CIO Confessions

Setting IT goals and making them matter

Veteran CIO Sue Kozik uses her results-oriented leadership to change the conversation in healthcare IT.

Sue Kozik, CIO of Group Health Cooperative

During one job interview, veteran IT leader Sue Kozik sat with two board members, who posed a simple question: “What’s your IT strategy?”

She replied, simply: “I don’t have one.”

You can imagine the stunned looks she received, but she went on to explain her belief is that IT is part of the business — not separate from it, and therefore did not require a separate strategy.  Long story short: The stunned looks turned to those of acceptance, and Kozik ultimately got the job.

That exchange succinctly summarizes Kozik’s straight-talking, business-first and results-oriented leadership style, which she honed through transformation-driven roles in the financial services, healthcare and energy sectors.

[ Related: Lessons learned on the journey to the CIO office ]

“I don’t look at myself as a CIO,” she says. “I look at myself as a business executive with skills in leadership and project management that I need to apply to IT delivery.” The top-notch CIOs we profiled in Confessions of a Successful CIO share that philosophy, as do the others we’ve highlighted in this column. But few IT leaders have embraced it as strongly as she has — and incorporated it into every element of her role.

What’s the goal? 

Today, Kozik is CIO at Group Health Cooperative, a nonprofit healthcare system that serves about 600,000 members in Washington and northern Idaho. There — like Kozik has done at her leadership posts at TIAA CREF, Direct Energy and Independence Blue Cross — she constantly poses a question to her team: What’s the goal?

It’s her way of cutting through the clutter of buzzwords and vendor hype, or ideas that don’t align with broader strategies. Want to talk about the cloud – mobile -- big data? First think about what those technologies mean for doctors and clinicians, what they could mean for the business, and perhaps above all, how and why patients would use them to help solve their medical problems.

“If you understand the goal — what you’re trying to accomplish, who the customer is, who the stakeholders are — you’ll be a lot more successful,” she says. “If you don’t know your audience, and don’t think about how they view your product or service, you’re doomed, because others will figure it out.”

[ Related: Changing the IT conversation at Pfizer ]

And in the constantly changing world of healthcare, where technology’s influence grows by the day, it means even more. While many in the healthcare world talk about a shift from business-to-business to business-to-consumer, Kozik sees it differently: the future is consumer-to-business. The healthcare industry no longer can influence how customers interact with them, she says — the customers are calling the shots now.  

In response, Kozik and her team are looking to harness mobile and data technologies to help solve the problems their customers care most about. Group Health might want to point patients to, say, wellness programs, but data shows that patients are more concerned with knowing wait-times at clinics. Kozik is leading the charge to transform the culture toward those goals.

3 themes driving the IT role

But no one said it would be easy. Group Health hadn’t had a CIO in 10 years, so she had to work to introduce a different way to look at the role of technology and help the organization understand the risks, opportunities and challenges. Also, as Kozik admits, her direct style has led to startled looks as she nudges her colleagues out of their comfort zone and tests their assumptions about the role of IT. 

So she introduced three key themes for her team that summarize her driving forces. The first, “Make it easy,” sent a clear message: Don’t overcomplicate IT for stakeholders and business partners. The second, “Make it happen,” signaled her get-it-done approach — people need help, and they want empathy, but don’t forget that they expect action. The third, “Show we care,” spoke to demonstrating IT’s value by boosting their own business acumen and understanding of the larger organization’s goal.

There’s that word again: goal. Another key tactic she’s employed is to bring diverse voices onto her team. For the first time in her career, Kozik has physicians and pharmacists working for her. She’s also brought on digital and service management leaders from outside the healthcare industry, and she expects those different experiences to contribute and challenge the work of her team.

Kozik’s job, as she sees it, is to create “followership.” She can’t always be the smartest person in the room, so she fills it with the people who can fill in her gaps and bring different perspectives.

“I’ve got to get all of us working towards some goal. I see the pieces of the puzzle, and I’ve got to figure out a way for (her team) to see it and connect,” Kozik says. “That’s what I love about it: The puzzle changes every day.”

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