Data Driven Leadership

Why Donatos CIO Says Technology Is the Easy Part of Any Transformation

Guest: Steven Graves

In this episode of Data Driven Leadership, Donatos Pizza  CIO Steven Graves details how he calmly navigates the intersection of tech and business amidst the feverish pace of both. Steven shares with host Jess Carter stories and lessons learned throughout his impressive career—including building a major retailer’s first e-commerce site on a limited budget and turning it into a $400 million success story.

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In this episode of Data Driven Leadership, Donatos Pizza  CIO Steven Graves details how he calmly navigates the intersection of tech and business amidst the feverish pace of both.

Steven shares with host Jess Carter stories and lessons learned throughout his impressive career—including building a major retailer’s first e-commerce site on a limited budget and turning it into a $400 million success story.

Steven says the tech part is the easy part; it’s organizational change management that can make or break a transformation’s success. The conversation includes mastering empathy, winning hearts, and nurturing change champions within your organization.

In this episode, you will learn:

  • How to effectively embrace change and advancements in AI
  • How to drive transformational initiatives with empathy
  • How to leverage data to listen to and delight your customers

In this podcast:

  • [5:00-14:00] Memorable moments from Steven’s career
  • [14:00-23:00] Inviting participation vs. attempting control in leadership
  • [23:00-27:00] The intersection of AI, human interaction, and business transformation
  • [27:00-31:00] The importance of human management in AI implementation
  • [31:00-37:00] Defining clear KPIs for successful change management
  • [37:00-46] Investing in personal growth

Our Guest

Steven Graves

Steven Graves

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Steven is a Senior Transformational Technology Executive with 30 years of experience overseeing all IT business functions. He is a results-oriented leader passionate about developing high-performance cultures, to enable strategic business outcomes and increase shareholder value. His core competencies include building Strategic partnerships, business process refactoring, digital transformations, human capital development and shareholder equity creation.

Steven has held numerous senior executive leadership positions, and currently serves as Chief Information Officer for Donatos Pizzeria.


Jess Carter [00:00:01]:

The power of data is undeniable and unharnessed. It's nothing but chaos.

Speaker 1[00:00:06]:

The amount of data, it was crazy.

Speaker 2 [00:00:08]:

Can I trust it?

Speaker 3 [00:00:09]:

You will waste money.

Speaker 4 [00:00:11]:

Held together with duct tape.

Speaker 5 [00:00:12]

Doomed to failure.

Jess Carter [00:00:13]:

This season, we're solving problems in real-time to reveal the art of the possible. Making data your ally, using it to lead with confidence and clarity, helping communities and people thrive. This is Data Driven Leadership, a show by Resultant.

Hey, data-driven leaders. On today's episode, we have a really unique voice that's joining us. Steven Graves is the CIO at Donato's Pizza, and he has worked in leadership at a plethora of Fortune 500 companies, helping them bridge the gap between the business outcomes they want and their technology teams. His insights and stories that he shares are really interesting I think.

Jess Carter [00:00:57]:

We have not had a lot of B2C companies on the podcast yet, so it's really interesting to hear how he helps us better understand or appreciate the last 20 or 30 years of B2C companies. And transformations from catalogs to online catalogs, et cetera, and then even fulfillment. And what that looks like. And his curiosity and humility to better understand each component of those businesses, and to better appreciate how to create leading technology that helps them accomplish their missions and their outcomes. I think there's also this component of wisdom in which he shares a lot of nuggets. Like, there are probably about ten different scenarios he shared where there was something that I could take back and leverage in the exact situations I'm in today. So he's just a really good leader, and he's really good at understanding and caring about people and about technology and appreciating what's needed. There's some just discernment in his voice and his demeanor and how he approaches problems.

Jess Carter [00:01:56]:

This was nothing short of a gift to spend some time with Steven, and I think if I could have, I would have spent the whole day with him asking more questions. So don't worry. It's not a day-long episode, but I really hope you enjoy it. Steven, welcome.

Steven Graves [00:02:12]:

All right. Thank you, Jess. Glad to be here. Thanks for having me.

Jess Carter [00:02:15]:

Yeah, thank you for being here. So I have a plethora of questions that I want to ask you today, so thank you for being… I'm going to just blatantly call this the hot seat because there's so much I want to learn from you. Yes. Where to begin? Okay, here's my first question. My immediate reaction to even just being with you for 45 seconds is you're a guy who's probably seen a lot of really huge transformations, a lot of major priorities, and you seem breezy. You seem like a guy that handles stress well. Is that fair?

Steven Graves [00:02:52]:

I think that's a fair assessment. I think when you've been in the industry for decades, you just learn to cope with it.

Jess Carter [00:02:59]:

Okay. All right. Is that something you had to learn? Like, do you remember when you first started? Was there a sense of anxiety and stress that was much, much higher?

Steven Graves [00:03:06]:

Oh, absolutely. I used to run around on ten, and you just realize, you know what? You're either going to have high blood pressure or you're going to have a stroke. So you have to learn to pace yourself.

Jess Carter [00:03:16]:

All right. I'm somewhere on that journey. I'm not fully where you are, but I aspire to be as breezy as I think you are. It was a meaningful moment in my life to get through a bunch of transformations in some major government entities and then sort of realize we really want them to go well, and no one's life was at risk if they didn't. It was like, hey when we assess risk, what is that really like philosophically for a moment? We might have a bad day, or we might not have the dashboard we want the minute we want it, but that doesn't mean that there is severe risk, actually, for the organization that's been helpful to learn on the journey.

Steven Graves [00:03:55]:

Absolutely. Keep things in perspective.

Jess Carter [00:03:58]:

Yeah. Well, is this right? 30 years of experience in Fortune 500 companies?

Steven Graves [00:04:06]:

30 years, and I have the scars to prove it. Absolutely.

Jess Carter [00:04:11]:

Well, we can talk about the scars if you want to, but one of the things I'm really curious about is when you look at that 30 years and my hand is, like, on my heart because you have some of these stories that are really memorable. Do you have, I don't know, one, two, three of some of your most memorable examples of how you've leveraged data to drive digital transformation? Something that was really meaningful, hard, complex, and you did it?

Steven Graves [00:04:37]:

I would say the one that really stands out quite a bit for me is I worked for Abercrombie and Fitch for pretty much ten years. And if you go back historically, Abercrombie and Fitch started as a magalog. And so that's how we basically transacted and got sticky with our customers. And so Mike Jeffries, our CEO at the time, he said, Steven, I need you to build me an e-comm site. And we need to leverage our data, transactional data, and we need to create this channel that allows us to allow customers to shop whenever they want and provide the utility that they need on a daily basis. And I would say that was probably the most daunting because we did it on a limited budget.

Steven Graves [00:05:17]:


Steven Graves [00:05:18]:

And so we didn't have big, deep pockets, but we were able to build that into a 400 million dollar line of business and just create a lot of value for the consumer. And so that was really exciting. And it follows the normal standard: people, process, and technology, and each one has discrete challenges.

Jess Carter [00:05:36]:

Yeah, well, it's super interesting to me. I have this memory of the first time I walked into Abercrombie and Fitch and it was with my dad who needed a pair of jeans. And obviously he must have been, like, in his forties and thought he still deserved it. I mean, it just made me giggle that we were in Abercrombie and Fitch for my dad. And I just remember it being so dark. I was like, why are we in a cave shopping? Yeah, I mean, that idea of… I remember the catalogs, and so it's like the idea of you were part of then this e-commerce transition for the world. That's so cool. Did that take months, years? I don't know.

Jess Carter [00:06:15]:

What was that like?

Steven Graves [00:06:16]:

It took several months. And I would say the technology is always the easiest piece. And so I always look at the people side of it. How do you get everyone in the organization aligned to a new way of doing commerce?

Steven Graves [00:06:30]:


Steven Graves [00:06:30]:

And so building those strategic alliances, explaining the why, because you had a tried and true business model, and now you're going into this foray of online commerce. And so spending a lot of time building those key relationships and then coming up with what products and what SKUs will you sell online was really key. So it took about a year, year and a half. From a planning perspective, the first year we went live, we did $120,000,000.

Jess Carter [00:06:57]:

Wow. Holy cow. I love that you remember that metric.

Steven Graves [00:07:03]:

I have scars there.

Jess Carter [00:07:04]:

That is so cool. That's incredible. And I'm assuming did you see and do you remember were you seeing, I don't know, even, like, geographic areas opting in sooner, or did you just kind of, I don't know, go live and see who was buying and work out the shipping later? How did that all work?

Steven Graves [00:07:25]:

We had actually done some surveys with our customers, our A-list customers, and we saw that there was a lot of pent-up demand. And so when we went live, our consumers were waiting for us.

Jess Carter [00:07:37]:

Oh, interesting.

Steven Graves [00:07:38]:

They were ready for this level of commerce for us to transact. But we did some key test markets New York, Fifth Avenue, Madison Avenue, obviously, those normal suspects, Stevens Creek and California. So we were very judicious about how we went to market. But for the most part, our customers were ready, and we opened the doors. They showed up in droves.

Jess Carter [00:08:01]:

Okay, so that's neat, too because the other thing you're hinting at is this solution wasn't a lot of people will say, well, that was just to increase revenue or whatever sales, but it actually was a response to you listening to your consumers. You were listening and understood what they wanted, and you designed a digital transformation that brought the customers what they asked for. That's so interesting, too right?

Steven Graves [00:08:24]:

Yeah, absolutely. And it really is a testament of understanding your customers and then also, how do you interpret the data? And so we did a lot of key surveys, got a lot of feedback from them, a lot of lead-created cohort groups, which was really exciting. When you bring product customer delight together, amazing things happen.

Jess Carter [00:08:46]:

Wow. And help me understand this, Steven, you're in tech and you're a leader. Do you approach it from a technical perspective? Like, are you a developer and you kind of grew into leadership? Or are you a leader who couldn't write a line of code? Where do you land in that spectrum?

Steven Graves [00:09:04]:

Wow. I'm naturally trained. I went to college for software development. But I will tell you, my approach to it now is around business technology. And so there was a time in history where you just did cool stuff, right? If it was technology, you did it, but now you have to really look at it and say, well, how do I monetize these investments? What are the business outcomes? And quite candidly, if it doesn't drive top line sales, it doesn't enable customer delight, then why do you do it? So I think I have more of a business approach to it. Technology just becomes the enablement.

Jess Carter [00:09:40]:

Well, your emphasis on the customer, the people, the why, I think seems to have served you well, that it is. Hey, we like tech because it's fun and it's sort of interesting to get into and it's always changing. It's sort of just kind of a hobby of mine. But it's neat to really start to appreciate the power behind it when you can tie it to the business needs. So I think it's cool. Did you again kind of learn that over time and as you got curious, or do you think you were kind of made that way?

Steven Graves [00:10:10]:

I think I learned over time. And so being a technologist in retail, you do a lot of things, and when you work in specialty apparel, you have to learn the business. So I spent a lot of time working with merchants, planning, allocation, accounting, and anytime that I thought I was really kind of high on the hog, so to speak, I found a function inside the business to say you don't know anything. Sit down and let me teach you. And so I spent time understanding how we did supply chain replenishment and even built distribution centers. And it really gave me a good understanding to know how a product moves through the supply chain and shows up and then how you ultimately touch the customer and sell it.

Jess Carter [00:10:52]:

That is super cool. Because I think you're also hinting at, we talk about often in the circles I'm in humble, hungry, smart. It's a Patrick Lincione thing, right. And this sense of the humility to not just do one thing you get really good at well, but to shake yourself up and say, well, what else could I learn? And in these situations where you almost force humility upon yourself to say, well, I don't know anything about that, let's go learn about it and see if we can develop an opinion that gives you this broad spectrum of understanding of a business. I think that is cool and difficult.

Steven Graves [00:11:23]:

Absolutely, yeah. To your point, it keeps you humble.

Jess Carter [00:11:27]:

It sure does. I like it the day after I do it, when I first find myself in a situation where I realize I don't know anything about something, all of that ego gets tested where I'm like, wait, I'm good at things. Why don't I know that the frustration will show up for about a day? And then I'm like, okay, all right, we know how to handle this is just same problem, different stuff. It's just Legos. But not Legos.

Steven Graves [00:11:51]:


Steven Graves [00:11:52]:

We call those character building moments.

Jess Carter [00:11:56]:

Yes. The humility is pretty important, I think. Well, so out of curiosity, it could be the example you gave me of Abercrombie and Fitch, or it could be something else, but I'm curious about or even just themes across digital transformations in your career. What are some key challenges around those or around the Abercrombie and Fitch scenario?

Steven Graves [00:12:21]:

I would say, you know, Abercrombie is just one of those scenarios. I could use Express, JCPenney, Walmart, I would say sitting down. So on the technical side, it's always going through that funding mechanism, right. And so when you start looking at the financial metrics, what is the ROI, what is the TCO?

Steven Graves [00:12:38]:


Steven Graves [00:12:38]:

What is the IRR? So there's a whole litany of things that you need to rationalize to find out is it financially feasible to do so? I think once you can work through those things, that's good. The second piece is I go back to the people, and I always equate it to those people. The teams are always a third, a third, a third. So what do I mean by that? You always have a third of people say, we're on board, we're there, we support you.

Steven Graves [00:13:02]:


Steven Graves [00:13:02]:

And then you have a third to sit back and go, oh, my God, this is never going to work. But I'm not going to tell you that. So I'm kind of sitting on the fence. And then you have a third to sit here and say, yeah, we'll wait and see. And so what I always call it is winning the hearts and minds and explaining the why and helping everybody to understand with them what's in it for them. How will it help the company grow, but how will it help them build greater aspirations and capabilities to be effective in their careers? And so I would say those are the most challenging, and you got to wrap process around it. Anytime you move cheese, always, you know, we think know Jim Collins’ Good to Great, you know, the enemy of good is great. And so people say, well, I have a business model that works well.

Steven Graves [00:13:46]:

Well, now we need to augment that business model. And so that creates a little agita, right? And so you have to have I tell the team all the time, you need finesse, right? And so when you go through these, whether it's a Fortune 500, whether it's a startup, it's about the finesse. It's about telling the why, but it's also articulating that vision so everyone can see themselves there.

Jess Carter [00:14:11]:

Okay, so this is a vulnerable moment for me. So I had a situation just yesterday where we’re rolling kind of initiative out to our part of our company, and we did a POC, and it went really well, and we were rolling out the next piece. I had I'd received some feedback that the background, the why and what's in it for me, Steven? It was a little bit watered down. It was a little rushed, a little adulterated. I didn't I didn't slow down enough to really help the team feel, like, seen and understood and make sure they get context they need. And I struggled for a minute because I want to get it done. And I felt like we jumped through all those hoops with the POC, like, we were careful and deliberate, and I had this desire to be like, okay, we did that, so let's run. And I had this realization of, hey, everybody else is crawling until we walk and run. We're just repeating this.

Jess Carter [00:15:11]:

I can't suddenly speed on brand new people, but it is difficult to remember that. It's difficult. My patience is tried.

Steven Graves [00:15:19]:

Yes. It is always a challenge. And just stepping back and I think you mentioned being vulnerable, but looking at it from each person's perspective, change is hard. And stepping back and making sure that you have the appropriate guardrails in place. And test.

Jess Carter [00:15:40]:


Steven Graves [00:15:40]:


Steven Graves [00:15:41]:

And cut once. That's important.

Jess Carter [00:15:43]:

Yeah. And I think it was, again, a humbling moment for me to be like, oh, you know what? I did you guys a disservice as a leader, and I need to circle back and actually say, admit that and say, here's the context you deserved and didn't get yesterday. And so that was a nice little bite of humble pie I got to enjoy.

Steven Graves [00:15:59]:

Yeah. But you know what? I think those are the moments where you grow and you build credibility with the team. And so we could spend ten hours I could tell you a lot of things I did wrong. Hopefully, I did more good than bad. But it's those moments. I had an old leader used to say, “Fall forward.”

Steven Graves [00:16:16]:


Steven Graves [00:16:17]:

So you fall forward. The goal is just not to repeat bad performance in the future.

Jess Carter [00:16:22]:

Yeah, I love that. That is very encouraging. To your point. The other positive to me was the high trust of other leaders around me to not let me move forward without the feedback to say, hey, we got to stop you because it's a disservice to all of us if you don't know that there was some context or some room for improvement here. And so I felt cared for and supported even while I was having to go back and say, okay, hold on. I made a mistake here.

Steven Graves [00:16:54]:

That's great.

Steven Graves [00:16:55]:

When I worked for American, we used to say, feedback is a gift.

Steven Graves [00:16:58]:


Steven Graves [00:16:59]:

And so it's when people stop talking to you that you need to worry about it. But as long as you're getting that feedback, you can continuously improve.

Jess Carter [00:17:06]:

Yeah, and I appreciate, I think often people think that the technology is the hard part. And I think what I'm hearing from you is it's difficult to figure out the budget, it's difficult to figure out what solution you're going to use. But there's robots on Mars. Turns out we can do anything. There's a lot we can do.

Steven Graves [00:17:26]:

Absolutely. I always say the technology piece, you'll either implement it poorly or correctly.

Steven Graves [00:17:33]:


Steven Graves [00:17:34]:

But the technology is designed and it's tried and true. So it's the people that implement the technology.

Jess Carter [00:17:39]:

Yeah. I heard this advice I got ten years ago, and it was when you were talking about the 30% that's maybe not on board. I could not believe this, but it's been really true that in that group of people who are maybe not excited is usually the key to success. They're actually concerned for a reason, and if you actually chase the reasons they're concerned, those are things that I'm about to drive right into a brick wall about. And if I can hear them, I can help them feel on board, because I can cover for those things and the project will fail less. But I think it's hard because the negative energy is hard to sit with and in for a lot of people. But if you do that, I feel like it can kind of be a secret power.

Steven Graves [00:18:29]:

Yeah, it can be very uncomfortable. But to your point, leveraging their feedback and their curiosity, they can be your greatest change champions.

Steven Graves [00:18:39]:


Steven Graves [00:18:39]:

And so it's just getting them on board, it just requires that finesse and humility.

Jess Carter [00:18:44]:

So there's no way that anyone listening to this doesn't know they have someone in their head. When we're talking about this, there's somebody in their head that I call like a red hat. They're not on board, they're not engaged. Steven, can you unpack one layer deeper of how? How do you go about how would you advise getting that person from no way to maybe?

Steven Graves [00:19:09]:

Yeah, I think you just have to be intentional about it. I'll give you an example. When I first started working at American Airlines, I met with the organization. I think at the time I had 1500 people in the organization, and I had two guys, two folks who've been there on average of about 18 years apiece. And so I'm giving my introductory speech to small groups, little roundtables, and as I'm sitting there, the guy's on his cell phone and he's looking me up on LinkedIn and he's reading everything about me. And so I said, Well, I think I found a person, I found my skeptic here. But back to your question to be succinct about it, I actually scheduled lunch with him. And I said, I can tell by your body language, one, you have a lot of knowledge.

Steven Graves [00:19:56]:


Steven Graves [00:19:56]:

You have a lot, you’re high tenure, a lot of experience here, and I'm new. I'd like to glean that from you. And so he shared his apprehensions, and some of them, quite candidly, were valid. I don't know if he knew how to articulate it appropriately, but a lot of what he shared with me at lunch and we had subsequent conversations, it allowed us to be very successful with our transition and transformation. So I think you have to be vulnerable. I think you have to go directly at it.

Steven Graves [00:20:25]:


Steven Graves [00:20:25]:

But you need to create psychological safety where people will feel comfortable and tell you, hey, here's a pitfall, pay attention to it, but just have direct conversation.

Jess Carter [00:20:35]:

I think direct is so important, too, because when I was early in my career, I think I tried to… I wasn't direct, and I think I tried to move people in a way that was far more evident to them that that's what I was trying to do. I thought I was being really subtle, and I wasn't, I think, saying straight to them, like, hey, this is what we're taking on. This is the why, this is what the business believes. It needs to be successful. And you know what? There's room for failure. So we'll make adjustments from here. What are your concerns now? And actually hearing them, I just think most people feel respected and treated like an adult.

Steven Graves [00:21:11]:
That's right.
I mean, when you invite people to share their perspectives, that's when amazing things happen.


And so now you have the formation of a team.

Right. And that's most effective.

Jess Carter [00:21:21]:

Okay. So not to get too philosophical here, but I think this is really interesting, and you have some wisdom to share. So the other thing I feel like that requires is, I don't know what another phrase other than, like, holding some of this loosely. So there's this sense of, you know, the way I tried to do it was a little bit more controlling. Like, I want to get Steven from here to here, and I will do it, versus, I'm going to invite you to play the game with us. If you don't want to play the game, I'm going to respect that too, and we'll figure out what that means. But it's more of an invitation than a how do I get you there? It feels a little bit more open to you have agency, and you get to decide how you want to live your life, too. Right?

Steven Graves [00:22:03]:

That's right. Yeah. I mean, here's the goal. And that's why I think it's so important to articulate the vision right. And socialize it and make sure that everyone's on board with it. But some people will naturally opt out, right?

Jess Carter [00:22:17]:

And say, hey, you know what?

Steven Graves [00:22:18]:

I choose not to go on the journey with you, and I'm okay with that. I mean, you have to be okay with it. And so the phrase I always use: Everybody needs to find success, right? And sometimes it's internal, sometimes it's external. And as long as you end up in a great place, that's really all that matters. And they may have legitimate reasons why, but it's optional.

Steven Graves [00:22:41]:


Steven Graves [00:22:41]:

And you need to give them the why, but they have an opportunity to choose.

Jess Carter [00:22:45]:

Oh, man, I love that. Okay, we've got some notes to take from this conversation because this is great. Well, let me ask you this. Given your extensive experience, and I feel like we just keep hinting on 30 years extensive experience, given your experience in leading these innovative platforms, could you discuss from your vantage point here the trends or emerging technologies that you think are going to play a critical role in the near future? Like, everyone's talking about AI, but I'm curious what you think.

Steven Graves [00:23:21]:

Yeah, Al Gore created the internet, you know. It's funny, because we talk you know, gen AI now, and I think it has a lot of promise when I think about it from a software development perspective, I think it will allow software developers to build that overall framework and get to about 70, 80%, so they can have better utilization of their time. I still believe firmly, nothing replaces human interaction. And so I think having that starting base will allow you to eliminate repeatable processes, which is good, and then you can really focus your dollars and get a better ROI on the high value things versus the non-value edge. So gen AI, that's a big deal, especially when you look at Donato's, growing pizzeria franchising business. How do we ingratiate our customer and provide things that you want when you've already told us?

Steven Graves [00:24:17]:


Steven Graves [00:24:17]:

And so the personalization aspect of it, being able to modify orders, those are a big thing. Cloud computing, I think we talk about that a lot. It's probably in its 3rd, 4th generation today. And where I really see that taking off is there were a lot of high entry barriers to certain sectors.

Steven Graves [00:24:37]:


Steven Graves [00:24:38]:

So you think about capital costs to build out an entire function or segment. And when you look at just going native cloud-developed platforms, it gives you the ability to enter into a segment, grow that out, and really establish a presence there. So I would say cloud computing, native cloud development, and even things like 5G and edge computing, we talk a lot about 5G. It's still not out there.

Steven Graves [00:25:02]:


Steven Graves [00:25:03]:

We're still struggling with the airlines, whether or not they want to turn it on or off. But I go back, we talk about 30 years, but I go back 2015, years ago, where the amount of bandwidth required to run a store, we were paying $5000, $10,000 a month. Home office, we're paying $50,000. Well now, guess what? You can get the same amount of bandwidth in a store for $35, $40.

Steven Graves [00:25:29]:


Steven Graves [00:25:29]:

And so you have this broad spectrum. So with that gives you the ability to have look at large language models to facilitate AI and all those things that you need to have. And so you can really create these personalized moments and experiences for customers and rationalize large quantities of data and keep it at the edge. So I think it's win-win from a cost perspective, but it just creates this qualitative journey that will just continue on.

Jess Carter [00:25:57]:

Yeah. So if I'm hearing you right, because this is heady and great for me, it sounds like you're saying even the way you're looking at this vantage point, which is so unique, that you've worked at all these very large firms and so you've seen them through these major technology advances, and you're saying, hey, especially in light of generative AI, et cetera, cloud computing. Those are efficiencies. Those are going to be cost saving ventures and enablers to say, hey, we can spend more of our developers time on X instead of Y. And so you're looking at those, it sounds like, in thoughtful ways about, hey, we can innovate with the same budget if we do some of these things differently. Is that fair?

Steven Graves [00:26:40]:

Absolutely. So I think, to your point, it makes the job easier. It does drive the efficiency, but it's more like a recommendation engine on a website.

Steven Graves [00:26:49]:


Steven Graves [00:26:49]:

And so it's great to recommend something, but a human is going to make the best decision. How do you teach an AI model to have empathy?

Jess Carter [00:26:58]:

It's hard.

Steven Graves [00:26:59]:


Steven Graves [00:27:00]:

And if I code the empathy, I guarantee it may have a bias one way or the other.

Jess Carter [00:27:04]:

Right? Of course it will. Yeah. That's another thing we tried that I'm pretty passionate about, is when people, I've had multiple clients who say, hey, just whatever you do, make sure the data analysis isn't biased. I'm like, well, the humans built the forms that the data analysis is on, so it's actually going to be biased. Well, it's a reflection of the bias in the culture in which it was designed, but we can definitely work on making it known or pointing out or helping it be visible where that might exist. But yeah, that is super interesting. And to your point, so you're kind of hinting at this, I think, but there's all of this noise on LinkedIn about, hey, gen AI exists, jobs are going to dry up, it's going to take your job. And I think I've heard enough of this, I think, opposite point of view, which is like, well, someone has to manage it, implement it, tweak it, adjust.

Jess Carter [00:27:58]:

So, to your point, AI isn't going to figure out how to build an IT roadmap or strategy.

Steven Graves [00:28:04]:

Right, exactly. And if it does, you probably shouldn't follow it.

Jess Carter [00:28:09]:

Be careful.

Steven Graves [00:28:11]:

I think it goes back to the guardrails. So we've had a lot of conversations here in the last six months and I'm on several CIO forums and you start thinking about it, like, would you put your trade secrets out there? Well, probably not. And so I think it's great for back office functionality. Right. Training manuals, things that you want to stay current.

Steven Graves [00:28:33]:


Hey, tell me what the process is to build a pizza or how much cheese goes on the pizza. That's great, but do you really want to put your secret sauce and your recipe there?

Jess Carter [00:28:43]:


Steven Graves [00:28:43]:

I don't think so.

Jess Carter [00:28:44]:

Right. That's something we've been working through, too. And so in those forums, do you see… I don't know, have people done that and now they're trying to backpedal? You can't exactly take that back out once you put it in. Right?

Steven Graves [00:29:01]:

Right. I think there's always early adopters.

Steven Graves [00:29:03]:

Right. And so I think everybody else is looking at it right. A little bit more trepidation, and they're being cautious about it. But I mean, there are some folks that I've seen take some great steps to work with gen AI, but I would say it's still more evolving technology. And so I teeter more on the other areas of AI that I think are efficient, like chatbots. I think that's great, right. Being able to go out and have a conversation with each generation. Nobody wants to have a phone call.

Steven Graves [00:29:33]:

Right? Nobody wants to call and ask. But isn't it great when you can jump online, have a conversation, and resolve an issue at your leisure? And so I think there'll be permutations that will be adopted by each sector, but it's still unfolding before our eyes.

Jess Carter [00:29:47]:

Yeah. Do you remember I have a friend whose father was kind of at the forefront of the I'm not going to use the right terms, but the automated phone answering services. Just the pain. Yes, the pain. In calling through, like, 1995 to 2010, I just need a human because this isn't designed well enough yet. It's like now we can advance all of that. And it's gotten largely better. I think we've figured out how to do some things that make it actually easier for customers, but it certainly took a minute.

Steven Graves [00:30:17]:

Yes. And it will take a while for it to normalize. And then I think we'll turn around here five years, three to five years, maybe a little bit longer, and it'll just become a way of life, just like our mobile devices are.

Jess Carter [00:30:31]:

Totally. Okay. Well, you kind of say you specialize in enabling long-term business outcomes for technology using technology, and you already said earlier that you kind of align your technology initiatives to business goals. And I guess I'm curious about, what strategies do you use to ensure that your transformation results in ROI? Like, it actually does something for the business. And do you have situations where you started and realize it's not, what do we do now?

Steven Graves [00:31:04]:

Yeah, more stories when it did not work out than worked out. But I would just say it's a basic recipe. The hardest thing is change management. Right. I go back. Nobody wants to change. So when you think about it, having clearly defined change management along with well defined KPIs right. Whether we're talking about KPIs OKRs, but what does success look like? And I think a lot of times we go into an initiative and we say, hey, we're going to generate a billion dollars, right? And you turn around and say, well, how are we going to do it? You're like, well, we're going to do things and stuff.

Steven Graves [00:31:43]:

Well, let's define the things and stuff.

Steven Graves [00:31:45]:


Steven Graves [00:31:45]:

And so if you're making $100 million a year and you want to be a billion dollar company, well, first you have to be 200, then you have to be 300, right? And so what are those multiple steps and hurdles and iterations you have to go through, but you have to define those, right? And you have to explain why.

Steven Graves [00:32:01]:


Steven Graves [00:32:02]:

So if I'm 100 million and now I'm 500 million, you are successful.

Steven Graves [00:32:06]:

Right. But what are the next steps? To hit 700, to hit 1 billion. Right.

And so explaining that why and making sure that it's really articulated in a way that each person, each recipient understands is important. Every time that I've had one that we'll call went off track or it was suboptimal, you find that you didn't have all key stakeholders and constituents aligned.

And so spending that time to make sure and also realizing the nonverbal and what I mean by that is people will say, absolutely, I'm on board with you 100%, but your head's going the wrong direction. And so understanding and aligning like the nonverbal and verbal cues is very important if you want to be successful.

Jess Carter [00:32:56]:

So, I mean, it's impressive to me that you're saying that when you have worked at such large companies, because I imagine that's much harder at companies with hundreds and hundreds or thousands of people in your department than when there are 13 and you're staring at them every day. And change management. You're talking about change management. And I just feel like the world undervalues that. Do you feel like larger firms have a better, deeper appreciation and they'll pony up to invest in change management?

Steven Graves [00:33:25]:

I think larger firms will commit opex dollars to have a structure for change management, but it's still daunting. I mean, when I work for Wells Fargo, you're a global company. And so just think about aligning all the different presidents, all the key stakeholders on a global basis. On one initiative. It's really challenging. And so they'll have a PMO, a project office, and commit to the change management. But it's just always hard because it goes back to the human element and helping people realize what got you here won't get you there.

Right? Big deal. And so it's a daily drumbeat, right, that everyone has to understand, but I'd say they commit dollars. But it's equally challenging if you have 13 employees and you work for a small company, because we've always done it this way and we're successful. That's true. Okay, well, we can keep doing it this way, and you'll be successful, but how do you get here?

Right. And so I think it's asking the thought-provoking questions. In a smaller entity, you are the change champion.


In a larger company, you're influencing that.


And you need to get more champions.

Jess Carter [00:34:42]:

Wow, that is gold. And so insightful. I think I continue to be moved by the amount in which you are conveying the significance of the leadership component here. Like defining success, probing questions that will help people, maybe socratically get there. Some people are really numbers-minded. We equally have people who are like, I don't care about the numbers. I don't care if we go from 100 million to 250,000,000. I want to know that my career grew or that the outcomes for my clients were greater.

Jess Carter [00:35:14]:

That's what I care about. And so tying all of those desires together to say, hey, actually this is a strategy that does all of that is tricky.

Steven Graves [00:35:24]:

It goes back to that word finesse.

Steven Graves [00:35:26]:


Steven Graves [00:35:26]:

And so explaining it in digestible portions for each person, that's art and science.

Jess Carter [00:35:32]:

Yeah, give that to an AI model and see if that'll work. And we have jobs. For sure. Oh, man. Okay. Another curiosity as I interrogate you here, so we already talked about tech is changing constantly, like so fast. Rapidly. I was joking. I don't know anyone who is a computer science major right now that can go through a four-year college and stay up to date. I just think that must be so difficult for those departments.

Jess Carter [00:36:00]:

I'm curious about how you make sure yourself and your teams stay current with the latest advancements. Like, do you have a prototyping team that goes out and tries all the new stuff and breaks it? Or what does it look like for you to make sure that a whale, if you will, of a large company can stay kind of current and agile or is that important?

Steven Graves [00:36:24]:

Yeah, absolutely. Very important. So I'll start with the team aspect of it. It's very important for me as a leader to make sure that everybody on the team has a learning journey. Right?

Steven Graves [00:36:35]:

And so I have a learning journey. I share it with the team. But that's something that we built together. And so understanding how you continue to progress personally and professionally is huge. And a huge component of that is making sure that it's documented. And we all know that if you don't write it down, it doesn't happen. It's like weight loss. I'll start on Monday and Monday never comes.

And it's like three years later. And so I would say for the team it's that documentation and really making sure that you support that, whether it's weekly, one on ones, informal, touch base, but let them know that you're vested in their career is very important. Personally, I'm more of an insomniac, right. So I get up at four or 05:00 in the morning. I'd like to say I work out every day for the most part I do, but I get up at 05:00 in the morning and I try to spend 2 hours a day reading, right? 2 hours a day reading. Whether it's what's the latest technology, what's the latest business enablement capability that's available, but keeping your mind active and then taking that is very important. But you have to look beyond the textbook. You have to look at the personal application of it and see how you can get better, how you can make the company better.

And I would say you have to have this insatiable desire to sit back and say, guess what? I'm going to move the needle today. It may be 1cm.


But I'm going to move the needle forward. So that's kind of me and the team. But also I spend a lot of time, know, networking with peers in industry. So, as I mentioned, I'm part of the Ohio CIO Technology Forum. Just some really masterminds there. And so being able to talk to them bounce ideas. So that peer interaction. I'm part of the International Food and Beverage Association CIO forum.

The NRF. And so spending time and talking with peers, it gives you a different vantage point. And so as you're looking at unique capabilities or challenges for your organization, when you stay current, you're able to figure out how you can apply that to your business. And so those are just a few things I do.

Jess Carter [00:38:43]:

You're a lifelong learner, aren't you? You love to learn.

Steven Graves [00:38:45]:

Absolutely. Yes.

Jess Carter [00:38:47]:

Yeah, I think that's awesome.

Steven Graves [00:38:49]:

That's goal is to have a learning culture for every organization. And it's tough, right? Because not everybody wants to learn.

Jess Carter [00:38:56]:

Yeah, absolutely. There's stability that people desire, and learning requires change. So interesting. So I have maybe one more question, and then I would spend the rest of the day recording with you because I'm so fascinated by your experiences, but I will allow you to be released from my presence.

Steven Graves [00:39:18]:

Joy. This is great.

Jess Carter [00:39:19]:

Well, I'm just having a lot of know you've you've hinted at not you don't just look at the IT department with blinders on. And you talk a lot about business outcomes. You talk about collaboration, the PMO, change management, et cetera. I'm curious if you can share insights or experiences on cross functional collaboration and how you've effectively bridged that gap between tech and the business or the rest of the business, whatever it is. And or if you want to share some war stories about times that that did not work, I'm happy to receive those.

Steven Graves [00:39:55]:

Oh, man. Well, I think I'll focus on the ones that did work for a second.

Jess Carter [00:39:58]:

That sounds good.

Steven Graves [00:39:59]:

I go back to and I'll talk about some key initiatives. So I remember years ago, we would actually do physical inventory in stores and distributions by paper, right. People would physically walk around and count. And so that was right for transformation. So we implemented new technology where you could scan, you had QR codes to do things and you had RFID tags, right? So reinventing the supply chain, huge opportunity, making sure that we move from those physical processes to automated processes. I look at like, labor scheduling. There used to be a time, where you know, a store would actually say, okay, Jenny, Steven, are going to work, right? They'd write on a piece of paper and they'd call Jenny and say, hey, would you call me back? Right, well, that doesn't work, Jenny's not available, Steven's not coming in today. And so being able to automate all those things, so, you're know, machine learning models where it's looking at your workforce as a whole, it's looking at their schedules and optimization. So to me, that's the technology side.

But how do you get there, right? You got to spend time and understand how the process works. And so, you know, one of the things that I've always done in my career as a technologist is to go to the source. So I go back to, I'll use JCPenney, I actually would go out to stores every Friday, like every single Friday. And we had a process called, it's called from door to floor. And that process means you're unloading a truck, you have to receive inventory, it has to get on the floor, you have to tag it, and you have to have it ready, merchandise ready to sell. Well, from a technologist perspective, it's like, hey, I give you what you need, you have point of sale, life's good. But actually I took all the leaders out to the store and we unloaded the trucks and we actually watched the process and we watched the tools or lack of tools, and we were part of that fulfillment process. And out of that we realized, oh my God, the technology you have is very primitive.

And so we were able to take that back, work along with our partners in merchandise and planning and allocation and supply chain and refactor the entire process. And so I would say you need to know what you're building for, you need to know your customer. And I think a lot of times we sit back and we say “the customer,” right? Well, today we're all vying for the same dollar. If you spend a dollar at Starbucks, you're not going to spend it at Donato's, right? And so there's only so much discretionary income that's available. And so I look at it as understanding that process, taking friction out of it so that the customers can have a smooth journey, that's key. But you have to bring everybody together to understand that. And so it's tough, but you have to be humble and realize what you don't know. But you have to be willing to go out there and get the data empirically.

Jess Carter [00:42:59]:

Wow, it's like a master class. I think that it's awesome, this door to floor concept. I think anyone could take a problem that they have and challenge themselves to say, am I close enough to the people experiencing the process? Is it seamless or where is there friction? So I think that is super, super cool. And then I also loved your vantage point of just where you sit today in your leadership role of discretionary income. Your competition isn't just another pizza place. Your competition is whenever anyone's spending money on something, they're either spending it on you or they're not. And so that openness to who is your real competition.

And part of that is who is it just easy for a customer to work with and engage with? I think that's so. And that brings technology so clearly and effortlessly to the strategy of any business. If you aren't using technology to make your customer experience more seamless and easier than anyone that would be a competitor in the broadest sense, what are we doing? I think that's so cool.

Steven Graves [00:44:04]:

Thank you. I always look, and I always say to the team, people vote with their dollars, and they vote with their wallets. Right? And so if your app doesn't work, there's friction. Guess what? I'll go to another company because I have choice.

Jess Carter [00:44:18]:

Yeah, absolutely. Wow. Okay. Well, is there anything there's so many things I would talk about. Is there anything we haven't hit that you think is really important for us to touch on today?

Steven Graves [00:44:26]:

You know, I love the dialogue, you know, great questions. I would say just focusing on the experience. At end of the day, having a great experience, making sure you know, I go back to Walmart, we'd say, “Are you ready, fast, and full?” Do you have what the customer needs? Right? And really being customer-centric is the key to any business being successful. So focusing on the customer, making sure that it's priced right, that it's available, is going to help you be most successful. So I thoroughly enjoyed this. It's been great.

Jess Carter [00:45:01]:

It's amazing. You have so many quick mantras and experiences that you can tie back to that are catchy and helpful to put some of the dialogue to use, like, really understand how to apply it. So, thanks for sharing your insights, Steven. I really appreciate you being here. Hey, if people want to follow you, how can they do that?

Steven Graves [00:45:20]:

I would say the best way to follow me is on LinkedIn. That's probably the best way to do it. I'm still working on building out some of the other avenues on social, but that's probably the best way right now.

Jess Carter [00:45:30]:

Awesome. Okay. We will make sure that they know how to do that. And yeah. Thanks for being here today.

Steven Graves [00:45:37]:

Thank you for having me. Thanks.

Jess Carter [00:45:39]:

Thank you for listening, guys. I'm your host, Jess Carter. Don't forget to follow the Data Driven Leadership wherever you get your podcasts and rate and review, letting us know how these data topics are transforming your business. This is a moment where we get to listen to our customers and understand how to improve the podcast to make it more effective for you. We can't wait for you to join us in our next episode.

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