by Elana Varon

Leadership: Virtual Mentor

Apr 01, 200113 mins
IT Leadership

Mary Odson

Odson has spent her whole career at the Los Angeles law firm Paul, Hastings, Janofsky & Walker, where she started as a secretary. She took that job after getting a bachelor’s degree in business from San Diego State University to help her decide if she wanted to go to law school. She changed to an IT track as she became more interested in the technology she was using on the job. Prior to being named CIO, Odson held the firm’s number-two IT position. Her technology training occurred on the job. Following her firm’s acquisition of a large New York City law firm in June, Odson now supports 1,700 employees in nine offices in the United States, Britain and Japan.

MARY FINLAYFinlay is deputy CIO with Partners HealthCare, a network of hospitals and physician groups in the Boston area with annual gross revenues of $3.5 billion. Her job is to execute her company’s technology strategy, which she develops along with other senior IT executives. Finlay and her staff of 450 also have to ensure that the company’s technology infrastructure and central services are running efficiently and effectively. She is working on a project to define how Partners’ IT department can become an A+ service provider and an A+ place of employment. She has a bachelor of arts degree in psychology from Allegheny College and an MBA from Simmons College Graduate School.

When Mary Odson was promoted to CIO of the law firm Paul, Hastings, Janofsky & Walker two years ago, she had to prove that a 13-year company veteran could look at its IT needs with a fresh eye. The partners wanted their new CIO to shake up–then build up–the firm’s IT operations. The first task she identified was to terminate poorly performing systems and applications development contracts that ate up one-fourth of the firm’s IT budget and bring that work and expertise back in-house. She hired 20 people, increasing her staff by 30 percent. She appointed five global managers to oversee networks, telecommunications services, training and applications development, including a director of legal technology to oversee the development of specialized legal applications. That’s some opening argument for Odson’s competence, and she delivered it in front of a tough jury of 800 user attorneys. These users have increased their understanding of IT and employ it more enthusiastically than in the past because many of their clients now come from the high-tech industry. But the lawyers are still skeptical about adopting new technologies because systems installed in the past by outside contractors didn’t meet their needs. At the top of Odson’s wish list is completing the deployment of a knowledge management system that would capture information about the firm, its internal expertise and its clients. The system would help lawyers identify more quickly colleagues who could assist them with their work (now, they query each other via e-mail, a cumbersome process). But so far, it has been difficult to convince the partners that benefits of the technology justify its high price tag, which is in the mid-six figures. And the lawyers consider their client information to be their personal intellectual property, so it’s hard to get them to share.

Odson’s other challenges include nurturing scarce talent and keeping employees challenged enough to stick around. Also, she must meet the leadership expectations of the law firm’s partners by forecasting long-term technology needs, demonstrating the benefits of new technologies and showing a positive return on the firm’s IT expenditures. Finally, as the mother of a toddler, Odson is looking for ways to balance her professional and personal lives–and succeed in both.

Making The Sale

Mary Odson: I do a strategic plan and budget one year at a time. What is your budgeting strategy?

Mary Finlay: For the most part, we budget year to year. We first look at what it costs us to just continue what we call “lights on.” Then we look at the projects we have in progress, and then we have the brand-new things. That’s where a lot of the focus is on the budget. We really can’t argue about “lights on” because that’s keeping the machines running. The “ongoing” can be [discussed], although typically, if we start something, we complete it.

Odson: Do you have a separate R&D department or does your “lights on” team participate in R&D?

Finlay: Both. We have a clinical R&D staff, who are primarily physicians and members of our IT staff. They look at the next generation of clinical systems that we should adopt. We also have a director of technology planning. Her role is to look at new technology: What are we going to do with wireless? How do we apply that to our environment? Then, we have other line items for R&D activity. So the manager of network engineering has some money for R&D because he needs to look at what’s new from a network engineering perspective.

Odson: We had a few budget goals this year. One was to automate some of the paper processes using electronic or Web-based forms. The second was to do the bulk of the technology work ourselves. And third was to develop a KM strategy. It takes a lot of effort for our lawyers to search the multiple databases we have now. Our new knowledge management system would allow them to search work products, client information and internal expertise with one or two clicks. But [payback from] knowledge management initiatives is hard to quantify. What has been your experience with selling that to your management?

Finlay: Let’s first address your goals. How do they actually get set?

Odson: We have a technology committee, which is made up of six partners, all with a strong interest in using technology in their practice. Once the committee supports an initiative, they will ensure the lawyers take advantage of the investment. Customer relationship management is the key to our knowledge management strategy, but we had to underplay the role of sharing detailed client contact information because our attorneys believe that data belongs to [each of] them. We took a creative approach by showing them the benefits of using a CRM product for content management, like a litigation expertise database.

Finlay: So it sounds like you have support, and your challenge is more about convincing them that this is what it will cost to get to that.

Odson: Yes. Plus I have to show a return on investment. Sometimes that is difficult to do.

Finlay: One of my challenges is to better explain our expenses to senior management. Each of our hospitals and physician groups decide which projects they want to pursue every year, and the entire budget has to be approved at the corporate level. One CEO said to me, “You know, capital used to be buildings and equipment. I understand that. I just don’t get IT.” Since IT is becoming a larger portion of our organization’s budget, we need to do more work explaining its cost and value. That’s easier when we have a line of successes behind us. There is an element of trust in the discussion, but the need to explain and justify costs remains. It’s also important to be closely tethered to the business. Your IT solutions need to be seen as supporting the goals of the organization.

For the most part, our physicians are very accepting of technology, and we have a number of them who help us think about the future use of technology in medicine. A major reason for this acceptance has been that our clinical systems are designed and implemented by clinicians.

Odson: Fortunately, our clients are now dotcom companies. So the lawyers are more technology savvy. But it is still the bottom line that’s most important. Law firms typically break down IT expenditures on a per partner basis. You see a cost for technology like $90,000 per partner, and you have to quantify what they received for that. Because of this, efficiency initiatives like an enterprise HR system take a backseat to legal-specific technology. Would it be better to separate budgets for operational and new technology? For example, have a two-year budget for operational initiatives, which typically take more than a year to show an ROI, and a one-year budget for new technology?

Finlay: We budget year to year. We have an operating budget and a capital budget. We think about what we are trying to do over the next three years, since a number of our initiatives are multiyear. Then we draw on that for our budgeting purposes. If you have the opportunity, lay out where you think you need to go over the next three years. Then keep working back to that plan every time you do a new budget process and supplement it with new business demands.

Nurturing A Staff

Odson: I’ve considered developing an internal mentoring program or coming up with other ways we can retain staff tempted by opportunities at dotcom companies. What are you doing in that area?

Finlay: We have worked hard to ensure that we have competitive salary and benefits. There have been times when the IT staff has been given a higher increase than other staff just to keep pace with the market. But you can go only so far on the salary side. The other area that we have started to focus on is training. People want to work for somebody whom they believe really cares about their professional development. We have had people who have left because they wanted to do XYZ technology, and we didn’t recognize that. If somebody is a help-desk analyst and says, “What I really want to do is become a network engineer,” we should find a way to help that person do that. In the long run, that really helps our retention.

Odson: We implemented an annual compensation review, which includes the amount the firm invested in training and conferences. It was surprising for many people to see that expressed in dollars. One of our network people had received so much training that it equaled his annual salary. I think it is a motivator for staff to stay.

Finlay: I like that idea.

Odson: Do you have a process to acknowledge extraordinary efforts by your staff?

Finlay: We recognize people in various ways. We probably need to do it even more. The recognition that people really appreciate is from the user community. Within the past year, we implemented an order-entry system in the emergency department at one of the hospitals. The chairman of the emergency department sent an e-mail to the whole team about what a great job the IT group had done and what a difference they had made. That meant more to them than getting an e-mail from me. Sometimes I have to ask people to provide that feedback.

Leading A Balanced Life

Odson: My biggest challenge right now is managing my job and my time with my daughter without feeling like I am compromising either my family or work.

Finlay: My daughters are 6 and 8. After my first daughter was born, I went part time. After my second daughter came along, I was planning on continuing that arrangement. Then my husband decided to start consulting, and he is now the parent who is at home the most. That takes a whole layer of complication out. But I think as women we always struggle with this balance. I have really come to believe that balance has to be self-defined. For me that means I need to be home at night. I need to be home on the weekends. I need to be at some critical events. I need to be both physically and emotionally there. I am in the type of job, and I am sure you are as well, that I could work 24/7. However, I need to set realistic expectations for myself, with balance in mind. I am very fortunate that I work for a man who is supportive of the fact that people need balance.

Odson: I feel like I am doling out time.

Finlay: Right. I feel like just in this past year the pieces have started to come together for me. As your daughter gets older, the needs are different. Now it is a lot easier for me. But it is still demanding, and I still feel like there are people lining up who want a piece of my time. Most nights I make it home for dinner. When I walk through the door, they have me 100 percent. That to me is really important. The more my life is in balance, the better I am at work. It’s also important to me to set an example for other women struggling with this issue.

Being There

Finlay: I am sure that every time you have gotten a different position you have felt this: You get to the point where you say, “OK, I feel completely confident in what I am doing, how I am doing it, how I am going to get things done,” and you are “there.” I sense that you are still trying to find and hit that stride.

Odson: Yes. I did a lot of reorganization of the department, and I had to reestablish IT’s credibility within the firm. I had to devote a lot of time to the operational side, and that left little time for strategic planning. I think six months from now, I will be in a position where I can look at the whole picture. Once I am able to do that, I think I will hit that stride and feel more confident.

Do you have enough time to do strategic planning? How do you keep up with technology?

Finlay: I think maybe your real question is, How do you get the other stuff done, like the thinking we need to do? Part of that, I think, comes down to what we talked about before: how to balance. I block out time on my calendar weekly that I use for my thinking and planning. If I don’t purposely say that I need this amount of time every week, the only time I would be able to think is driving home at night, and that’s when I should really be watching the road.

Two Weeks Later…

Finlay and Odson talk more about how to allocate their time. They speculate about what they would each do if they had an hour every day to themselves and decide they could really use two extra hours–one to spend with family, another to learn more about new technology. Meanwhile, each reports she has acted on ideas sparked by their last discussion.

Finlay: One area I need to spend more time on is networking and professional development. The Women in Technology Institute is on my list of groups to join this year. I’ve also passed on to some of my managers your idea to tell your staff each year what their real compensation was.

Odson: I appreciated your suggestion about making sure to separate work and family time. I’ve been really aware of not trying to do both at the same time, not thinking of work while I’m pushing my daughter on the swing. I also like what you’re doing with your staff. I’m thinking about sabbaticals, particularly for people who have to focus on new technology. You can’t do it while the phone is ringing.