Sainsbury's CIO Calls on Disruption Lessons


A long stint as a CIO in telecoms has shaped Phil Jordan's leadership and a keen sense of the customer. 

Smartphones are taken for granted today, but the disruption they caused to the telecommunications market in 2007 was a distinct lesson for Phil Jordan in the power of technology to change vertical markets.  

Today Jordan is Group CIO of Sainsbury’s, one of the UK’s largest retailers with over 1400 stores and a huge digital presence. In 2007, he was a CIO in the telecoms sector, although he was always passionate about the disruptive power of technology. The iPhone revealed to Jordan how a device can seize the customer relationship. That lesson is something that has defined and influenced Jordan’s CIO career.   

“Thinking back to those times, there was a lot of discussion between customers about which network they were on,” Jordan says. At the time the Englishman was CIO with Vodafone, a pioneer of the mobile telecoms industry. Jordan went on to be Group CIO of Telefonica, the Spanish telecoms conglomerate that provides fixed-line, mobile, TV, and business services across Europe and Latin America.  

“It was a tremendous moment and sent shock waves through the telecoms sector. All of a sudden it was clear that the customer would be loyal to a device, content, and an Apps ecosystem, not the network and that was a paradigm shift,” Jordan remarked. The iPhone brought a sense of brand loyalty and experience that had previously only been seen in the automotive sector, with brands such as BMW or Mercedes. 

“The implications of this is that the network - the biggest asset a telco operator has - was commoditized.” 

Shop Floor 

Since January 2018 Jordan has been CIO for retailer Sainsbury’s, and as he revealed in a recent discussion with the Cloud Counsel, there are similarities in the challenges a supermarket chain faces as those he experienced in his 16-year telco career. Supermarkets have a vast network of physical shops, a complex supply chain of warehouses to deliver to the stores and, ever increasingly, directly to the customer. In the UK, historically, there has been loyalty to a supermarket brand, in much the same way as there was to a network operator in the past. Could the internet disintermediate the supermarkets, and allow a tinned tomato producer or a maker of bread to develop a direct relationship with the customer, and reduce the supermarket to a logistics service? Not if Jordan has anything to do with it.  

Interestingly enough, the 2020 Coronavirus pandemic has strengthened relationships among consumers and supermarkets

“We can really personalize the shopping experience, offering relevant, personalized product, nutrition, allergens advice or prices, for example.”  

Customer Centric 

Jordan’s great lesson from the arrival of that initial soap-bar-shaped smartphone was that organizations, no matter the vertical market, must always have a deep understanding of their customers and a strong channel for communicating with the customer. “Knowing our customer better than anyone else,” Jordan observes, “we can really personalize the shopping experience, offering relevant, personalized product, nutrition, allergens advice or prices, for example.”  

Throughout the conversation, it is clear that Jordan has a passion for the retailer and the new model of shopping. Technology is the cornerstone of how retailers and other vertical markets will understand and communicate with their customers, while offering innovative new services.  

Jordan is typical of a cadre of business technology leaders that has a deep business acumen, a strong understanding of technology, and how it can impact the organization. A set of skills he says were honed by Jeni Mundy, the CEO of financial services provider Visa and formerly CTO of Vodafone.  

“Jeni really shaped my leadership style. She is a values-led leader, and was in a tough male-dominated, performance-driven culture and yet she always allowed others to lead,” he says. In a 10-year career at Vodafone, Jordan rose from Head of Enterprise systems, via Internal Business Solutions, to become CIO. He then moved from Vodafone to Telefonica via mobile network O2, a rarity in the telecoms sector for a senior leader.  

“Telefonica was in the early stages of corporate group thinking,” he says of the global role he held from 2011 to 2017. When he arrived, as the first non-Spaniard or Latin American to lead IT at the major business, Telefonica was a traditional telco with a large legacy business in fixed-line telecoms, as well as rapidly growing mobile and digital arms such as the O2 network, which Jordan had been CIO of in the UK for a few months before the move to Madrid.  

In a short period between the O2 and Telefonica roles, Jordan attended the Telefonica Corporate University, in Barcelona, Spain and says it was a highly valued experience. 

“It was a perfect time to think about my own leadership style. A new role is always a chance to reinvent yourself,” he says of how CIOs cannot remain stagnant. 

 “I always felt there are really clear transition points for you as a leader. In your career you transition to a leader and then a leader of leaders, so you have to be really clear about the transition, think about the meaning of the change, which will be different depending on the organization and its scale. Use it as an opportunity to go back to your core principles. Reinvention is really powerful and gives you energy,” Jordan says.  

As a technology leader, this has enabled Jordan to focus on being a “positive disruptor.” 

“Today, in an era of data-driven insight, our role is far more disruptive. It is a classic 80/20 set up; 80% of my time is focused on how we disrupt the business, market, and competition, and the other 20% is on the running of the business technology,” he says of his role. To become that disruptor, he says it is vital to hold the confidence of the business. 

Rebel and Cause

As Group CIO Jordan says mentoring the next generation of business technology leaders is vital, and he encourages those in the early stages of their technology and business careers to seek mentorship.  

“Recognizing that you want mentorship is terrific, as it shows a growth mindset and most senior leaders are keen to speak with junior employees,” he says of the two-way benefits of fostering greater understanding. Jordan advises those seeking mentorship to be “proactive and restless.” 

Away from mobile devices and supermarkets, Jordan has a life-long enthusiasm for the sport of cricket, and the songs of British singer-songwriter Billy Bragg, known for his outspoken political style.

“I have always been slightly rebellious and have gravitated towards those people that want to challenge the establishment.” 

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