by Dan Roberts

5 questions with Qualcomm CIO Mary Gendron

Nov 22, 2021
InnovationIT Leadership

A transformational leader explains why IT needs to lead with a business-first mindset.

Mary Gendron, SVP and CIO, Qualcomm
Credit: Qualcomm

Mary Gendron has had a long successful career as a transformational leader, most recently as Senior VP and CIO of Qualcomm, where she’s inspired a team of 2,000 IT professionals across the globe. Her leadership story is one of courage, confidence, culture-building, and perseverance. She has led complex global organizations and driven proactive business strategies that have consistently generated customer, shareholder, and employee value. Through it all, she says, one of the things she’s most proud of is the opportunity she’s had to make a difference, for customers as well as employees.

Mary is a champion of creating and sustaining a diverse, inclusive workplace that empowers employees of all backgrounds. In 2019, she was recognized for her work to empower women in STEM with Athena’s 21st Annual Pinnacle Award in the “Individual in Technology” category. In our conversation for the CIO Whisperers podcast, she explained that she’s an advocate for inclusion not just because it’s the right thing to do, but because it’s the necessary thing to do for the business to thrive.

Mary’s also the kind of leader who encourages the tough questions and challenging discussions because she knows that’s how you get to the best decisions. It’s also how you build trust as a leader. As she told me, your credentials will get you the CIO job, but you still must earn your credibility with the team.

Mary and I spent a few minutes after the podcast talking some more about her career journey, her philosophy of business-first leadership and what it means to be an innovative anticipator. What follows is that off-air conversation, lightly edited for length and clarity.

Dan Roberts: You’ve built a personal brand for being a business-first leader. What does that mean, and how do you go about doing it?

Mary Gendron: I think it’s very easy for an IT professional to brand themselves or to limit their brand to just being the IT professional. But they’re actually embedded inside [the business]. I’m an IT professional and I work for Qualcomm. So, what do I need to know about Qualcomm’s business, and how does IT manifest itself to make sure it’s contributing to Qualcomm’s business? How do you manage the IT business to drive the outcomes necessary to springboard the Qualcomm business?

I think that connection is very important. I tell people, if you want to be in the IT business, join an IT company. There’s a whole IT industry out there. I picked the semiconductor industry. And I apply it and I round it out. I start with a customer in full view because none of us are here without our customers. And then it’s figuring out what you need to improve in those products and services that you’re rendering for your customer.

And when you say customer, you’re talking about external customers?

Right. A lot of IT organizations refer to their internal stakeholder as customer, and I think that’s a big mistake. I understand the value chain inside my enterprise, and I know what our role is. But my stakeholders are not my customers. I supply the services to my stakeholders. But customers have choices. Customers can ask for whatever they want. And if you go down that road with stakeholders, you quickly become an order taker. You abdicate the expertise that your enterprise absolutely needs with respect to their internal organization.

On the show you talked about moving away from the lagging to the leading indicators. I wonder if you could share an example of how you’ve been able to put the IT organization in the position of being a disruptor—what it means to be an “innovative anticipator.”

The first one that comes to mind was when I started working for Celestica. We had a very good, functional email system. It worked. It delivered email. During my first 90 days at the company, nobody complained to me about their email system. But it was 2010, and we were already a little bit late in embracing cloud collaboration. Again, nobody came and told me that our priority was to fix the cloud collaboration platform. But it was this ability to understand what was offered out there, what was available and reliable—that it was not just a tool but something that would totally change the way we connected, conversed, and collaborated.

So, we became one of the early adopters of Google Cloud. The year we implemented it, my CEO at the time, Craig Muhlhauser, said it was the best, most strategic thing that we did that year. It modernized our whole employee experience. And I had a great team that worked really hard on implementing that and we had such a high level of engagement by all the business stakeholders that they just pulled it in and made it happen. It revolutionized that company.

Innovative disruption doesn’t come with a list of “this is what I want” and then you turn around and you fill the order. You have to think about what’s out there. And by the way, I wasn’t doing it because it was techie fun thing to do. It was essential for this business to encourage employees to bring in different conversations, to effectively connect in a way that we’d never connected before, lower our costs—I mean, it hit all the marks. But as I said, if you wait for people to come with the order form, you’ve already lost the opportunity.

Every leader faces that daunting task or opportunity—some big challenge—and they have to answer the call.  But it’s really more than answering it, it’s setting yourself up to get the call and then making the call. Can you talk about some of those moments from your career journey?

One of the biggest moments of my personal career was accepting the job as vice president of IT at Motorola. It meant moving my family, my husband, my children, and then embarking on a whole new world. At that point my husband made the very courageous decision to be a stay-at-home dad—it was huge!

Years later, I was approached a few times regarding a job at a company called Celestica in Toronto. During a trip when I was visiting my son who was playing hockey at the time, I received a call that the CEO wanted to speak to me about the position. I said, thank you very much but my son’s playing right now, and I want to focus on my family. My husband looks at me and asks, “Are you sure? You will only miss the first game and this guy is pretty persistent!” So, I said okay and decided to go. Attending that meeting changed my life and led to one of the best opportunities I have had.

I always say, have your eyes open and your ears ready to hear the opportunities. It is also important to have people in your life to help point these critical opportunities out for you, even when you may not see them on your own. Moving our family from Montreal to Chicago was a big deal. But it was a decision that we made. Now that I’m older, I don’t underestimate how important it is to have that support network and make courageous decisions. For me, having my husband there to encourage me and to fall back on provided the safety I needed to risk and take these important steps in my career journey.

What was it like to move into an industry that you didn’t have experience in?

With Celestica, I told the CEO, listen, if you want a manufacturing expert, go hire yourself a manufacturing expert. If you want someone that understands data and the relevance and importance of data driving insights, which I got from my experience with Nielsen Company, then I’m your person and I’ll help you do that.

You know the value you bring to the table. You know what you can contribute. You don’t have to have all the answers. You have to drive and own all the decisions.