting capability through the right partnerships is a fair solution, building the internal digital team is a must and might require building those teams in locations closer to the digital talent pools to maximise talent attraction and retention.
Can you please detail your experience on helping an organisation move towards the digital era?
In my previous role at Mondelez I had the pleasure to be part of a cross-functional team – CGO, CMO, HR and CIO - that was responsible for defining the strategy to take advantage of the digital revolution. It was a great journey to go, from talking about digital in general terms, to the point of having a clear understanding of what business outcomes we wanted to enable. This is in regards to top and bottom-line growth and also establishing a new digital culture and agile ways of working.
As part of changing the culture, I established the Millennial Alliance. This was an employee resource group that brought together millennial employees from North America and Asia Pacific, to develop strategies around Talent Development, Digital Culture and Digital Marketplace, to accelerate cultural shift to a ‘be-digital’ enterprise.
On the technology side; we enabled a set of platforms to provide insights to our digital marketing and e-commerce teams.
On one side, we piloted a data management platform for marketers to access consumer journey data, so they can create targeting segments to improve digital advertising campaigns and to assist programmatic buying. On the other side, we enable big data analytics - supported by Hadoop and Alteryx - to combine external data feeds and monitor how our brands and products perform across online channels.
Delivering rapid innovation takes the whole organisation to embrace a culture of experimentation to deal with projects with ambiguous scope, ambiguous ROI and delivered in small increments leveraging agile methodologies.
How can CIOs prepare their team for the new skills needed for the digital era?
I do not think there is recipe. There is a need to educate your team around digital trends, Agile, DevOps. But it’s also important that we provide them with opportunities to get hands-on exposure to digital experiences, (for example visiting digital native companies, collaborating with startups and so on). The reality is that – unless you are a digital native company, you will need to acquire some digital talent to support the critical digital initiatives in the company.
On the flip side, defining and building the right partnerships is also extremely critical and it might be good to combine the traditional, big ICT partners with smaller, digital native partners. Remember that employees and consumers are at the heart of the so called ‘digital transformation’.
Tell us more about your other role - as a volunteer for UNICEF.
I volunteered for UNICEF seven years ago, when I discovered that around 15,000 children die everyday due to causes that we can prevent. Most of the time they are deprived of basic necessities, like clean water or vaccinations that cost a few cents of a dollar; in other cases they are also denied an education and forced into labour and armed conflict.
It touched my heart that millions of children will be excluded or ignored because of discrimination and poverty. My volunteer work for UNICEF has been mainly about organising fundraising campaigns, combining those campaigns with my passion for mountain climbing.
It is extremely energising to contribute to make this world a better place.
My links to New Zealand go back to my time with Adventure Consultants for my first alpine climbing course in the Southern Alps; after that I fell in love with mountains and New Zealand.
The only advice I can provide is: Find a cause that is close to your heart, something that you think you are passionate to contribute, something that you would like to leave as a legacy to this world.
Once you have decided, tell others about your mission; you will be surprised how many people will offer their support.
It is extremely energising to contribute to make this world a better place.
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