CIO — 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."