by Dan Roberts

5 questions with Whirlpool’s Danielle Brown

Oct 28, 2021
CareersCIOIT Leadership

This trailblazing CIO shares the three keys to her success and why great leaders aren’t afraid to let go of control.

Danielle Brown, SVP and CIO, Whirlpool Corporation
Credit: Danielle Brown, SVP and CIO, Whirlpool Corporation

As SVP and CIO of Whirlpool Corporation’s Global Information Systems, Danielle Brown blends executive leadership, business savvy, and deep knowledge of emerging technology to deliver results. Those are some of the more obvious keys to her effectiveness as a collaborative and decisive leader and technologist. But Dani also attributes her success to something else: a willingness to take on the hard things. I call it boldness; she calls it a mindset that has propelled her since the early days.

As a college student, Dani was one of only two African-American women enrolled in the computer science program. She still frequently finds herself as one of the onlys or the very fews on leadership teams and in executive boardrooms. But she knows there’s tremendous value in what she brings to the table—her point of view, her experiences, her authenticity. As a result, she says, whenever she faces a challenge or an opportunity, instead of thinking, “Why shouldn’t I?” she thinks, “Why not?”

When I spoke with Dani for the CIO Whisperers podcast, she shared how her personal and professional experiences have shaped her approach to leadership, learning, and teaching. She also talked about what she’s doing to make sure her IT organization has the voice, capabilities, and skill set to advance Whirlpool’s strategic imperatives, all of which hinge on innovative technology and digital services. After the show wrapped, we spent a few more minutes drilling down into some of Dani’s keys to successful leadership. What follows is that off-air conversation, lightly edited for length and clarity.

Dan Roberts: You are so effective at communicating the “art of the possible” to people. With the pandemic, we lost a lot of the opportunities for face-to-face interactions. How have you compensated for that?

Dani Brown: Without question, I look forward to getting back to face-to-face interactions, because some of what we miss by not being in person are the nuances of conversation and making that genuine personal connection face to face. I’ve compensated by “enjoying” a lot of screen time with my team.

I recall our first townhall and swiping through the multiple screens thinking, I don’t know any of these people personally. Soon thereafter we came up with “coffee chats with Dani.” The “chat” includes no more than 8-10 people max, no slides, and no agenda other than it’s a chance for me to get to know you and you to get to know me. I’ve learned so much through these conversations, and we always go right up to the hour. For an even more engaging opportunity, I also invite anyone in the organization to set up one-on-one time with me.

What would you tell leaders who say they just don’t have time for that?

For the one-on-ones, the only condition is that they must come prepared to share with me their career compass, which is our internal document that highlights their career aspirations, experiences to date, strengths, and areas for growth. Having that framework for the discussion really focuses us on the topic and makes the most of our time.

But yes, these types of discussions, whether it’s the coffee chats or the one-on-ones, are a big time commitment. However, it is worth every minute invested. In our current environment, we are constantly in a war for talent, and that’s not just new talent; it’s also retaining the talent we have. I use the term “re-recruit.” As leaders we need to re-recruit existing talent every day.

Investing the time to understand “who’s on the bus”—the talent in your organization—is one way to keep individuals engaged. It also provides me with direct insight into my new organization and enables those personal connections that we can’t get right now from, say, running into someone in the lunchroom. When you can’t be together in person, understanding the value of these moments for personal engagement and taking advantage of them is critical. So, I would contend that leaders can’t afford not to take the time to connect with their employees in a more personal way.

Looking over your career, what do you think are some of the key things you did that set you up for success?

I listened, worked hard, and always tried to create an environment for others to be successful.

In terms of listening, I have always sought advice from those who have traveled down the roads that I am attempting to forge. Even though the roads may not be exactly the same, their many years of experience have equipped them to share advice that makes me think about situations from various perspectives before making a final call. My willingness to listen and learn from others has helped me navigate through the many challenges I’ve faced in my career.

When it comes to working hard, well, it is a part of my nature to work with a spirit of excellence. This does not mean that I’m perfect—very, very far from it! But it means that whatever job I am doing—from working at a fast food restaurant to data analyst to programmer to SVP and CIO—whatever the job may be, I take pride in it and do it with 110% effort. I don’t know any other way.

I also believe that our role as leaders is to create an environment where others can be successful. We do that by creating a vision, bringing others along, helping to remove barriers, and coaching and guiding them along the way. I have found that, as a leader, the more successful you make others, the more successful you will be.

From our conversations about your experiences and what’s made you successful, I’ve gotten this sense that it’s about being bold but also being vulnerable. These could seem to be in conflict. How do you think they work in tandem?

On some level, they’re both about taking risk. They’re about extending ourselves to a place where we’re not completely comfortable. In many ways, you can’t be bold without being vulnerable, and you can’t expose your vulnerability without being bold. Vulnerability means letting go of control, exposing yourself to let others lead. And letting go of control takes a level of courage—in other words, boldness.

How do these play out in the day-to-day of being a leader?

A lot of leaders build great teams by exposing their own vulnerability. That builds trust, it establishes accountability, and it helps us see strengths in others we might not normally see. I wouldn’t be where I am today if people I worked for hadn’t extended that vulnerability to me.

Similarly, when a leader takes a bold stance, they’re exposing some vulnerability. A bold position might mean you’re the only one with a certain view. Being on an island like that can feel extremely vulnerable. Again, great leaders will allow you the opportunity to be bold, be vulnerable, and take calculated risks.