Time to Let the CIO Pick Up the Phone

After an IT reboot, GPI's Vish Narendra has become an ambassador for both business and technology.

Over the past fourteen months, Vish Narendra has overseen what he calls an “IT reboot” at Georgia-based Graphic Packaging International (GPI), a Fortune 1000 company specializing in packaging solutions for a wide variety of products—from food and beverage labels to specialty machinery. GPI is also making strides in conservation efforts. In 2016, the company set a goal to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 15 percent and reduce non-renewable energy by 15 percent. In addition, GPI is supporting the industry goal of achieving a recovery of paper at a rate of 70 percent by 2020.

Now, the chief information officer is an ambassador of business and technology, earning a place in Leadership Atlanta’s Class of 2017. His work with TechBridge has also ensured that his expertise benefits countless nonprofits. Narendra spoke about the progress that has been made at GPI, his belief in the transformational possibilities of technology, and his willingness to play tennis at almost any hour of the day.   

Was your focus early in your career as technology-oriented as it is today?

Vish Narendra: My first job out of college in India was selling computer hardware and software. I’ve always been involved in technology in some way, and the field has always been of great interest. These days, however, it’s a little less about technology and more about business metrics and how we can accomplish those using technology.

Did any of that experience carry over to your current work at GPI?

Narendra: One of the accounts I had was the atomic research center and nuclear power reactor outside of my home city. My company had zero presence over there and I spent about eight months there building relationships. I would travel to the site every single week and just spend time there getting to know people and trying to figure out what problems they were trying to solve. Over the course of those eight months, I was able to crack that account and my company wound up with one of the largest government orders to date. I learned that it’s not always about just trying to close a deal. Sometimes you’re going to win and sometimes you’re going to lose, but if you try and build a relationship and solve problems, you’re going to be successful in the long run.

How does your focus on relationships apply to your team?

Narendra: The times that I have been the most successful—especially later in my career—are the times when my team has been successful. The only way teams can be successful is if they are empowered to act and their aspirations are being met. Those aspirations need to also intersect in a very meaningful way with company objectives. I can make those things come together if I get to know each of my team members and business partners. Every time I have found a way to match individual aspirations with business objectives, the team has delivered beyond belief.

What is one objective you knew you wanted to address upon assuming your role at GPI?

Narendra: One of the things that was not well established before I came to GPI was a strong business alignment. IT sort of ran as its own IT organization with limited business engagement, and the trust factor was not high. What I’ve done over the course of the last fourteen months is identify the key business stakeholders across the organization and make sure that someone from my team is aligned to them and that we are communicating all of the things that we’re doing on a regular basis to help make them successful. We are jointly prioritizing our actions and working toward common business goals.

So it sounds like both your clients and your team are better aligned.

Narendra: That’s business alignment. I’m trusting my team and am empowering them to be the flag-bearers for the organization and allowing them to have that strong degree of business interaction. That means the business now trusts us more than they have in the past. This also means we’ve been able to push a common agenda with the organization that is starting to bear fruit in significant ways.

You mentioned that you felt the IT department was in need of a “reboot.” What else has that meant these past fourteen months?

Narendra: We’re paying down our technology debt and investing in the future for how we go to market. We have the business calling us and asking us for ideas for how we can solve problems. To me, that strong business alignment and empowerment has started to show real growth.

In what capacity do you see the role of IT at GPI?

Narendra:  I’ve had enough time on the business side to know that if you don’t put practical, simple, intuitive solutions in place, people are not going to use them. That desire to drive either bottom-line or top-line growth  is more than specific design thinking. It’s really more about being pragmatic and working for solutions that expedite capability, improve productivity, and help the sales team close deals faster.

How do you know when you are succeeding?

Narendra: If we’re able to provide an immersive customer experience, drive end-to-end automation, and develop the analytics and insights needed to establish a competitive edge, then we are a critical part of the enterprise and an integral part of any conversation. Our goal is to get there. We are not there yet, but we’ve made some serious strides in the past fourteen months.

What are you the most proud of since taking over at GPI?

Narendra:  The trust factor with the business is the biggest thing I’m proud of. I can think of several business leaders who I’m pretty sure in the past would never have called the CIO. Now they do and we are working very closely on some of our key priorities. We’re in regular dialogue about our shared objectives. Things that in the past would have been IT priorities are now business priorities and vice versa.

Your online profile features a picture of you playing golf. Is that a hobby you particularly enjoy?

Narendra:  [Laughs] Golf is an infinite source of frustration. I’m more of a tennis player. I’m a little wacky and passionate about tennis. If you wake me up in the middle of the night and want to play, I’ll play.