Being pushed out of your comfort zone can make your IT career

Vanguard CIO John Marcante was working his dream job as the head of the company’s software development team. However, things were about to change.

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Vanguard CIO John Marcante

“’Come to my office. You and I have something to talk about.’”

That was the message John Marcante got from Vanguard’s then-chairman, Jack Brennan. It was a few months after Sept. 11, 2001. At the time, tragedy notwithstanding, Marcante was living his professional dream.

Back then, he was leading all development for Vanguard’s institutional business. It was one of those jobs that many software-development pros view as the apex of their careers. The sales teams brought him to meet prospects. The client service teams wanted him out in front of valued clients, which included corporations and retirement plans.

“That was a really cool job,” says Marcante, now CIO of Vanguard, “and I was in love with it.”

But financial firms were reeling in the wake of the terrorist attacks. And Vanguard had been dealt a separate, difficult blow: Its revered CIO, Bob DiStefano, passed away a few months before.

After many years working under DiStefano, a mentor, Marcante and a few of his IT leadership colleagues had begun reporting to Brennan. But Marcante knew those days were numbered. When he received the message from the chairman, Marcante quickly realized he was getting a new boss.

What he didn’t know was that he was getting a new job — a new challenge that would alter the entire trajectory of his career in IT.

A new role, a new beginning

In the days before he met with Brennan, Marcante prepared for the conversation. He was ready for the news, and he had an idea of who the new CIO would be.

But Brennan caught him off guard. After sharing that Vanguard veteran Tim Buckley would assume the CIO post, Brennan told Marcante that he would now be running Vanguard’s data centers. Yes, the longtime software guy, who couldn’t be happier in his current job, was being tapped to run hardware.

Stunned, Marcante admits that he actually tried to talk Brennan out of the decision.

After making his case — as Marcante recalls, he said, “Jack, you do understand that I know nothing about hardware, right?”— Brennan countered. Brennan stressed the importance of the role, particularly in the wake of 9/11, and assured Marcante that he had the support of the entire senior team, including Buckley (now Vanguard’s Chief Investment Officer) and Bill McNabb (Vanguard’s current CEO and Chairman).

“’And, by the way, you’re the right person,’” Marcante recalls Brennan telling him. “’I know it’s uncomfortable, but you’ll go, and you’ll learn.’”

In the process, it hit him: “That was the moment — the moment where you’re tossed into something for which you feel totally unprepared,” Marcante says. “It’s a critical time, and someone has just taken a chance on you.”

That inflection point, Marcante says, taught him a valuable lesson in stepping outside of your comfort zone, and set in motion a series of career opportunities that catapulted him to the CIO role with Vanguard, the investment giant with more than $3.8 trillion in global assets under management.

Marcante began his career at GE, spending seven years in multiple IT roles before joining Vanguard in 1993. Both firms are renowned for their talent development strategies, especially their prowess in rotational management programs. Marcante benefitted greatly from both, particularly after that fateful meeting with Brennan.

Leadership experts far and wide agree that the best executives are groomed and nurtured through increasingly challenging roles and assignments. But the right culture and supporting environment need to be in place for that to happen.

And sometimes burgeoning executives need a push. Brennan provided it.

From IT to business

For nearly three years after, Marcante thrived in his role as head of global technology operations. It wasn’t easy, he recalled. While it was a different world from software development, he did put to use some translatable skills, like project management. But Marcante found himself leaning heavily on general leadership skills—the abilities to persuade and influence, negotiate, communicate, build relationships, and think conceptually—to help him in the new position.

[ Related: How the C-Suite Needs the CIO to Lead ]

It was the first time in Marcante’s career where he had to lean heavily on those competencies. And he immediately recognized that those skills — more so than any of his technical acumen—would play a critical part in any future assignments.

And they did. After a few years running the infrastructure operations, Marcante embarked on a leadership journey completely outside of IT.

In 2004, he transitioned into managing Vanguard’s Six Sigma Black Belt programs, creating a new Lean consulting organization along the way. Next came leadership of the company’s advice services group, where he transformed how certified financial planners provide customer service. In 2006, Marcante took over the high-net-worth business.

From business back to IT

Finally, in 2012, with the encouragement of McNabb and Buckley, he returned to the IT organization—this time, as its leader.

During his rotational leadership experiences, Marcante continued to build those leadership capabilities. Today, he sees them as three concentric circles.

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