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Tom Grooms

Episode 29: The Business-IT Engagement System for Maximizing Business Growth, with Tom Grooms

Tom Grooms is Vice President, Information Technology and Chief Information Officer for CF Industries, a role he has held since March 2016.

Tom joined CF Industries from Valspar, where he served as CIO for four years. Prior to Valspar he held numerous executive IT leadership roles with Medtronic for over seventeen years.

Tom has a Bachelor of Science in Finance from Valparaiso University and an MBA from University of Illinois-Chicago.

What you’ll learn about in this episode:

  • What a CIO does in IT
  • The engagement between the business and IT: why it matters
  • Tom’s Business-IT Engagement System
  • The pyramid for maximizing IT impact and what needs to be done well at each level
  • How IT can help grow the business
  • Why you need to assign “business partners” to lead this engagement
  • The continuous delivery model that makes IT effective
  • Why IT people have to learn to become great listeners and great question askers
  • Why you need to think 18 months out
  • Collecting the right data

Ways to contact Tom:


Welcome to System Execution, the strategy and system behind today’s successful companies. Systems can make or break your company, but here we’ll solve your physical, technological, and psychological systems issues by connecting you with experts that have succeeded in overcoming those challenges in their own business and providing you the guidelines and tools you need to implement those same strategies for immediate results.

Now here’s your host, Vera Fischer.

Vera Fischer: Today’s episode is sponsored by 97 Degrees West, the brand marketing agency located in Austin, Texas. 97 Degrees West serves regional and national companies in the healthcare, finance, energy, and manufacturing industries.

97 Degrees West believes that an integrated approach to marketing that involves traditional and digital strategies that fit your customers’ buying journey yields the greatest impact on your bottom line.

Go to www.97DWest.com to learn more.

Welcome to System Execution, a podcast devoted to using processes and systems to drive to a better outcome for your business. I’m Vera Fischer, your host. All businesses no matter the size relies on systems. Some of these are physical systems such as a factory, some are technological like project management software, and others are psychological systems such as checklists and organizational charts. A lot of these systems are going to overlap in your business.

Today’s guest, Tom Grooms, is the Chief Information Officer and VP of Information Technology at CF Industries. Tom joined CF Industries where he came from Valspar where he served as CIO for four years. Prior to Valspar he held numerous executive IT leadership roles with Medtronic for more than 17 years. Tom has a Bachelor of Science in Finance from Valparaiso University and an MBA from the University of Illinois in Chicago. Welcome to System Execution, Tom.

Tom Grooms: Thanks, Vera. Great to be with you.

Vera Fischer: Tom, we’re really excited to talk with you given your background and while I really gave a glimpse of your background to our listeners, Thomas, tell us more about you and where you come from.

Tom Grooms: Sure, thank you very much for having me. I was born and raised in Western Illinois. My dad worked for John Deere for a long time and his dad also worked for John Deere for a very long time.

By the time I graduated from college, unfortunately, John Deere was having a really difficult time. They were firing people not hiring people, so that led me to really focus a search on Chicago and started my career there actually in sales. I can talk more about that later, but I think that’s really helped my career in information technology.

I started in sales, got an MBA, switched my career to IT at the time that PCs were really first being used in the business and was doing financial services at the time. Financial Services combined with technology was really my first IT role, it was helping people use electronic training systems. Everything had been done by paper prior to that and then that led to project management.

Then we moved to start a family in Minnesota and that’s where I started with Medtronic. I had a wonderful career there, lived in Florida. They’re headquartered in Minnesota, of course. I lived in Florida for a number of years helping integrate a business.

I worked in Tokyo and was responsible for IT across all of Asia. I had a great opportunity there for five years to live in Tokyo and then came back to Minnesota. Then had an opportunity to become CIO at Valspar which is a paint manufacturer and coatings manufacturer headquartered in Minneapolis as well.

Then I had the opportunity to come to CF Industries about a year ago to come back to Chicago where my wife is from and where I grew up in Illinois as I said, so that’s the quick version of my career and what got us back to Chicago.

What a CIO’s Role is Within an Organization

Vera Fischer: That’s really cool. I love stories like that, Tom, where you just go all over and try a lot of different things and it’s never a straight line to get where you are today, that’s for sure.

Let me ask you, Tom, could you give our listeners just a really small debrief on really what the role CIO is within an organization or information technology. I think some of us tend to think of it as very computer geeky and I just don’t think it’s that way anymore.

Tom Grooms: Sure, so it’s a great role because IT is everywhere. The thing I really like the most actually about this role is that you get access to and can help drive improvements in all parts of the business. From accounting to marketing to manufacturing, all different functions of a business utilize technology and so you get that very unique view within a company where you look across the entire company.

That view really helps you in terms of helping drive the business beyond technology, but really being able to gain insights from up and down stream impacts that a business process might have and new technologies that can help you better serve your customers.

You even get that opportunity as well I should mention to really see CF and my example from the perspective of a customer because likewise they also use technology provided by CF to do business with CF, so you really get the full 360 degree view including suppliers because likewise technology is used to help manage suppliers.

That’s probably the thing that I would say is most unique about it compared to other functions within a business. The technology anymore has really obviously changed from what used to be proprietary hosted technology that served just a few basic functions within a business say namely accounting, for example.

It has now really grown into all aspects of all parts of business even beyond really traditional recordkeeping, things like that to include communications and weather. We gather information about everything and it’s really become … The new challenge for an IT professional is now how do you gain insight from this overloaded information that we have.

That’s probably our number one challenge now is applying analytics properly to gain insight for decision-making to other recordkeeping in the systems and all those things are pretty mature. It’s really now harnessing the value of data to help make better decisions.

Tom’s Business-IT Engagement System

Vera Fischer: That’s a really great explanation and a great segway into the process or the system that we want to focus on today. I know we had talked a little bit off the record as far as what CF Industries’ next goal is from an internal perspective.

Let’s get started and tell us about that specific system that you seem to be working on right now.

Tom Grooms: Sure, so our system that we’re focusing on is engagement. What we mean by that is engagement between the business and IT. There’s several reasons why that’s important. The main reason why that’s important is to help the business achieve their goals.

For IT to maximize our impact we really look at that model through the lens of a pyramid. If you think about the shape of a pyramid and the base of the pyramid is where we focus on connectivity and security, so these are the standard things that IT has always done which is networking computers together. Now, of course, that includes mobile devices and other things.

If you can’t do that foundationally, do that well, then you really don’t earn the credibility to do higher order things that impact the business. For example, on top of the connectivity and security would be the reliability that the business counts on to be able to do things like create a new customer or process an order, day-to-day things.

We consider those to be all about reliability. They’re basic, they’re thought of as table sticks, so you have to be able to do these things in a business environment and we want to be able to ensure that we do them reliably.

Those two together are what we consider how we would help run the business. That’s halfway up the pyramid. The upper part of the pyramid is how we can help grow the business. That’s really around capability and then the top order would be competitiveness, so the very tip of the top of the pyramid is helping the business be more competitive. If that’s where you start, but you haven’t built the credibility or the foundation underneath it you’re really not going to get very far.

That’s why we keep that in mind to run the business well in order to free up resources and free up dollars to be invested in helping grow the business. Anything we would do to help increase efficiency in running the business can be reinvested to help grow the business, so at a high level that’s how we approach our work.

Then we use a model of engagement where we have people who are dedicated to being business partners with the different functions to build out a roadmap that we can execute on to help them meet their goals and objectives.

Vera Fischer: Tom, is this sytem something that you have seen in other companies? Is this something new that you’ve brought to the table?

Tom Grooms: No, I’d say it’s the former, so this is a general practice. I think maybe what we do, what I’d like to think that we do well is we really are committed to it and actually make it work, so we’re invested in it and we live and breathe it. It’s a little bit difficult to do because in order to become a business partner you really have to prove your credibility.

It really takes a lot of trust and it really takes a lot of commitment and willingness to be really vulnerable, to be honest, to be able to have conversations with people. I don’t really understand your business, I don’t really know what you do in manufacturing. Help me understand that, so I can help you by applying technology.

I think that’s really where typically it becomes so difficult on both parties’ part whether it’s the business or IT to work through that to go up that learning curve to where you can be knowledgeable enough to partner. That’s probably the difference perhaps from the concept to the reality.

Vera Fischer: Tom, when you’re speaking about the business partner is that from an internal perspective or external?

Tom Grooms: Yeah, the business partner is focused primarily on internal stakeholders.

The Roadmap Tom’s Company Uses to Share Goals with their Shareholders

Vera Fischer: Okay, and so really getting those folks together so that you do understand what it is that they do and bringing them along to this engagement vision if you will. Is that correct?

Tom Grooms: That’s right, that’s right. The technique we use is a roadmap, so we have a roadmap that goes out six quarters or 18 months into the future. This helps us be able to prioritize the goals and objectives onto a roadmap that makes it very visual, so people can see Chevrons on a roadmap that are linked together. We phase the work, so that we’re not trying to deliver something in one step or what would traditionally be referred to as a big bang.

Traditionally IT would deliver things in a big bang and the reason they would do that is it was like when you would get work done on your car. You’d go in, start to get some work done and they would say oh, while we have the hood up why don’t we just do this other thing that also needs work. That was easier to just do everything all in one shot, so you didn’t have to come and make multiple visits and it was cheaper to just do it while we have the hood up. That’s basically what led to a big bang type of approach with delivering an IT solution.

The new way of doing that now is referred to as agile. What agile means is you’re delivering things continuously in smaller sizes. I like to think of it as a menu at a restaurant, so in the past people would literally order everything on the menu. Then IT would say, okay, and then they’d turn around and they go into the kitchen and they’d say, guess what, we have this order and we’re going to cook everything on the menu and deliver it.

When you do that it’s going to take a long time to cook all that food. There’s no way that the person who ordered the food is ready to eat that much food. By the time you deliver it it’s cold and it’s not the right amount and it’s terrible, so instead we like to work with our business partners on what do you need to order for this meal. The restaurant will be open and you can come back tonight and we’ll serve dinner and then tomorrow morning we’ll serve breakfast and so on. It’s more continuous and it’s more fresh and it’s delivered right on time in just the right amount.

It’s developing that momentum that people trust that they don’t need to ask for everything because they’re not going to starve, so it’s switching from this starvation mentality where they literally are hoarding things because they’re not sure you’re ever going to come by and talk to them again. They’re just going to order everything they can think of versus a continuous delivery model which is really what is all about agile if you’ve heard that referred to before, so that’s the trick to making this work.

Why Business Partners Need to Be Experts at Systems

Vera Fischer: Well, I really … Agile is definitely something that I’m sure our listeners have heard of as I have, but I do like your phrase of continuous delivery model. I think that’s a really explanatory, “get it” phrase.

From your business partner is that the leaders within different departments internally or do they … How do you pick them?

Tom Grooms: Yeah. It’s an interesting role because you’re really working closely with the business, so our focus is in three areas. For this team, the business partner team, it’s a group of analysts that all work together to support one business function. That might be sales, it might be finance, it might be manufacturing, so they’re altogether dedicated to manufacturing.

They focus on three things, so we want them to be experts in systems which is almost always the case today. People are very good at either SAP, which is an ERP platform, or Oracle or SalesForce.com or those types of things that people would recognize. The systems part typically IT people always have that, but we also need to then include an expertise on data and on business process.

We want those analysts to really know what is the business process practiced by, in this case, manufacturing. What is it they’re actually trying to do, what is their business process because that’s not always completely represented in the system. Only usually a portion of what they do in their day-to-day work is using a system, but they do other things outside of a system.

We want them to understand that because many times that’s also where the data flows and sometimes data is kept offline in a spreadsheet, for example, or you just really need to understand what people are doing, so it’s kind of like a study. It’s almost like anthropology in a way, so you’re really trying to understand why people are doing this, what they’re trying to do, how they’re doing it and round yourself off.

You’re thinking about the system, of course, but you also need to understand the business process and then the data that’s required to run that business process, so that’s what’s unique about it is combining those three things together to deliver value to the business.

Vera Fischer: Is this within the credibility part of your triangle analogy or in the competitiveness part or is it both?

Tom Grooms: Yeah, so it’s both. It’s both grow because many times when you’re doing that work typically what you’re encountering first is … When you begin is a capability gap. You would see that they are good at serving their customers, but the gap might be we don’t really have a good way to determine pricing.

Of course, we provide pricing because that’s how you are able to sell your product. Our system may be used only to capture the details of an order which include price, but maybe you had to do some other work offline to determine the right price. As to what we would be missing in that case would be … We’d have a gap in our capability to use a system and data to come up with the right price, so that might be the first order. In helping grow would be filling in the capability gaps.

As far as competitiveness goes that typically involves your customer, so this is now the external part of it. You’re working with your internal business partner to serve the customer in a way to help you be more competitive in the marketplace, so that might be online capabilities that a customer can use. Self-service might be a good example where the customer has access to a self-service capability, building apps for a mobile phone, things along those lines.

Where Tom’s Business-IT Engagement System Could Improve

Vera Fischer: I think that’s really interesting, so we’re going to segway just a little bit. Now we’re going to talk about the not so fun stuff. Tell us a little bit about some failure points where … things we have to look out for when we’re assigning these business partners, if you will, and any other pitfalls in this particular system.

Tom Grooms: Yeah, so as IT people we are very comfortable with solutions. We’re naturally perhaps good at problem solving and we can imagine a solution to a problem, so that’s the good part. The bad part of that is that many times the person that you’re speaking with gets the impression that you didn’t really hear what they said because you were already thinking about solutions.

It’s really learning how to become a good listener and be a more effective communicator and so that’s the challenge is to not jump to a solution when you’ve only heard half the problem. Or you might have heard one problem, but you need to ask better questions to determine if there aren’t other problems that would end up having a greater value and, therefore, should be prioritized ahead of other problems.

It’s kind of that old analogy of a squeaky wheel gets the grease. Yeah, the squeaky wheel might come by and complain and you react. Maybe through that conversation you would learn that, okay, you’re complaining about this, but actually this other area upstream in the process or downstream in the process you need to fix that first or that has a bigger impact now that I understand it. It’s really making sure you take the time and effort and the skills and the techniques to listen.

Vera Fischer: I love that, Tom. That is so great because you think that the IT folks get to hide from communication and they really don’t, so that’s validating.

Tom Grooms: Yeah. Yep, that’s what it’s all about.

How to Measure Business Success Using the Roadmap Technique

Vera Fischer: That’s what it’s all about. On the roadmap that you guys do for six quarters or 18 months tell me how you measure success within that roadmap.

Tom Grooms: Great question, so really there’s a couple of ways to look at it. The first way is if you look six quarters out … Many times when you get started on this process you look six quarters out that’s pretty much a white space. It’s difficult for anybody, IT people, business people, anybody to really think through what the world is going to look like 18 months from now.

The challenge is I’m just trying to get through today, how am I supposed to know what to do 18 months from now, so the measure is how much are you able to put on your roadmap 18 months out into the future. If you’re able to really put anything out there that’s good because now what that means is that’s a measure to me of the level of your strategic thinking.

Vera Fischer: Interesting.

Tom Grooms: If you’re having those conversations and you’re thinking about that enough to even be able to put something down on a PowerPoint 18 months out in the future that tells me we’re having the right conversations. We’re thinking about this strategically and that’s really what we’re trying to do.

Our strategy … If people ask me what is your IT strategy, our strategy for CF given where we are today our strategy is to become strategic. Part of the way we do that is by using roadmaps and thinking about and talking about 18 months out into the future which for me by definition means you must be more strategic than you were before. That’s the primary measure.

Then, of course, the other measure is how much … You can measure the level of engagement as well by how much stuff is on your roadmap. If you have a roadmap and you got some stuff on there, okay, great, you have two or three things compared to a different roadmap with a different function in the business that has two or three pages of stuff that’s got a ton of granularity.

Well, you have much more engagement with that group than the other group. Now why? There may be various reasons. The business partner may be more open or naturally excited about applying technology, who knows, but you’ll learn that by talking about what’s on the roadmap and how much granularity is on there and how many different things are on there.

Other Challenges in the IT Field

Vera Fischer: Have you ever had to replace a business manager on this team, of this engagement team?

Tom Grooms: A business partner?

Vera Fischer: Yeah, a business partner, sorry.

Tom Grooms: Yeah, sure. Have I ever had … That’s a good question, have I ever had to replace a business partner. I’ve had to replace them because we switched up the way we were organized, so as the business changes … We mirror … Our business partnership is a mirror of the way the functions are organized.

For us at CF we’re organized to where our senior vice-president of sales and supply chain is responsible for sales and supply chain. Now if that ever changed and he was responsible for only sales and we had someone else responsible for supply chain then we would need to add a new business partner.

Vera Fischer: Once you get those business partners they seem to all be pretty onboard with communicating and sharing information because you had mentioned earlier that being vulnerable was a really big deal. To be able to say look, man, I don’t know what you do in your world across the table.

Tom Grooms: Right. Yeah, I’d have to think more about that, Vera, because nothing comes to mind.

Vera Fischer: Okay.

Tom Grooms: At this time.

Vera Fischer: I think maybe my listeners have some visual in their head and I certainly do of about a bunch of guys sitting around the table having to fess up to the fact that I may know what my people are doing, but I really don’t know what you all do.

Tom Grooms: Right, right.

Vera Fischer: When technically they’re supposed to know.

Tom Grooms: Yeah, right. That’s exactly right and that’s part of the culture of IT is over years we didn’t need to know. We just told people look, this is how this system works, deal with it.

Vera Fischer: Right.

Tom Grooms: That world doesn’t exist anymore and, in fact, what we find that we’re working more and more from a … We’re really more of a solution broker anymore, so many times we don’t even own the solution. It’s in the cloud is the best example and we help in that case provide the solution by making sure that we’re implementing it correctly, we’re doing it in a phased approach, we’re focused on the highest priority areas first, really more setting us up for success more than being the solution provider.

That’s a big change in … For many IT people that’s a big change and this is a model that helps you embrace that because that’s not the important … The measure is not whether you post the technology enough, the measure is are you adding value to the business.

Why Tom’s System is the Holy Grail of Business-IT Engagement

Vera Fischer: Exactly, and do you find that this is something that you’re doing at CF? Are other companies doing this? Are you thinking that maybe this isn’t something that a lot of folks are doing?

Tom Grooms: This is the Holy Grail of Business-IT Engagement Systems.

Vera Fischer: The Holy Grail, excellent. It’s also based on from your pyramid knowing that the connectivity, the security, and the reliability are already squared away. That allows you to focus on the credibility and the competitiveness.

Tom Grooms: That’s right and that’s where our focus should be more on that than on how we do it. That’s not really that important, how you do it.

Vera Fischer: Not anymore.

Tom Grooms: No, so that’s really the … I think because of the fact that we are engaged with the business and we have this model and the business is bought into the model, too, because they’re frustrated with IT because they’re like I don’t know how you guys do your stuff. I just know I need this and I don’t know how to express to you what I’m trying to do or how I’m trying to do it.

That’s really again where the engagement happens because they’re equally vulnerable. They’re not usually nor should they be experts at the technology.

It can be daunting and especially overwhelming when you try to not just apply a system, but now all this data that we all have to live with … That’s really again our next wave is addressing how we can utilize that data. Take control of it meaning we’re going to drive the use of that data, not let it drive us and still be able to make sense of it and make progress because it becomes so much of a tidal wave that it’s overwhelming.

This is again, a way to help people move through it and make progress and deal with it without feeling they have to do some really gigantic project or make some really big investment. It’s a way to be able to move forward and do it in an agile way.

Solving the Challenge of Collecting and Interpreting Data

Vera Fischer: That’s a really good segway into talking about your next challenge and that data. I would imagine that I think a lot of people get hung up with, okay, there is so much data. From the beginning are we collecting data that we really need or are we just collecting data to collect it, so we say we have it.

Tom Grooms: That’s right. It’s not only collecting it, not only collecting the right amount like you said and collecting the right things, but is the data that we have does it even have integrity or quality? The equivalents of that are we could have customers that we don’t even realize are duplicates, things of that nature.

Again it becomes very difficult to take the time and make the investment in data because it’s owned by the business, it’s their asset. Typically again it was shared or largely viewed as an IT-driven thing, but now people are realizing that it’s not. It’s really a business-owned thing, IT can help enable it.

People are realizing that at the same time they’re realizing just how big of a problem it is.

Vera Fischer: Exactly. I see that in a lot of other companies that I speak with and it’s the foundation of everything that you do. Most people don’t think so linearly if you will and that’s really what it is.

Tom Grooms: That’s right. Vera, I apologize, I’m a couple of minutes late for another meeting. I know we got a late start today because of my own humbling technology skills.

Vera Fischer: Not a problem. Why don’t we do this. If you can just tell our listeners if they’d like to reach out to you to get more information, if you would just tell us how to connect with you and then we’ll wrap it up.

Tom Grooms: Yeah, sure. Probably the best way would be through Twitter and my Twitter handle is @TomGrooms.

Vera Fischer: Awesome. System Execution fans, no matter how many notes you took or how often you re-listen to this episode the key is every successful business uses systems to drive to a better outcome.

Tom, thank you so much for sharing your internal engagement process and insight to our listeners today.

Tom Grooms: Thanks, Vera, it was a lot of fun to talk to you.

I hope you found this episode of System Execution on Business-IT Engagement Systems to be enlightening. For free examples, case studies, feed books and more be sure to visit SystemExecution.com/resources. Contribute to the conversation by reaching out to Vera directly on email at Vera@SystemExecution.com. Until our next episode thank you for the privilege of your time.




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