Lepore: IT Management Is About Relevance

Relevance is an important word for Dawn Lepore, one that the vice chairman and CIO for San Francisco-based The Charles Schwab Corp. says often and effortlessly. During a meeting with colleagues about the company’s website, Lepore speaks about the relevance of enabling customers to manage their finances online. On the way to lunch, she reveals her fear of letting the IT division become irrelevant to the business as a whole. She even applies the word to child-rearing: Despite the intense demands of work, she must stay relevant in the life of her 3-year-old son.

Without a doubt, relevance is Lepore’s mantra, one she adopted since graduating from Schwab’s IT legions to become chief technologist in 1993. "A CIO is nothing if she doesn’t make sure IT continues to stay responsive to customers and the business overall," she says. "As far as I see it, management is entirely about evolution."

To understand Lepore’s management and leadership philosophy, you needn’t look further than Schwab.com, a website she helped launch with co-CEO Dave Pottruck and other key executives three years ago. Back then, Schwab was just another financial services company, struggling to retrofit a Web-based service to compete against traditional competitors and pure-play upstarts for a share of the online trading market. Pottruck and Lepore collected input from several high-volume customers, asked what they want from a new website, then set out to build just that. The results astonished even Lepore. Today, thanks to a site that serves 4.3 million active accounts every day, the company is a $5.8 billion giant. According to various market research companies?Gomez and Forrester, to name two?it has become the hands-down leader in online trading worldwide.

These changes did not happen overnight, of course. Creating the site was the easy part; Lepore says that with support from the entire executive committee, a team of 100 developers built and launched the effort in a matter of weeks. Engineering the effort, however, was an entirely different matter. Lepore says that several Schwab insiders encouraged her to outsource the project to consultants who have expertise in taking businesses online. They wondered why Schwab would go to the trouble of training its own people when it could simply pay someone else. Lepore was undeterred.

"Talk about relevance. Taking this exciting job and giving it to outsiders would have been the fastest way to make my organization irrelevant," she says. "I knew right away we were dealing with more than just technology on this thing. I wanted my people to have a chance to do the best work of their lives. And they did."

That wasn’t the first time Lepore bucked common practice for the sake of her staff. And from her office 30 stories above San Francisco’s Union Square, she vows it won’t be the last. She considers herself as much of an HR leader as a technologist. This is good business practice as well as the right way to treat people, she says; employees will work for money but will give a piece of their lives for meaning.

When the company announced in March that it would lay off 13 percent of its workforce, Lepore sponsored Internet chats with employees in every corner of IT, answering questions as honestly as she could and promising she’d sacrifice hardware before human capital across the board. This honesty did not go unnoticed. When Schwab set up a $7,500 rehire bonus program, dozens of IT employees said that if they were fired, they’d return in a heartbeat.

In the boardroom, Lepore makes sure that recruitment and retention remain high on Schwab’s agenda, even in the slowing economy. Beyond the company walls, she enjoys speaking before groups of investors and business executives about IT as an agent of change.

This is perhaps the crux of Lepore’s leadership style: a populist streak combined with her drive for relevance. This is a person who always strives for a solution that is better for the company and at the same time more fulfilling and more challenging for employees. "She continues to reinvent herself, and the result is a fluid style that’s hard not to like," says Jan Hier-King, Schwab’s senior vice president for special projects and Lepore’s first hire, back in 1994. "While most CIOs tend to see [managerial decisions] in black and white, Dawn finds relevance in everything in between."

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