How to Get Tech Leaders Invited to the Business Table

The five steps David Cefai has taken to unite business strategies and IT initiatives at Kinross Gold

David Cefai has more than two decades of experience in IT and helping companies develop robust and strategic technology infrastructures to improve efficiencies. He studied at the University of Western Ontario and earned his MBA from York University before starting his career at Celestica, where he became vice president of the company’s global supply-chain operations. In 2005, Cefai joined Direct Energy as vice president of information technology and later moved to AMD before joining Kinross in 2009.

1. Commit to building real expertise

In the mid-1990s, David Cefai heard a procurement officer say something that has stuck with him ever since. “He wanted someone who could look at a business problem and translate it into technical requirements that an IT organization could actually deliver on,” Cefai says. More than two decades later, Cefai is chief information officer and vice president of IT for Kinross Gold Corporation—one of the world’s largest gold-mining companies. Although Cefai has spent his entire career embedding his IT professionals into each business he’s worked with, he laments the fact that his peers often relegate themselves to lesser roles. “Many times, IT officers are just developing their technical abilities instead of building real expertise in technology and business to solve problems in different ways,” he says.

Cefai says he went into IT after earning a degree in electrical engineering and an MBA because the track provides the best of both worlds by merging the technical and business components. Most major change initiatives for a company have a significant IT component that helps enable that change; IT touches every aspect of a business. IT leaders, Cefai has found, will only get invited to participate in business discussions if they truly understand IT, their industry, and their company.

2. Start with the basics

When Cefai joined Kinross in 2009, he inherited a fairly immature IT department. In mining, all sites come through acquisitions, and that means he found himself leading a mishmash of legacy applications and IT teams that lacked a cohesive strategy. At the same time, system performance and uptimes posed problems. According to Cefai, a CIO stepping into a similar situation should focus on implementing the right processes and architecture to tackle basic needs and get things running smoothly. Most often, that’s best accomplished through standards. “I wanted us to be viewed as a strategic business partner, and I knew that wouldn’t happen until we started delivering on the foundational tasks,” he explains. “You have to grow into actually adding value instead of simply providing services, if you don’t want to be outsourced.”

At Kinross, basic messaging reliability was problematic. Regions like Chile or Brazil would often lose the ability to send or receive e-mail. “I knew we had to get these base-level services corrected,” Cefai says. “I couldn’t go to colleagues and talk about strategy if e-mail wasn’t working.” So, for the first 18 months on the job, he concentrated on a complete infrastructure overhaul that resulted in a 90 percent drop in e-mail outages.

3. Recruit and develop the right people

When it comes to building an IT department, Cefai looks at three things: people, process, and architecture. First and foremost, bringing in the right people is critical. “You have to have people with the skill set you need for your specific goals,” Cefai says. “That means finding the right mix of talent and high performance.” An IT leader, he’s found, needs to assess what kind of talent the department already has and then plug in any missing pieces.

Once those people are in place, culture and development become the two most important pieces to maintaining a quality environment. Cefai preaches two things: commitment and integrity. His associates know that if they promise something, they must deliver. He also asks for complete honesty and transparency. “It’s okay to admit when you’re wrong or you’ve made a mistake,” Cefai says. “I’d rather be wrong than confused, because at least when I’m wrong I know I have a problem to solve.”

4. Engage business leaders

Any time Cefai joins a new organization, he devotes the first 100 days to learning that company’s vision and goals. In his first year at Kinross, he visited every mine site and talked to every general manager. In doing so, an IT leader can uncover basic problems he or she can tackle—even problems outside of traditional IT roles. Cefai asks what challenges leaders, what frustrates them, and what they need from IT. The approach often uncovers repeated themes that help clarify and build an IT road map. At Kinross, those discussions lead Cefai to start with infrastructure problems before focusing on improving the enterprise-resource group.

In mining or other industries where IT isn’t always front and centre, leaders tend to think of IT only for e-mail, Internet access, or new equipment. “Basic issues are only 5 percent of the value IT can bring,” Cefai says. “The real value is in driving efficiencies and enabling better decision-making. That’s what we want our business partners to realize.” Cefai helps his team become more business savvy so it can bring solutions to the table instead of assuming business partners already understand IT.

The decreasing value of gold has brought tough times upon Kinross and the mining industry in general. With prices dropping from $1,900 to $1,200 per ounce, the company is more cost focused. That gives IT an opportunity to shine. Historically, business reporting has been done manually on spreadsheets. Cefai is leading his team to develop business intelligence tools that will bring automation and enable better decision-making. One programmer can shorten reporting cycles and make his salary back several times for the company. It’s a chance for IT to drive efficiencies, save money, and demonstrate the department’s value.

5. Communicate and keep current

When a strategic win comes, Cefai lets the company know about it. “We communicate what’s happening so the business knows what we can do to help,” he says, adding that true success comes when one business partner sells another on IT’s value proposition.

As technology and business strategies evolve simultaneously, Cefai and his team members work hard to keep on top of emerging technologies. With solutions and concepts like big data, cloud, mobility, and the Internet of Things, no department can afford to stand still.