by Mary K. Pratt

How 7 Hall of Fame CIOs thrive by evolving

Aug 01, 2016
CareersCIOCIO 100

The 2016 inductees to the CIO Hall of Fame achieve longevity and success by continually adapting as the CIO role evolves.

CIO Hall of Fame inductee Randy Sloan started his career in the mid-1980s — the days of the mainframe — when IT focused on automating processes and keeping computers humming.

For many technologists back then, those tasks were enough. Sloan, though, had other ideas. He wanted to contribute more.

“When I started my career, I was a programmer. I loved the technology. But I had an inflection point. I realized that what I really like to do is solve business problems,” he says. Sloan’s insight came as the enterprise IT department’s role was shifting from technology caretaker to business enabler. To be successful, technologists had to shift, too. Sloan moved up from that programming job through a succession of executive positions and into his current role as senior vice president and CIO at Southwest Airlines, where he’s driving not only innovation but also transformation.

Sloan is one of seven IT leaders being inducted into the CIO Hall of Fame this year. Each has spent time in top technology jobs at multiple companies. While their stories may differ, they express similar sentiments: Their success comes from evolving as the CIO position changed from one tasked with automating for efficiency to one focused on transforming organizations.

These leading executives don’t credit their successes to any one particular skill or degree or resume-boosting experience. Instead, they say a combination of experiences and personal traits gave them the ability to see what the CIO job requires now and will require in the future — and the ability to deliver on it.

“Any success I’ve been able to achieve is the result of having great coaching and mentoring and role-modeling, being put in positions that allow me to think about what the CIO should do,” Sloan says. “And I have purposefully moved myself through critical experiences so I can do that role.”

Sloan, 53, says a few key experiences helped him develop into a leading CIO. He points to an early decision to work at a warehouse when leading an implementation of a warehouse management system, a move that gave him an in-depth understanding of the business and of the value of solving business problems. He also says his work with 20 business unit CFOs helped him understand the need to influence others to gain strategic alignment. And he says his current role as “part of the executive committee and part of every business discussion” has transformed the perception of the CIO from “just the technology person” to a business executive.

Driving change from day 1

This year’s CIO Hall of Fame inductees all echo those points, saying that early on in their careers they had a desire to solve business problems and drive change, which allowed them to deliver value to their companies at a time when many IT leaders were still deep in the technology weeds.

“I would always look at the business first and the technology second,” says Mike Benson, who until this spring had been the executive vice president and CIO of DirecTV (which was acquired by AT&T Entertainment Group in 2015).

Benson, 60, says that mindset was just the start of what it took to succeed. He says he needed to learn about operations, understand the industries in which he worked and figure out how he could help external customers. He had to forge relationships with his peers and build strong teams.

Those aren’t innate skills, nor are they anything revolutionary, he says. But they are necessary to see what needs to be done and to visualize what needs to be accomplished in the future.

Some gumption is necessary, too, Benson adds.

“CIOs have the view of the whole landscape within a company and can see where they can improve and they should suggest ways to improve. They should have the courage and the willingness to take risks,” he says.

Entrepreneurial spirit

It’s not surprising, then, that this year’s Hall of Fame inductees also speak about needing an entrepreneurial spirit in order to pivot as technologies evolve, markets change and the CIO job shifts.

“If there was anything consistent throughout my career, it was that I always thought of myself as an entrepreneur,” says Suresh Kumar, CIO and senior executive vice president of BNY Mellon and CEO of iNautix (part of BNY Mellon’s Client Technology Solutions unit). “I always thought, ‘If I was CEO of this business, what would I do and why?’ And then the second question I would ask is how technology could make an impact on the business.”

Kumar, 58, says that CIOs are required to understand a host of business and management practices — from how the business makes money to how the customer’s digital experience drives revenue. But even as he mastered those concepts, he says he still went back to the entrepreneurial perspective by thinking like a startup CEO.

“You have to have an attitude that you can build it from the ground up, and if you want to lead, you have to be able to do that,” he says, explaining that successful entrepreneurs — and successful CIOs — see how to leverage technologies in new ways to get a competitive advantage and then know how to execute on that vision.

Although Kumar and the other inductees emphasize being business leaders first, they don’t discount the importance of also being technologists.

No substitute for tech chops

Stephen J. Gold, 57, CIO and executive vice president of business and technology operations at CVS Health, says it’s still critical for IT leaders to be technologists.

“I feel very strongly that in order to be a chief information officer you have to be a computer scientist or an engineer. You wouldn’t have a chief medical officer who wasn’t an M.D. or a chief financial officer that wasn’t a CPA or a chief legal officer who wasn’t a J.D.,” says Gold, who has a bachelor’s degree in computer science.

Gold says companies that hire CIOs who don’t have technology backgrounds do so because they have a business knowledge gap in the role. But, he adds, hiring nontech people as CIOs “closes one gap but opens another that’s more risky — which is not understanding technology.”

Gold says he was exposed early in his career to CIOs who demonstrated both business and IT competencies and came to understand that both were necessary.

“I’ve always been focused on understanding how technology can be used to solve business problems. It’s a mindset and framework throughout my career,” he says. “You keep adjusting it as the needs change in the business, but the fundamental premise is to be commercially focused.”

Business-first mindset

Donagh Herlihy, CIO and executive vice president of digital at Bloomin’ Brands, started his career as an industrial engineer and moved into IT when he took charge of a failing ERP system implementation in the early 1990s at one of his former employers.

Herlihy, 52, says he moved up the IT ranks at several companies as the focus of the department and its leadership shifted, thanks in part to the rise of the internet and mobile systems and the consumerization of IT.

“We had this incredible decade of change, and it needs a very different IT function and a very different CIO. And the only advantage that I had in adapting is because I came into IT as a business leader. I always led IT from the perspective of business and the customer. I wasn’t deep enough to argue bits and bytes, and that allowed me to stay close to and embrace sales and marketing,” Herlihy says, adding that he also learned key insights into IT leaders’ shifting responsibilities by networking with other CIOs.

Herlihy says he believes a CIO needs an MBA, broad executive education and/or work experience outside of IT because “you can’t just contribute the technology.” The responsibilities continue to expand, and he says he and others need to be ready for those changes.

“If you lead with the business first and spend a lot of time with your customers — the internal and external ones — I don’t think you’ll miss the pivot points. But if you try to lead from emerging technology, you will — you’ll chase the wrong ideas,” he says.

A little help from the CEO

Several of this year’s inductees say their success also comes in part from working for companies where CEOs encourage technologists to contribute beyond IT.

Robert Urwiler recalls his time as CIO at Macromedia as “a period of my career that was very influential in how I think about the technology and business. I wasn’t developing products, but I was in a creative company full of creative people. Being immersed in that environment changed my way of thinking about what technology could do. It made me realize that we could create new experiences using technology; we weren’t just implementers.”

Urwiler, now executive vice president and CIO at Vail Resorts, says he continues to be inspired to expand.

“I work for a creative CEO who has high expectations about what technology can do, and I have a peer group that has high expectations. They don’t think of IT as strictly back office. They expect us to be partners in innovation,” he says. “My peers and my boss are driven, creative, innovative people, and they expect me to be a partner on that journey. The culture has a lot to do with how successful an IT organization can be in truly being part of and on the forefront of business transformation.”

An ever-expanding role

The amount of technology-driven transformation happening today certainly means the CIO’s responsibilities will continue to expand.

Indeed, Hall of Fame inductee Albert Hitchcock is experiencing that now.

Hitchcock, 51, joined Pearson PLC as CIO in February 2014 but had his title changed to chief technology and operations officer in January 2016 to reflect his role’s growing responsibilities, which now include digital product development.

“Today the technology strategy is part of the business strategy. It’s not separate. In the past, CIOs might have been asked their opinions on business strategy; now they help create strategy. And at Pearson my role is front and center with the future success of the company,” he says.

As for what it takes to get to that point, Hitchcock, like the other inductees, credits his skills, mindset and willingness to seek out the right experiences.

“It’s about building on existing experiences and taking those to the next level. I gained credibility as we delivered more change,” he says. “And it’s putting the customer at the center of everything we do. I’ve learned to look at it from a customer standpoint. That’s a theme that has come through my successive roles. And the second thing I’ve learned is the value of talent. You need a great team. Everything I’ve done up to this point was learning the importance of those things.”