CIOs Describe Turning Points In Their Careers

New members of the CIO Hall of Fame recall the watershed moments when they learned the hard lessons of great leadership. (Plus: CIO 100 Hall of Fame winners offer IT leadership advice in a CIO.com video.)

How do top CIOs get that way? For many, the path to greatness includes a turning point—a moment when the landscape shifted under them and they learned lessons that served them throughout their careers. We asked a few of the 2014 inductees into the CIO Hall of Fame to recount some of those moments.

For Peter Weis, global CIO and vice president of supply chain at Matson Navigation, the turning point came at age 26, during a conversation with his boss at the time. Weis was already in management, working at an entrepreneurial unit within a larger business. His boss was straightforward and driven.

“He sat me down and told me, ‘I know you’re very smart, you’ve done great things already, but you don’t have all the answers,’” Weis recalls. “‘You can be a great leader, but you won’t unless you learn to listen more — and spend some time with our customers.’”

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The boss sent Weis on the road with his business unit’s sales team. Weis learned how much he liked working with customers. He’s continued to spend time with external customers through the years and now leads a new business unit, Matson Logistics Supply Chain, where he has full profit-and-loss responsibility.

It all began with those tough words from his boss. “I was fortunate enough to hear it from someone I thought the world of,” he says. “I vividly remember that conversation. There are painfully few moments when people give you feedback that’s both candid and constructive.”

‘We’re Bankrupt!’

For Elizabeth Hackenson, senior vice president of global business services and CIO at AES, the turning point started with a phone call at 11 p.m. on July 20, 2002. She was a director in the IT department at WorldCom when a colleague called to inform her that the company would be filing for bankruptcy protection the next day.

She hadn’t seen it coming. Earlier that year, CEO Bernard Ebbers resigned after a financial scandal. But with Ebbers replaced by John Sidgmore, Hackenson thought WorldCom was in the clear.

Now she sprang into action, calling her direct reports and asking them to come in early the next day. Hackenson’s team provided systems that helped companies manage their networks, she recalls. “We said, ‘We don’t know what’s going on, but what we can do is make sure the interaction that customers have remains the same.’”

In the midst of this chaos, Hackenson learned that she was good in a crisis. As management reshuffled and she was eventually named CIO, she learned other lessons. Not everyone was happy she’d gotten the CIO job, but she responded by putting those direct reports in charge of various parts of IT while she spent her time with the company’s customers. Eventually she forged strong alliances with some of her skeptics.

At the time, she adds, she got a great piece of advice from CEO Michael Capellas, who took over from Sidgmore in December 2002: People are always going to question you, regardless of what you do, he said. “You just have to prove them wrong.”

Into the Deep End

Chris Hjelm’s turning point came soon after resigning as CIO of FedEx in January 2000, when he landed a job as CIO at a Silicon Valley startup called Zoho. (In 2000, Zoho was an online marketplace providing furniture, fixtures and equipment to the hospitality industry; it later sold its name and URL to the current Zoho, which provides cloud-based apps.)

At the startup, Hjelm repeatedly found himself doing tasks that someone else would have handled at FedEx. “I was working on spreadsheets and creating Power-Point presentations to go out and raise money,” he says. “FedEx had communications specialists. If you had to do a presentation, you’d work with other people who pulled that together and then you’d go deliver it. In this case, I was all of those.” It was like jumping into the deep end of a pool and realizing he had to figure out how to swim, he recalls.

He was equally struck by the extreme dedication of the startup staff, and by their sense of mission. The first Zoho went down in the dotcom bust, and a few jobs later, Hjelm wound up as CIO and senior vice president at The Kroger Co. There, he recently launched an initiative to try to instill that sense of mission from the startup into his IT staff. His team changed the department’s name from IS&S—an acronym interpreted differently by different IT employees—to Kroger Technology. They crafted a new mission statement—“To be the most valued technology organization in retail”—and put on a highly successful event to introduce the re-branded department to the rest of Kroger.

“I came out thinking how powerful it is when you get everyone wrapped around one goal,” he says. “That’s easy in a startup because you’re working on one thing. But when you’re at a big company, how do you do that so that everyone gets it? That clear sense of purpose is really important, and I think big companies sometimes don’t have it because they don’t tell that story.”

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