by Brian P. Watson, Dan Roberts

Deloitte CIO finds strategic value in IT’s ‘sacred’ obligation

Nov 24, 2015
IT Leadership

How often do you meet a CIO who has the strategic seat at the table and can also drill down deep on operational issues? Deloitte CIO Larry Quinlan is that rare executive.

When Larry Quinlan assumed the CIO seat at Deloitte, he, like so many incoming leaders, got a bunch of nasty emails.

Some highlighted problems IT had —and problems that IT hadn’t fixed. Others hit closer to home, aimed directly at him and his predecessors.

Like many of the IT leaders we profiled in Confessions of a Successful CIO, Quinlan had a lot of work to do to build his organization’s credibility. But in the sprawling professional services firm that is Deloitte, Quinlan had to take some unique approaches.

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And how he did it shines a light on how an IT leader can make difference in a highly complex environment.

Over time, we’ve seen a clear dividing line between great CIOs and the rest: the truly strategic leaders, and the others, who tend to wear their technical backgrounds like a badge of honor and focus on the little things that keep an IT organization humming.

Call it keeping the lights on. Say it’s a focus on tactics. But how often do you meet a CIO who has the strategic seat at the table and can also drill down deep on operational issues?

Quinlan is a rare executive who straddles both of those elements of IT leadership. He’s a strategic player for the $35 billion professional services firm, but he embraces the idea of focusing heavily on the operations of his IT organization—and can justify that focus as being a cornerstone of his larger strategy.

“That is a truly important, even sacred, obligation. It’s part of what we do. It’s not something to shy away from and say, ‘I’m a strategic CIO—I don’t do those things,’” Quinlan told us. “To me, a strategic CIO is strategic on the foundation of trains running on time and having a well-run organization. We strive for that.”

Deloitte, essentially, is in the people business. With more than 220,000 employees around the world providing consulting, advisory, tax and audit services to numerous industries, talent is a strategic differentiator. To Quinlan, the massive constituency of on-the-ground consultants and advisors is also a power base.

And that power base needed help with everything from better mobile technology to collaboration and administrative tools. On mobile, Quinlan and his team made significant investments in new devices, as well as tools for anytime, anywhere access. They developed new social and knowledge sharing portals to benefit not only employees, but clients. And they created more than 250 mobile apps for travel planning, time and expense recording, and more.

That just scratches the surface in terms of the operational improvements Quinlan’s team drove to the field. What’s more important was the end result: the careful, deliberate creation of a true technology culture within Deloitte—and a wholly new reputation for the IT organization.

And those nasty emails? No more. Instead, Quinlan now hears from appreciative employees from across the company—and when they need help with a problem, it’s almost as if they apologize for asking.

That’s not to say Quinlan didn’t make more wholesale changes inside his IT organization, but he emphasizes those operational improvements as being big credibility boosters. “The ugly truth is, a CIO in any organization needs to choose,” Quinlan said. “But having, I believe, an additional set of supporters provides the ability for a CIO to change the way he or she is viewed, and that, to me, is strategic, because what you find at the leadership table is really how you’re viewed is how your contribution is viewed.” 

When it comes to sharing ideas with the employee base, Quinlan downplays the idea of preaching his own vision. He talks strategy in executive committee meetings and town halls with his IT organization, but to his “power base,” he tells them what they want to hear.

Among other modes of communication, Quinlan sends out a monthly newsletter called CIO Corner. In it, he and his team convey information about tools and technologies that will help those in the field do their job better. “They read about things like the iPhone, a new mobile app that provides new service for them—anything that people believe, ‘This is good for me,’ that’s what they latch onto. Anything that smacks of, ‘This is good for the CIO,’ no way.”

That’s a pretty clear illustration of Quinlan’s modus operandi: it’s not about him. Born and raised in St. Kitts, Quinlan often reflects on the numerous times in his career journey where others have helped him through guidance or opening doors.

And he carries that with him in his role today. “We’re uniquely positioned (to add strategic value) — as long as we don’t think we’re uniquely positioned to do it alone,” he said. “It absolutely requires working with lots of others, which is harder, but that’s the way it works.”

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