Ones to Watch Winners Discuss Keys to Meeting Mid-Market Challenges

Tight budgets. Leadership churn. Meeting business demands. Four Ones to Watch winners discuss their approaches to meeting key leadership challenges

Gerry McCartney

CIO and Interim VP for IT, Purdue University

Based in West Lafayette, Ind., Purdue is a public, four-year institution of higher education.

Purdue University is in a somewhat unique position when it comes to mid-market challenges. Although we are a mid-market organization, we are also the biggest IT employer in our area. So we can act like a big dog.

The biggest challenge I’ve faced as a mid-market CIO is churn at the leadership levels within IT. It is absolutely true that you are only as good as your people. So hiring the best people you can get is critical to the organization. The best people are smart, can pick up new ideas and concepts quickly, and have energy, focus and motivation.

Once you get the best employees, you need to be able to retain them. That means having very clear staff development models. You need to make it attractive for your best individual contributors to stay in your organization.

One of the ways I’ve overcome this challenge is by giving top-performing senior managers more significant development opportunities, such as major projects and external exposure. This allows them to experience their own career growth, which is essential to succession planning.

I’m not really aware of any other particular challenges from being a mid-market CIO. I do believe that to succeed as a leader you need to know what drives your industry and therefore your organization. That’s the first step. The second is to focus all the resources you can on those drivers. Along those lines, a close relationship to the business is essential. When IT has a major proposal, you need to test it against your core business drivers. The CIO also needs to make sure all managers and staff understand how what they are doing relates to those core drivers. So at least twice a year you need to strategically review your actual projects to ensure that you’re staying focused on your industry and company drivers.

I think this is what any leader should do regardless of the size of the organization.

Gary Thomson

CIO and SVP, Choice Hotels

A hospitality corporation with a portfolio of hotel brands including Comfort Inn, Clarion and EconoLodge.

Choice Hotels International is a total franchise company. Our franchise revenue figures may put us in the mid-market category, but we are bigger than that from an IT perspective. The information systems department supports a $5 billion enterprise with over 5,300 hotels located in the United States and internationally.

My number-one concern is trying to provide all the systems capabilities desired by the other business units as quickly as they want them, but to do so within Choice’s IS architectural framework. In order to be as effective as possible, it is important that our systems are well integrated. That allows us to provide consistent, easy-to-use functions to our guests and our franchisees across the enterprise. The tension we feel is to get projects done quickly while staying within a consistent information systems architecture.

I suspect, however, my key challenges are similar to those of other CIOs, whether they are with large or small companies. Choice, like many companies, is highly dependent on IT. Our business model is to provide a set of marketing and sales distribution services to our franchisees at a price point that makes them profitable. Increasingly, those services are becoming IS and technology dependent. Hiring and keeping the appropriate staff is the number-one leadership challenge. We appeal to potential hires by convincing them that there are a lot of exciting technical challenges here at Choice and that it’s a good career move for them to learn and grow their skill sets. Moreover, a good technology environment with a positive attitude toward innovation helps us retain good employees.

My leadership style is to keep a collegial, relaxed environment despite the need to move quickly to meet the demands of the business. I try to make sure that I give my staff authority when I give them responsibility. If a person does well, I want them to get the recognition. If someone messes up, I never berate them. Rather, I try to use the situation as a learning opportunity for personal and team growth.

I manage in a quiet, supportive mode. I want people to feel like they can try out new ideas, be innovative and be recognized for their innovation. Other than that, I try to lead with integrity, candor and trust.

John Hayes

CIO, Air Force Reserve Command

A major command of the U.S. Air Force with headquarters at Robins Air Force Base in Georgia.

As the CIO for the Reserve Command (AFRC), I divide my responsibilities into three major areas: providing core information technology services to reservists at 17 host locations, using IT to make AFRC better, and providing combat-ready communications and information capabilities to the war fighter. The primary challenges we face are balancing access to the AFRC network against securing it from outside attacks, maintaining a qualified workforce and looking for opportunities to reduce service costs. My largest leadership obstacle was entering the job as an outsider. I am actually an active-duty Air Force officer and had never dealt with AFRC before in my 25-plus-year career. When I arrived at our headquarters in July 2005, none of the senior staff knew me, and I didn’t know any of them. It took me until a few months after my arrival to feel like I was part of the team. My previous jobs gave me technical credibility, but I had to earn the senior leader trust before I could be effective as the Reserve Command’s CIO. I earned this trust by not being the IT geek but instead learning the uniqueness of the Reserve Command mission, establishing personal relationships with my fellow senior staff and visiting many of our 45 locations. As I think about the secrets of my success in a mid-market organization, I don’t feel any of them are earth-shattering. I try to surround myself with people who are smarter than me (not a difficult task). I make sure that we don’t hire people who match the skills we already have. For instance, when I was hiring my deputy, I hired an individual without a strong IT background but who had a very strong Reserve Command operations background, unlike me. I tend to hire people who I periodically have to rein in because I’d rather have an overly aggressive staff than one that needs to be kick-started every once in a while. I’ll gladly fix the broken glass that comes with aggressive individuals. From a personal standpoint, I’ve had to shift my focus from the “tyranny of the immediate” to a longer-range, more strategic perspective. If I’m not working a couple of issues that will take one to two years to complete, I’m being too short-sighted.

Sue Powers

CIO and SVP, Worldspan

Provider of travel technology services for industry ­suppliers, agencies, e-commerce sites and ­corporations.

Worldspan provides travel technology services for industry suppliers, agencies, e-commerce sites and corporations. But as a mid-market company, we don’t have an unlimited IT budget. Our challenge was that too often customers would assume that IT couldn’t support an initiative, had problems or wasn’t delivering.

To overcome those negative perceptions, we implemented a monthly Balanced Scorecard and quarterly portfolio reporting. This gives us an opportunity to present a balanced picture of performance, show what has been delivered and what is being worked on, and sets up an opportunity to discuss issues and plans with stakeholders. This dialogue and reporting ensures the customer is informed and involved in setting priorities and making resources decisions. We never say no. We present options and let the customer make the trade-off decision.

There are several critical success factors that have helped me as an IT leader of a mid-market company. One of the most important is to motivate my staff. To engage the staff, they need to understand the value IT delivers to the organization. They also need to know how what they are doing fits into the overall strategy of the company. They need to have well-documented processes and standards so they know what is expected and have the opportunity to have challenging and meaningful assignments.

A great way to do this is to develop an IT strategy map that flows from the company strategy. The strategy map illustrates the IT value and the linkage between objectives and initiatives. It helps us balance the various perspectives: what we are trying to do in terms of IT value and user satisfaction, how we do it and preparing for the future. The frontline managers have a huge role when it comes to the linkage between IT value and delivery. They know what the organizational issues are and how to solve them. I found that listening to the managers and having them lead projects to improve processes and performance can deliver solutions far superior to top-down problem solving.

Another key to leadership is to keep employees encouraged and happy. We recently implemented a new “pay for performance” program that provides more than the annual merit and profit-sharing bonus. We also have spot awards, skills improvement salary increases, bonus opportunities throughout the year, an employee-of-the-week parking spot and so on. These programs help us reward good work all year long and keep the staff motivated.

Contact Associate Staff Writer Katherine Walsh at kwalsh@cio.com.

Copyright © 2007 IDG Communications, Inc.

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