by CIO Staff

What Leadership Looks Like

Jul 15, 200516 mins
IT Leadership

When Ash Brooks first joined Arrow Electronics as vice president of end user computing in late 1999, then-CIO David Westmoreland asked him to deal with his biggest headache—the help desk. Three major metrics told the terrible tale of the poor help desk service at the $10.6 billion company. Calls took two minutes to be answered, half of the users who called gave up, and first-level call resolution—whereby problems were solved rather than escalating to the next level—was a dismal 40 percent.

“I quickly assessed the situation and immediately told the CIO how I could change it,” recalls Brooks, now Arrow’s vice president of IT infrastructure and operations. “In less than a month,

I gave him a 20-point plan to fix the problems and a 12-month time line to get it done.” True to his word, Brooks did turn the help desk around. He centralized two locations, put in a scheduling program and a host of tools to monitor workloads, and instituted more robust customer service training. Within a year, those help desk numbers started looking much better. It now takes less than 30 seconds to get a call answered; the abandon rate has plummeted to 9 percent; and first-level call resolution has jumped to 80 percent.

Brooks’ bosses were wowed; eventually, current Arrow CIO Mark Settle asked Brooks to take over the entire IT infrastructure organization and the vendor management office. He saw in Brooks what the judges of our Ones to Watch awards recognized—true IT leadership potential. Identifying and developing such senior staff members—those destined to become the CIOs of the future—is critical. “It’s important from a succession planning standpoint to always be looking for people to move into new roles, including your own,” says Steven Agnoli, awards judge and CIO of Kirkpatrick & Lockhart Nicholson Graham. “The other reason it’s important is that these people are doing very important things in key roles now, and you want only the best people in those roles.” (For more on developing future leaders, see “How Stars Are Made.”)

At the level they’re at, these almost CIOs have been deputized, and much of the credibility of the CIO actually rests on their shoulders. They manage the majority of major vendor relationships. They are responsible for the success or failure of multimillion-dollar, enterprisewide initiatives. They hire and manage your most critical employees. They act as your surrogate when you’re out of the office. And the best thing is, they do it all very, very well.

Finding such folks isn’t easy. “They need to be good at a lot of things,” says Agnoli. “They have to be able to delve from the really high-level stuff all the way down to the minutiae, sometimes at the same time. It’s a very difficult skill set to find, so you want to hold on to them.”

There are some telltale signs that an IT leader is—or should be—headed for the top. Our 33 Ones to Watch honorees, recognized for their rising-star status in the IT world, display three overarching characteristics the wise CIO will watch out for. They have vision, often taking creative approaches to solving business problems. They exhibit influence, with superior communication skills and the ability to build consensus. And they get things done, executing enterprisewide projects successfully time and time again. Brooks demonstrated all three in turning around the help desk at Arrow, from envisioning the changes that needed to take place to winning buy-in for the planned overhaul to executing it flawlessly. And judges for this award say it’s an all-or-nothing proposition. “Without all three of those traits,” Agnoli says, “it would be hard to make a case for moving (someone) on to the next level of influence.”

What to Watch For: Vision

Vision as a core competency is the kind of trait CIOs just know when they see it. It comes in many forms, from the ability to envision an executable plan to figuring out how to enable a new business product. But the qualities that lead IT up-and-comers to creative approaches to solving business problems are easier to boil down. They need a thorough understanding of the down-and-dirty details of both technology capabilities and business needs, the flexibility to adjust to changing conditions in either or both, and the ability to bring the two together into a very high-level strategic plan.

Ones to Watch honoree Gudrun Neumann had been working for IBM for 16 years—most of the last four on the road—when she was assigned to run an intended infrastructure outsourcing arrangement between IBM and American Century Investments. She was pleased; she’d been looking for a bigger outsourcing deal to run so that she could settle down in one place for a little while. Ultimately, American Century Senior Vice President and CTO Robert Sauvageau canceled the deal with IBM, but he saw something special in Neumann and hired her as vice president of corporate services. In 2001, major changes were taking place at the Kansas City, Mo.-based financial services company. Like most mutual fund companies, American Century was hurting from the market downturn and the resulting decrease in fund assets. Senior executives wanted to broaden the company’s market base beyond traditional mutual funds to include institutional asset management. In 2002, Neumann was charged with envisioning a systems strategy to support the major shift in business. She employed business process modeling, vendor analysis and competitive intelligence. With all that going on, she says she kept focus by keeping the “simple” problem that she was trying to solve in mind. “Will our systems be able to support the business strategy of the future?” she would constantly ask herself and her team of 230. “If not, what should we do?” Ultimately, they came up with recommendations for business process changes and systems acquisitions, which got unanimous support from her business partners and the executive committee.

Today, Neumann and her team are in the final stretch of the multiyear project (which is on budget and on schedule). The biggest challenge in envisioning the future, she says, was dealing with the present. “You can create a long-term strategy, but things always change,” says Neumann.

Neumann also faced a common challenge—namely, staying on top of the details but keeping an eye on the big picture. “I’m not a micromanager, but I’m interested in a lot of detail, especially in the beginning phases of something,” says Neumann. “It helps me shape the plan and also sell what we’re doing, which is 60 percent of what I do.” Getting involved in some of the nitty gritty—such as the details of both applications and infrastructure—Gudrun says, actually helps her to identify larger issues.

For Ones to Watch honoree Daren Collins, connecting the dots where others cannot is how he’s able to envision innovative solutions to nagging business problems using existing or proven technologies. That’s how, as director of infrastructure IT for TransAlta, a Calgary-based energy company, he came up with a wireless implementation for the company’s plants that saved them $600,000 in the first six months of operation. Monitoring equipment operations at the company’s huge plants had been a problem for some time. The pen-and-paper method was slow and inefficient.

Collins could see a solution by combining existing third-party monitoring software—”cheap 802.11 wireless technology”—and existing laptops to help automate the process. “No one had ever thought of doing it that way,” Collins explains. Collins’ unique solution worked out better than expected (he had targeted only $50,000 in savings per month), and he used the increased savings to buy more ruggedized handhelds for plant technicians to use.

He took a similar approach in creating an automated solution for running all the company’s power plants. Unlike other, more mature segments of the manufacturing industry, power plants were largely unautomated and still required human monitoring and adjustment to help keep plants up and running. Under Collins’ guidance, TransAlta became one of the first in the utilities industry to automate such work. He took a software package from Siemens that had been designed for other types of manufacturing and applied it to the power generation plant. Collins says the automation has increased new production from existing plants by 5 percent per unit.

Collins attributes his ability to envision entirely new solutions from existing pieces of technology and processes to his background as an engineer. “I learned best practices like adopting standards, reusing things when you can and choosing proven technology,” says Collins. “And it’s starting to catch on across the rest of IT. They used to tease me for not using anything new, but now that they see that these things work, they realize it’s smart.”

What to Watch For: Influence

Of course, giving doctors and nurses innovative new technology tools is one thing; getting them to use these tools is quite another. That’s where influence comes in. Larry Stofko, like all of our Ones to Watch honorees, must call upon a whole host of skills to get business buy-in for, and usage of, IT-enabled change—from being willing to learn more about what the business needs to gaining the trust of key stakeholders to marketing big, enterprisewide changes to building relationships with various (often very different) constituencies. Stofko’s ability to keep the new ideas coming has enabled him to “establish himself as an agent of change,” says St. Joseph Health System’s CIO Ben Williams.

For Stofko, vice president of IT strategy and innovation for St. Joseph Health System, the first step is understanding. The better he can understand the needs of his customers, the easier he can generate welcomed solutions. So Stofko went back to school, earning a graduate certificate in health-care administration. “I did that to get closer to the business side of what we do,” says Stofko. “Any technology I bring to the table has to be focused on the health-care delivery, so I have to be able to wear that different hat.” It’s important for any IT leader to figure out how to influence those in IT and in the business, says Ones to Watch judge and Marriott International Executive Vice President and CIO Carl Wilson. “You have to be trustworthy and able to earn the trust of others who may be doubters.”

Stofko surveyed his hospitals to find out what their technology needs were. It turned out that they varied wildly. Some hospitals (such as those in Orange County) were in competitive environments; others (such as the one in Napa) were the only game in town. In some areas, St. Joseph’s owned the physicians groups; in others, it didn’t. So Stofko developed a governance process that would not only capitalize on consistency and best practices where it makes sense but also allow for market variation. It wasn’t easy. “The challenge is finding a model that works for the inherent control that people desire, balanced with guidelines and processes that put a type of structure and control in place,” he says. Stofko was able to strike that balance, and the resulting governance process not only works better for all involved but also helps display to the hospital community Stofko’s understanding of their needs, enabling them to trust him even more.

Stofko also has to influence his toughest audience—the physicians. It was easy to get a handful of doctors to come to his monthly noshes, those who were already on the IT bandwagon. But to really influence behavior, Stofko had to get those IT skeptics, with a large sphere of influence themselves, on board as well. So far, he says he has a good group that usually attends the breakfasts or dinners, where he updates them on what’s going on in IT and opens up a discussion among the doctors about what’s going on in their markets and what they need. The group was a great help as Stofko launched St. Joseph’s first computerized physician order entry system at St. Jude Medical Center in Fullerton, Calif.

Stofko notes that his success with the electronic records system earned him major points to move forward with his multimillion-dollar e-health project. “If you have a track record of success and actually do what you say you are going to do, you will earn credibility that will translate to influence.”

Ask Timothy A. Waire Jr. about his accomplishments as manager of IT infrastructure for Constellation Energy Group, a leading energy company in Baltimore, Md., and he’ll start talking about his most recent “campaigns.” That’s because Waire thinks of his IT projects as products and his ability to introduce them to the $12.5 billion corporation as marketing tasks. Without such effort, he says, IT loses its influence. “If you don’t market your ability to deploy real technology solutions that solve real business problems, your role is reduced to that of a spectator, just watching the ’real’ business execute its playbook,” says Waire.

For any “campaign,” the process begins with the business case. Having developed that, Waire holds “lunch and learn” sessions within each business unit or site. “That’s when I try to sell the business on the tools by educating them on how it will help do day-to-day business better,” explains Waire.

Outgoing by nature, Waire says that salesmanship must be in his genes, since he doesn’t have any actual marketing background. But he calls on the innate skill during capital appropriations reviews. For every major initiative he wants to implement, even if it’s part of the company’s business plan, Waire has to build a solid business case. He employs tools such as ROI calculations, internal rates of return and cost-based accounting—although he says his more important task is convincing the business that he can deliver. To do that, he throws out all the acronyms and speaks the language of the business. “Once you have ’sized the prize’ for them, you can actually deliver it,” Waire says.

What to Watch For: Execution

And that’s the final ingredient that makes an IT leader one for the CIO to watch. Yes, vision and influence are essential qualities for future CIOs. But without solid execution, great ideas and successful marketing campaigns quickly fall apart. “You’ve gotta stand and deliver,” judge Wilson says.

It takes time though to truly judge whether an IT leader is good at getting things done. “You have to look at the scope and reach of what they’re doing. It’s one thing to do a successful project; it’s another thing to do it across the entire organization,” says Agnoli. “You also have to look at how successful they are. They need to build a track record over time, not just one good project.” To do that, IT leaders need to be able to employ solid project management practices, hire and manage the best employees to execute those plans, and either get involved or delegate appropriately. And though it sounds rather circular, it takes an IT leader who has vision and influence as well.

Collins exhibits all that and more, says his boss. “He has the technical skill to see the vision before anyone else and the trust of the organization to go toward these goals before they are well- understood,” said TransAlta Senior Vice President and CIO Greg Wilson when nominating Collins. “He understands the business better than most business guys and understands technology better than anyone in our company.”

That’s why when TransAlta acquired three companies in New Zealand with the hope of integrating them into one, Wilson’s predecessor knew that Collins was the man to send to the other side of the world to get it done. Collins applied his “simple” recipe for solid execution: involving the business, bringing key vendors on site, hiring people who have previously worked on similar efforts and adopting standard project management practices. It worked. Collins started up the centralized New Zealand IT group from scratch and stayed on for two years to make sure things ran smoothly before returning to Canada.

For Ash Brooks, the key to delivering time and again is to “begin with the end in mind. I’m good at seeing what the end result should look like and designing systematic processes to get to that result.” CIO and Ones to Watch judge Agnoli says such execution strategies are key: “It’s about knowledge of what you’re doing, knowing what should be in that plan and sticking to it. Communication before and after so you can catch problems before they become too big.”

In 2002, Brooks (who before his IT career was the manager of a health club and owner-operator of his own automotive shop) was admitted to the executive MBA program at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management. At the time, Brooks was based in Arrow’s Denver office and commuted to Chicago for classes on every other Friday, Saturday and Sunday, landing back in his Denver office by Monday morning. But at the end of his first semester, the CIO asked Brooks to take over the entire infrastructure organization, which would require him to move to New York. He relocated himself and his family, took on a job triple the size of his previous one and continued with his trips to Northwestern.

Brooks had to learn a new way of getting things done—namely, trusting others. It’s a critical and often difficult step as IT leaders rise in the ranks. He also enlisted new forms of communication and measurement so that he could continue to view what was going on throughout the organization, even if he wasn’t intimately involved. He adopted an internal project methodology that had previously been used in application development and set up an enterprise wide IT infrastructure scorecard that he began monitoring on a monthly basis.

Brooks had the opportunity to test his newly acquired execution-by-delegation skills when he took over as vice president and general manager of Arrow’s military and aerospace line of business, while that business unit leader was on a two-month sabbatical.

And like all of our Ones to Watch honorees, it likely won’t be the last chance Brooks gets to test his hard-won leadership skills, either in his current position or someday soon as CIO.