Angela Yochem joined Rent-A-Center as chief information officer in May of 2016. Her skills as both a technology savvy CIO but also one with unusual business acumen were apparent early in her tenure, and she was asked to lead the digital transformation at that $3 billion revenue company, which is the largest in the rent-to-own industry.
She has also been unusually active as a board member, first at the Federal Home Loan Bank of Pittsburgh, and since October of 2016 at data analytics company, Rocana. She offers advice on how to achieve board membership for those who wish to follow in her footsteps among other topics we cover herein.
Peter High: Angela, you are the Chief Information Officer at Rent-A-Center, which is the largest furniture rental company in the U.S. Since joining the team last May, you have led a digital transformation of the company. Can you give us an overview of the journey to date?
Angela Yochem: Digital transformations are happening across the world, in every company and in every industry. This is largely because technology advances no longer only enables business evolution, they drive that evolution. Technology advances create new channels to reach the customer and allow us to generate new products for our customers. It is shifting, with or without our engagement, the customers’ expectations of how we should engage with them and on what level of intimacy.
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In our case, digital transformation is about customer and coworker engagement. It is about operational optimization and the expansion of channels and products. We are lucky that we have an engaged and informed stakeholder community at Rent-A- Center that has supported my team acting quickly to design new channels that engage customers in ways that are nontraditional for our space. As digital transformation relates to operational optimization, in a few short months we have stabilized our technology estate. We have cloud enabled many of our key tech components while shoring up the design of our critical business systems and data environments. One notable example is the point of sale system. We completed this stabilization in one quarter through intensive redesign and cloud adoption. We also changed the way we manage privatization across all of our business activities; not only those of the technology component. Ultimately, Rent-A-Center is going to run like a software company where desired outcomes are linked to required capabilities, which in turn are managed and prioritized in epics and sprints across the board. This allows us to quickly adjust to the continuing changing customer expectations and emerging market opportunities.
High: Clearly, you have both an internal and external perspective on digital transformation. For pure IT leaders that are working to get past that divide, to have more actual customer engagement, how should they think about the divide? Especially as it relates to digital and implications on the end customer versus implications on the enterprise?
Yochem: That is an excellent point. As CIOs, we sometimes become so focused on meeting the needs of our colleagues and of our partners that we forget to think about what the end customer needs or how they want to engage with us, or we fail to consider how we can change our priorities to better serve the end customer in order to affect the way that they think about our company, about our company’s services, and about our company’s products. That is a real miss. It reminds me of the famous quote attributed to Henry Ford that says, “If I asked my customers what they needed, they would tell me they wanted faster horses.” CIOs get caught up in this if we spend too much time listening to our colleagues who may not have the necessary perspective required to understand what is possible given the rapidity of technology advances. Technologists and leaders in the technology space have an obligation to their companies and to their shareholders to actively engage in finding ways to better serve their end customers — and ultimately benefit everyone involved.
High: It strikes me from meetings with peers of yours that, like you, have leadership and IT responsibilities, that the digital topic is something that needs to draw inferences and insights from every part of the organization; among other reasons, because it is both internally and externally focused. How do you think about collaboration and engagement to ensure that you are pulling from all of the relevant parties across a complex world?
Yochem: That is a great question and one that is certainly top-of-mind, or should be, for every executive, particularly in large complex organizations. The decisions that we make, whether they are in our business divisions or in our functional areas, will always impact across domains and always have interdependencies across, if not the entire company, then close to it. Part of understanding that and having the ability to make that level of decision, regardless of your role at the c-level, is knowing the environment that you work in. We have to understand what it means to make a change to a process that in some way touches the customer. We have to understand what it means to change the nature of our customer offerings whether it is a product, a service, or a support agreement. A change that seems relatively trivial is going to have implications across all the functional areas. It will have legal implications, financial implications, accounting implications, and it will certainly have technology implications. It is difficult for senior executives to hold all of the relevant information in their heads. However, it is reasonable to expect executives to have an understanding of likely implications and know when and how to reach out and ask for help from partners across the rest of the company.
High: Besides the competitive landscape and more broadly across retail, where do you look for insight and inspiration? As a consumer of technology, what does your personal ecosystem looks like in terms of what you read, how you think about your interactions with technology, and how you use those analogies in your day job?
Yochem: This is an evolving process. Understanding what is happening on the bleeding edge of technology advance and trying to predict where that is going so that we are leaders are chasing the right brass ring, that is a fulltime job. Then, we have to constantly challenge ourselves to think creatively, to think responsibly, to manage both the fiduciary and the innovation side of our role. It is important to engage with people who are broadly representative of not just business advance, and not just technology advance, but also people who are governing some of the largest companies in the world. For example, people who are founding startups that do interesting things or people who are managing portfolios of startups who do interesting things, both in and outside of technology fields. It is incredibly important for us as technology leaders, and as business leaders, to be learners with an insatiable thirst and appetite for constant absorption of new information and new perspectives. The minute any of us sit back, that is the moment we start being less valuable. We stop being on our game. One of the great things about our field is that it is a constantly changing and evolving space.
High: Another interesting insight that I have heard you speak about is that the modern CIO should be more involved in revenue accentuating activities rather than simply driving efficiencies for the enterprise; which historically has been the domain of CIOs and IT leaders. Can you talk about the methods that you use to do this?
Yochem: I have turned internal IT teams into revenue generating service organizations. I have morphed project-focused teams doing one-off work for customers into full-scale product teams selling software and services to those customers. I have owned digital transactional channels that generate revenue for my company. There are many different ways that technology leaders can generate actual revenue for the company. The skills our teams have are highly sought after, and they are malleable. If we are running our shops correctly, we should be able to quickly shift and adapt to opportunities that we see in the business landscape that we operate in. If this seems like an insurmountable problem right now for CIOs due to the institutional bias that we fight, get creative. A CIO can help the various lines of business and functional areas make both short term and longer term strategic wins through better tech usage and better decisioning. A CIO can volunteer themselves or a staff member to be a co-product manager for a business line. There are many ways that you can engage and prove yourself as someone who adds tremendous value to the business, and as someone who can act with authority and effectiveness in ways that are not traditionally within a CIO’s domain. We have an obligation to define or contribute to our company’s digital future. Period. We should all be very active to that end.
High: You have worked at both B2B and B2C companies. Your most recent experience was in the business-to-business sector at BDP International. How did you prepare youself for your new opportunity at Rent-A-Center prior to joining, and what steps did you undertake in your first 100 days to set get yourself on a solid footing?
Yochem: Everyone’s first one hundred days journey is different. However, the saying, “forewarned is forearmed,” is valuable. Understanding the journeys of colleagues who are in this industry or in adjacent industries was helpful; you can pull tremendous insights from other’s experiences. Peter, you have a lot of great writings about this topic and I found them incredibly helpful. Your series on a CIO’s First 100 Days is top notch, it does not get much better than that.
As the question relates specifically to this position and the onboarding process, one of the great things about Rent-A-Center is that my colleagues were tremendously helpful. They were engaged and were eager to help me understand our business, our business models, and all of the processes that are specific to Rent-A-Center. There are concepts and processes that one must understand quickly after joining a company and the level of interest and helpfulness that I experienced from executives and coworkers across the board was remarkable.
High: CIOs as board members is still a relatively new concept. You have served on several boards, including the Federal Home Loan Bank of Pittsburgh. Currently, you are on the Rocana board. With more than three years and multiple board positions under your belt, what can you say about the role that a CIO can play as a board member? Specifically, in light of your earlier comments about the differences between a CIO who contemplates customer needs in terms of digital opportunities and innovation versus a CIO whose primary focus is on the operational needs that are more traditionally part of a CIO’s domain, does having the broader set of perspectives make one better equipped to join a board? Also, with the deeper set of experiences that you have had, what have you drawn from those experiences?
Yochem: I have spoken with several search committees that are associated with big boards. In almost every case they are looking for two things. The first is operational risk control. They want someone who understands cyber security considerations to help them as they move through large scale, complex, technology enabled programs or projects inside of their company. They want to understand what types of questions to ask when the management team is reporting on those issues. That is the risk/audit side, the other side that they want help with is in asking, “Are we asking and challenging our management committee correctly and appropriately as it relates to digital transformation of our business? How do we prevent ourselves from being eviscerated by a couple of guys in a garage? How do we maintain dominance in our industry? How do we continue to delight and serve our customers through technology advances?” These are things that most board members feel like they are not fully equipped for, they want someone with expertise in technology, as well as someone with a strong strategic capability that can add to governance activity.
My experience with Rocana was different, however. The organization captures massive scale streaming data and crunches it in real time. This allows customers to not only react to unexpected events, but to predict them and act accordingly. When they were looking to add to their board they had a clear set of capabilities that they wanted, and technology was not one of them. They are a technology company, they did not need someone with technology chops on the board. They had that covered. They were looking for people with governance experience and business chops, which I had, and they wanted someone who was a cultural fit. Rocana wanted all of those capabilities to be housed in someone representative of their customer base. They reached out to me and I met with the founders and their investors. I was impressed with the company, with their strategy, and with their product. I wanted to be part of it. They are an impressive company.
High: As of January of this year, you are also an entrepreneur in residence at SKTA Innopartners. Can you talk a bit about that as well?
Yochem: SK Telecom Americas is South Korea Telecom’s US based arm. Innopartners is an incubator, they make investments and they have an incubation facility for companies that meet a certain set of criteria. The role of the executive in residence is to help screen potential portfolio companies and to advise those companies in their portfolio on a case-by-case basis.
The Innopartners community is full of interesting, smart, and engaged people. Many of them have a lot of startup experience and a lot of investor experience. My experience with this organization has opened my eyes to how I can better think about the emerging technology that I investigate as part of my normal job. I spend a lot of time working with venture capitalists trying to find startups that have technology capabilities that are not necessarily commercially available to my competitors. Now, when I look at those technologies and think about how to incorporate them into our offerings, I have a certain mindset –a CIO mindset. I look at those companies and say, “Hmm, should we buy these guys?” My work with Innopartners has provided me a broader perspective; it is the same breadth of perspective that I gained from learning how to govern companies as opposed to just manage companies. It has been a tremendous learning experience.
High: As you look to the future, say two or three years out, what are some trends that are piquing your interest or are beginning to find their way onto your strategic roadmap?
Yochem: One little trend that I am taken with is fast prototyping and feedback. I am interested in experimentation and proof of concept. I subscribe to proof of concept as a service from an external entity. I have an organization, innovation labs, which runs experiments quickly. These experiments might be things that are customer facing and might live in a different business unit or they might be things that are internal or coworker enabling. This capability, to quickly experiment, try, and learn from the experiment, is something that I apply across the board. Every CIO, in fact most executives, need this capability in their toolbox. It also energizes the team and expands the perspective of everyone engaged.
As far as larger trends, artificial intelligence. The societal impact will be tremendous – some good, some bad. I am carefully watching what is happening there. Not only robotics, either, but self-serve automation and multiple digital channel based automation. I am interested in advanced analytics and what that enables us to do in real time; real time automated decisioning for different parts of the business, for customer interactions, etc., Both of these trends enable a tremendous amount of automation and require us to ask ourselves, “How do we augment the experiences of our customers or of our coworkers without pushing those constituents away? We do not want activism backlash. Perhaps we use augmented intelligence over artificial intelligence, or augmented experience over a virtual reality experience that could be isolating. These are the ideas that we should consider as we look at what is emerging, at what is going to be available to us commercially in the near term. Finally, I have great respect and admiration for the programs that engage people of all ages in STEM; both learning at an early age and retraining at a later age. At the same time, I am watching and I am somewhat concerned about how and if we inculcate critical thinking into that process; the ability to discern fact from fiction and the ability to determine whether a technology is additive to a situation or to a solution or if it is unnecessary or complicates the solution. We can get better at that.
Date: April 09, 2017