Our latest episode of Mayfield’s CXO of the Future podcast features Jon Harding, the Global CIO of Conair Corporation, where he has worldwide responsibility for Conair’s IT in support of future business growth as well as day to day operations. They are a multi-billion-dollar company focused on small appliances, personal care products, and health and beauty for professionals and consumers.
Listen to the podcast here:
Prior, Jon was Director of IT for the U.S. Snacks Division of Kellogg Company (formerly the Keebler Company) that Kellogg’s acquired in 2001, and additionally held various IT leadership positions within their U.K. and European subsidiaries. From 1999 – 2001, he was the overall leader of a major business processes and systems change initiative for Kellogg’s Europe.
In 2013, Consumer Goods Technology magazine named Jon a visionary based on his innovative Marketing IT project which transformed Conair’s ability to provide timely insights on consumer buying trends for their products.
Jon has a Bachelor of Science with special honors in Applied Mathematics and Computing Science from the University of Sheffield in England.
Jon grew up in the United Kingdom near Manchester. While at the University of Sheffield, he worked as an intern at a nuclear company that sponsored his education and then continued on with them post-graduation. He worked in operations research (before it was called IT), and over the course of about 18 months, did stints as a computer operator, a junior programmer, and an analyst programmer. While in his first position, he became interested in Kellogg Company, a large manufacturer in the Manchester area, and subsequently joined on with their IT department.
Over the next several years, Jon worked his way up and eventually became a subject matter expert on Kellogg’s manufacturing systems, first in the U.K. and then in Europe.
“I started to be included in global meetings of folks who worked in that space and learned a tremendous amount. It was very formative for me to grow up through Kellogg’s. In the late ‘90s I led a business transformation program based on Michael Hammer’s book Reengineering the Corporation: A Manifesto for Business Revolution. That program was about transforming the organization and about people, process, and technology.”
Jon led the transformation in Europe and began working more with Kellogg’s headquarters in the US. When Kellogg’s acquired Keebler, Jon was offered a job in Chicago where he met and married his wife. He has lived in the U.S. ever since, for the past two decades.
How To Be a Global CIO
“When I was at Kellogg’s, I was a divisional CIO there and was subsequently recruited to Conair, which at the time, was a smaller company. They were looking for somebody with international experience who had worked in a very diverse organization, which is why, I believe, they chose me. During my time at Kellogg’s, I did projects in the U.K., across Europe, and then ultimately ended up in the states. I think it is critical for anybody aspiring to be a CIO to gain global awareness and global experience, even if it doesn’t involve moving countries. Having knowledge of different markets, and different cultures and ideas, is key to getting things done in those different cultures.
I also benefited from having experience with widely varied assignments that covered different aspects of IT within different business units. When I came to Keebler, for example, I was no longer working with manufacturing. I was working with sales and marketing. It helped that I had a broader range of experiences when I took the role as a CIO at Conair. Not only did it broaden my skill sets, but it broadened my access points within the organization, and made me a logical choice to be promoted into the senior global CIO function.
My entire career has been in consumer products and consumer goods type companies. There are adjacencies such as retail. But anyone thinking about career progression to a CIO should consider staying in one specific vertical.”
Being an Effective Leader
Jon’s take on leadership is that it involves a combination of being sufficiently humble and trying to understand where the other person is coming from, while at the same time demonstrating as much achievement orientation as you can. There has to be a lot of pushing, but in a nice way. The most effective leaders are those who show respect for their people, but who also have a sense of urgency – a sense of purpose and reason to change. That underlying theme of change resonates throughout business now.
An effective leader can articulate ‘This is where we’re going with this project’ and also generate a sense of urgency with sufficient details including:
- How many weeks?
- When are we going into user acceptance testing?
- When are we going to do training?
- How many folks are we training?
From a project perspective it can help to generate that urgency. But it’s a fine line. You don’t want to appear too critical of what’s going on. Because the other aspect of being a CIO, or a leader in general, is dealing with inevitable issues or things that don’t go so well.
An effective leader is willing to listen to what went wrong, draw out the lessons learned, and most importantly, figure out how to fix what went wrong and recover. It’s part of the paradox of being a CIO. You’re trying to make substantial change while the business is still running, so you’re trying to change something while it’s running. But at the same time, if it doesn’t work well, you’re the service provider – so it’s on you to fix it. It’s also important to work with the folks in the rest of the business who are impacted by the failure.
Jon spends a lot of time talking to people outside of IT as well. It’s important for the CIO to have great relationships with leaders of all levels and throughout the rest of the business. It helps when dealing with inevitable service outages and other issues.
How Leadership is Changing
Remote work has made it difficult to have the informal interactions that are a core part of Jon’s leadership style.
“We are in hybrid mode now, so things are evolving. There are currently less than half of the people in the office and it’s helpful for me to walk around a little bit and talk to whoever is there just to catch up and say, ‘Hey, I know you work on this project. How’s it going?’ It’s important to make time while you’re in-office to have those kinds of interactions. It’s also important to have periodic team meetings—in person or virtual—to ensure smooth communication.”
IT is the catalyst for innovation and change within the modern org, and with the size of Jon’s team, it’s difficult to do a lot of innovation in-house simply on account of scope. As a result, they often have to rely on external partners. They are often approached by the business units directly around a use case where changes are needed.
A sales data leader came to Jon recently and said “I’ve seen this cool new technology. I really think this would be great for my use case.” As it turns out, it was fairly mainstream, but new to Jon, so he started out by asking, “What about those Tableau licenses I bought you last year?” He explained why the new tech was better for his use case, and Jon ended up investing in his idea. But for Jon, the critical reason was that he had credibility because he’d been working in this space for a while. He understood the business problem. He tried some of the tools that he was supplied with, and he had good reasons to pursue the new solution. This is an ideal scenario: one where people feel very comfortable coming forward with their ideas.
Working with Startups
Jon believes that startups and their founders are changing the world, but it’s a very difficult journey. The best way for them to get involved with large organizations, he believes, is through networking. They should also have a deep understanding of specific verticals.
“Start-ups are way more likely to get involved with us if we meet them somewhere informally or if they’re recommended by somebody we know. There are many CIO style events out there. The more start-ups can get the chance to get out there and give their elevator pitch, the better. There are thousands of opportunities inside my organization to improve the business with new technology, but there are only so many new technologies we can address at a time.”
- IT is a service function to the rest of the business. Doing the service properly, consistently, and reliably, gives IT the credibility to then go ahead and change things for the better. They are a catalyst for innovation and change.
- IT can’t drive change alone. They can partner, but they can never get too far ahead of the rest of the business. It’s important to get that balance right.
- Leadership is a combination of being sufficiently humble and trying to understand where the other person is coming from, while at the same time demonstrating as much achievement orientation as you can.
Jon Harding is the Global CIO of Conair LLC, a multi-billion dollar, private equity-owned consumer products company focused on personal care products, counter-top kitchen appliances, and health and beauty products used by both professionals and consumers. Jon has worldwide responsibility for the company’s IT and digital services in support of both day-to-day business operations and future business growth.
Under Jon’s leadership, the Conair IT team achieved: global rollout and several upgrades of a single set of SAP systems globally (replaced 25 legacy ERPs with one SAP); global business integration and cyber-security risk mitigation via a standardized IT network; seamless integration of acquired businesses; supported opening of new businesses; and divestiture of non-core businesses. Plus transition from family ownership to P/E ownership. The company has doubled revenue and increased global reach multiple times during this period. Throughout IT costs have been controlled below peer group levels and a 2018 Gartner benchmarking study confirmed this is a high-value IT service.
Recently Jon has focused on digital transformation of the business. This has included rollout of Direct-To-Consumer (DTC) platforms, Drop/Ship to Consumer on behalf of major online retailers and social media analytics platforms. All aiming to increase revenue through DTC sales and accelerated brand growth from increased consumer engagement. This year’s digital transformation focus is sales and operations planning, financial planning and analytics, and post-purchase consumer service.
Before joining Conair, Jon was Divisional CIO for the U.S. Snacks Division of Kellogg Company (formerly the Keebler Company) that Kellogg acquired in 2001. Prior to 2001, he held various IT leadership positions within Kellogg’s Europe, including overall leader of a major business process transformation for Kellogg’s Europe in 1999-2001.
A graduate of the University of Sheffield in England, he has many years of business process change and IT leadership experience in the consumer products industry. He shares this experience industry-wide through his long-time membership of the Executive Council of “Consumer Goods Technology/Retail Information Systems”, and several industry-leading eCommerce and CIO strategy events. Jon is a member of the Advisory Board of Seton Hall University’s executive education on “Customer Experience (C/X)”. He is a member of the newly formed AWS Consumer Goods Industry Advisory Board.