by Brian P. Watson

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

Sep 12, 2016

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.

“’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.

The first is technology savviness. That doesn’t mean knowing every bit and byte—instead, it’s the ability to understand what technology can do, and how it can enable a business.

The second is business acumen. In the IT leadership discussion, we have opined for years about the necessity for IT leaders to understand their businesses—not just the financials, but the behavior of customers or clients, competitors and market forces. Marcante was fortunate to see these in his software-development leadership roles, but even more so in his business leadership roles.

The first two circles are rather obvious, though often misunderstood or understated by both business and IT leaders. But Marcante makes an important point: the overlapping of technology and business smarts provides fertile ground for innovation.

[ Related: 5 ways to cultivate a culture of IT innovation ]

The third circle, laid over the first two, is leadership. It includes all the skills Marcante mentioned previously, but for Vanguard, he summarizes it as the ability to create an entrepreneurial spirit that yields the breakthroughs the company needs to stay on top and beat away the countless numbers of insurgents seeking to disrupt the financial services arena.

As a whole, too, those leadership attributes go way beyond a checklist for current or aspiring IT leaders. “They are what is expected today of every leader,” Marcante says. “Take IT out of it. Every executive at every company has to have business acumen, but they have to understand what technology can do. And technology is the primary disruptor for us today,” he added.

Vanguard, as an organization, is a longtime believer in the power of technology, evidenced by some of the executive promotions Vanguard has made in recent years. When Marcante joined the executive committee as CIO, he joined two of his predecessors, Paul Heller and Tim Buckley, who had rotated to other business-leadership roles.

In terms of disruption, Marcante notes that while Vanguard has been wildly successful, its leaders are “perpetually dissatisfied.” “We are never complacent,” he says. “It is drilled in our heads to be paranoid.”

[ Related: CIO strategy for driving IT innovation ]

Across the financial services spectrum, Marcante sees dramatically lower barriers to entry and dramatically faster speed from ideas to mass adoption. So his mandate has become, as he calls it, “delivering business value at startup speed.”

From a technology perspective, that involves a foundational level of nimble infrastructure, where he is making investments in public cloud. Moving up the stack, Marcante is looking to boost continuous development and take advantage of the cloud’s scalability and elasticity by implementing more Agile development.

But for Marcante, the challenge is less about technology. How do you create an entrepreneurial spirit inside a 40-year-old legacy? For him, it’s maybe 30 percent technology, and 70 percent culture. For that, Marcante closely studied the “Lean Enterprise” approach, traveling with McNabb, Vanguard’s current chairman, and other company leaders to meet with IT leaders and venture capital giants in Silicon Valley to learn how companies have become nimbler and more innovative. Today, he is applying those lessons inside Vanguard, combining cross-functional teams to solve business problems and find new opportunities to create business value.

Despite the innate organizational “paranoia” and dissatisfaction, Marcante remains confident that Vanguard will continue its legacy of both innovative breakthroughs and market leadership. Combine Vanguard’s long track record of success, customer loyalty and scale with speed, and Vanguard has, in Marcante’s words, “something that’s unbeatable.”

About 15 years ago, Marcante thought he reached the pinnacle of his career. Now he sits in the driver’s seat of bringing dramatic change and new competitive capabilities to the same company, using the leadership skills he further developed by stepping outside the comfort zone of IT.

“Looking back, I am so happy I did the things that I did, because I gained perspective,” Marcante says. “I benefitted immensely from the support and guidance of those who I’ve had the opportunity to work for and, as a result, I’m actually better qualified for this job today than if I had been left on my own.”