As the self-professed “head coach” of IT at Easton Bell-Sports, Robby McDonald is taking the department’s role from passive supplier of requested projects to business partner on the cutting edge
By Jill Yarberry-Laybourn
What do airlines, the military, software, sporting goods and chocolate have in common? You wouldn’t think much, but they do have Robby McDonald. After many diverse experiences, he is working his “dream job” as Vice President (VP) of Information Technology (IT) and Chief Information Officer (CIO) at Easton-Bell Sports. “I get to run IT and be around sports all day long,” he said.
Building a Team
Not only does McDonald have the opportunity to meet world-class athletes and be involved in developing cutting-edge sporting equipment, but he also gets to use sports metaphors to describe his winning leadership style. Because Easton-Bell was looking for someone to come in and be a change agent, he started by shrinking his 12 direct reports down to three and delegating.
“I took the organization and split it out,” McDonald said. He worked on his offense, hiring an “offensive coordinator who was focused on all the customer-facing applications. I hired a defensive coordinator to lead the defense, in charge of the back-office issues, trouble with servers, storage, networks and desktop support—the ‘keep-the-lights’ activity of the infrastructure environment. And then, I hired a Special Teams Coordinator who handled all the ancillary things that IT is generally called on to do—training, reporting, business intelligence.”
McDonald also sees the parallel between himself and a head coach. “At the end of the day, whether we win or lose, it is going to fall on my shoulders.” He adds that he isn’t the one “at the plate or snapping the ball,” but he is the one who has to make sure that IT is scoring touchdowns and hitting homeruns.
He may compare himself to a head coach, but he doesn’t micromanage. “I tell [my team] at the very beginning that it is their show, and I am there to back them up and help them remove any roadblocks that are in their way, whether they are financial, political or resources. My job is to make sure they have the tools to do their job, I ensure no one is getting in their way and that they have the resources to complete the task.”
Prior to Easton-Bell, McDonald has had a myriad of experiences. His IT career started at Continental Airlines. Next, he went into the Marines, where he gained a strong foundation in information systems, including different computer programs and languages. He was so adept that he earned two Navy Achievement Medals for writing programs that improved efficiency for the Marine Corp.
McDonald then headed off to Texas A&M to earn his degree. He went to work for Dell, and helped the company build out an ecommerce platform and a factory in China. He also worked for Cadbury, not developing great chocolate bars but rather leading the global development team.
Then, he landed at Easton-Bell. McDonald came in with a 90-day game plan, and the first step was to determine IT’s direction. McDonald surveyed and formally interviewed the stakeholders.
“During those conversations, it became very clear that the team, for whatever reason, was really focused on just completing projects that the business brought to them and not trying to understand more about the business and how they played a key, pivotal role in the business’s success.”
McDonald understood that to build credibility he had to make sure his team understood the business. “I created opportunities for business process owners to have direct relationships with IT, and they worked very closely together to understand what the goals and objectives were in those different organizations. Then, how technology could play a pivotal role in making those organizations better.”
He started a “day-in-the-life” effort, where “we basically implant an IT person inside the business and watch them work on a day-to-day basis to see what they are doing and how they are using technology. It was really digging in and getting on the frontlines and understanding it from their perspective.”
Building credibility is also reliant on bringing home the wins, or in IT language, delivering the projects. When McDonald arrived at Easton-Bell, “there was a list of over 400 different projects that were on spreadsheets, written on pieces of paper, napkins…” From there, McDonald divided the work out by business unit; with the help of the business process owners, they were able to minimize the list and reduce the workload.
Credibility comes with not just talking the talk, but walking the walk. McDonald and his team created a portfolio of projects to be completed and gave themselves delivery deadlines. “Our first month didn’t go so well, but every month after we hit over 95 percent that first year, and every subsequent year after we were able to hit 97 percent delivery.” It goes without saying that the IT team earned a lot of credibility.
Another vital part of McDonald’s game plan was ensuring effective communication. His team created a three-tiered steering committee. “This was the committee for the projects we would be working on going forward,” he said.
The top tier included the Chief Executive Officer, CIO and all the Brand Presidents. The next level consisted of the business process owners, including the Directors and VPs, where the committee was able to get a better understanding of where the business unit was going and what they saw as priorities. The final tier consisted of the individual contributors communicating with one another.
“Three different layers of touch and communication helped us understand what was really going on,” McDonald explained. “Oftentimes there is a lag in or lack of information flowing from the highest level down to the lowest level, so we were hitting it on all levels to make sure everyone understood what we were working on.” This communication was the defensive line that helped stop issues before they could become significant issues.
IT & Business Champions
The relationship between IT and the business is especially important at Easton-Bell, where their business is innovative technology. The company just released its helmet-fit technology for motorcycles, which measures a person’s head using laser technology and gives the wearer an exact fit. Likewise, with football helmets, “Using research we determined that a lot of concussions were happening because of the facemask’s impact on the frontal lobe or on the forehead, so we moved those out to try and disperse some of that impact.”
What is IT’s role? “We basically run the systems behind the scenes that help them crunch the data, help them pull the data in… We bring new products to the forefront for our elite teams to look at. We aren’t out there doing research and development, but we enable them to do those projects.”
When McDonald started his dream job, he hit the ground running. With a solid game plan and good leadership, he has been able to build a strong IT Department that is a great asset to the business. IT may not be able to bring home the Stanley Cup, but McDonald and his team members are world-class champions to Easton-Bell.
Jill Yarberry-Laybourn is a freelance writer based in Colorado.