Founded in 1938 by twenty-three outdoorsy friends, Recreational Equipment, Inc. (REI) now serves more than 20 million members with over $3 billion in sales across nearly 200 U.S. stores. REI has even grander ambition for the next decade.
Long focused on retailing, the co-op now also offers travel services, training courses and virtual fittings. Notably, REI estimates that over 70 percent of profits are still directed to member dividends, employee bonuses and funding nonprofits.
REI’s 2030 strategic goals include significant membership growth, broader service offerings and increased philanthropy. With IT vital to those aims, Chris Putur, REI’s EVP of Technology and Operations, draws heavily on public company board experience to accelerate technology’s role in the co-op’s strategy execution.
Prior to joining REI in 2017, Putur held CIO positions at Coach and Staples. Since 2014, she also concurrently serves on NASDAQ-listed, global technology research and advisory firm Information Services Group’s (ISG) board of directors.
Putur attributes honing leadership communication to her board service. “My service gave me a much better appreciation of how important it is to provide context for key discussions with board members,” she emphasized. “Boardroom conversations must take place in the language of the business and center on business objectives, key results and outcomes rather than technology details.”
Additionally, Putur heralded how much other senior leaders’ perspectives, experiences and styles can offer, noting, “Every interaction at the board level is an opportunity to gain insights from a diverse set of experienced leaders and to incorporate those learnings into one’s thinking and actions. These interactions can help technology leaders expand their perspective and leadership influence.”
That’s paid off in managing the co-op’s rapid transformation over the past few years. “During my time at REI, the role of technology has changed significantly. When I first arrived, the co-op was project-focused and incredibly siloed,” she recalled. “We worked instead to create a core set of capabilities to enable an integrated customer experience across digital, retail and new business models.”
Putur also spotlighted cross-functional collaboration as key to serving members’ needs, sharing, “We’ve taken cues from innovative technology companies and top customer-service organizations. With our chief technology officer and customer experience officer leading the way, we are becoming a data-driven, product-led enterprise in service of our members and mission. As our model evolves, technology is increasingly integral to developing and deploying strategy.”
In return, IT leaders like Putur can bring valued tech knowledge to board debate and decisions. “There is tremendous synergy between a technology leader’s role in the c-suite, interactions with their organization’s board and service on external boards,” she explained. “This is especially true on ISG’s board where I am able to bring a CIO’s perspective to their strategic deliberations, while also taking away a broader perspective on business trends that are impacting clients.”
However, while these reciprocal benefits hold high appeal, Putur argues that IT leaders must be both qualified and well prepared to warrant coveted board seats.
“Technology leaders looking to elevate their role in enterprise strategy need to show up as business leaders first — focused on the enterprise mission, associated strategies, target outcomes and required actions. They need to speak the same language as the rest of the executive team, whether it’s expressed in customer experience, employee engagement, social impact or financial metrics,” she added.
“CIOs bring a unique perspective to executive teams. I’d advise them to use it. Shape the direction of the core business by demonstrating how technology can expedite strategies through new offerings, customer experiences and scaling operations.”
That’s difference making that will capture any board’s attention.
Putur offers three valuable tips to rising executives seeking board posts.
First, she suggests “talking with their executive leadership team and existing board members as a good place to start.” Candidates need to credibly assess their board qualifications, as well as their employer’s openness to such a secondary time commitment. Additionally, independent directors can provide external views which can help set reasonable search, workload and outcome expectations.
Selecting new board members requires thorough vetting and careful judgment. Applicants must evidence how their skills and experience match board needs. Putur advised a holistic view, noting, “technology leaders can help boards understand the critical success factors, potential benefits and risks associated with business transformations. A CIO/CTO can help bridge technology-centered conversations in the boardroom with members with other primary expertise.”
Second, Putur advises interested executives devise ways to close resume gaps, noting, “there are a variety of executive education programs that can accelerate one’s learning journey.” For instance, Putur attended Stanford University’s Directors’ Consortium, an intensive one week on-campus program led by business and law faculty and specifically designed to prepare current and prospective directors for common and emerging strategic, governance and compliance issues.
Last, Putur enthusiastically reminds candidates to spark conversations with external professional colleagues and peers. “I’d also encourage aspiring board members to discuss those interests within their trusted networks. You never know when an opportunity will present itself,” she said. That circle may know of pending openings, provide introductions, share experiences and eventually serve as credible references.
As Chris Putur’s hours inside boardrooms help forge REI’s digital future, they also fulfill the co-op’s longstanding mission to promote enjoyment of the great outdoors. Above all, she carved a smart career path for fellow IT leaders — who’s following?