Dan Roberts
Contributing writer

Centene CIO Mark Brooks on building IT’s business relevance

Dec 20, 2021
Healthcare IndustryIT Leadership

The healthcare executive explains what it takes for IT leaders to get and keep their seat at the leadership table and how to cultivate a mission-driven technology team.

Mark Brooks, EVP and CIO, Centene Corporation
Credit: Centene Corporation

Mark Brooks is executive vice president and CIO of Centene Corporation, a Fortune 24 multi-national healthcare enterprise. With executive responsibility for information technology and systems for the $125 billion company, Brooks leads a team of more than 4,000 employees who develop and implement software and services focused on the organization’s health plan members. In November of 2021, he was recognized with the St. Louis Leadership CIO of the Year ORBIE Award.

Centene has acquired 20 companies since its founding, including seven in the last five years, and Brooks’ Centene Technologies team has experienced dramatic growth as part of that process. He most recently led the successful technology integration of two $10+ billion health plans. When we spoke for my CIO Whisperers podcast, Brooks explained how a culture of “radical candor” has helped them navigate the scale and complexity of these integrations, particularly the people and talent dynamics, which can often be the most challenging.

Beyond the acquisitions, Brooks’ story is also instructive when it comes to making the business case for investment in IT to grow the team and increase its impact. Key to that, he said, is building capabilities into the team to bridge business needs and technology needs. After the show, we spent some time talking about what it takes for IT to get and keep its seat at the leadership table and why learning is fundamental to evolving the culture and delivering results. What follows is that off-air conversation, lightly edited for length and clarity.

Dan Roberts: Can you talk about the process you went through to rebrand and also when and why a CXO should consider rebranding?

Mark Brooks: When we started together back in 2016, we were IT. And as the leadership team formed, it became clear that what we were trying to accomplish was much more than what IT implies—a service organization or a call center. We really wanted to be a strategic partner to our internal customers. We wanted to sit at the leadership table, help create strategy, generate outcomes. We wanted to really have a direct connection between the work that we did and, ultimately, the P&L.

So, as I mentioned on the podcast, we created business engagement teams—well-organized centers of excellence focused on the specific business processes that support the health plan. As part of our operating model, we selected those people so that they could engage with our business partners and start to build that brand and reputation. And as those things started to come together, the team, in a very thoughtful process, decided that Centene Technologies was really the descriptor that embodied the outcomes that we were trying to generate.

You talked in the podcast about some of the transformations you’ve gone through going to an agile way of working. One thing I’ve been very impressed with is the whole service culture you put in place and that you stayed the course for the duration and delivered. How do you cultivate that in terms how your people show up, how they engage, how they partner?

We do have a structured service excellence training program, and we make that investment for a variety of reasons. Starting with the mission of Centene matters, we are providing health insurance to people who are genuinely in need of quality care. So, we start thinking about that and the results that we need to generate for those individuals. And, obviously, the best way to generate that result is to have teams that can be successful and to deliver their part of that result. And that starts with how we treat our internal partners.

So, there are many things, but we ultimately must support our partners within the business, and that service mentality, that service excellence mentality, is something that we really covered as part of doing that.

One of the things that’s been interesting for us as we try to hire talent right now is that there are a lot of technologists who actually embrace that mission and want to be part of Centene—not only because we’re working in the most current technologies, but because the work that we do is actually helpful and impacting lives in a very positive way.

You’re the CIO of a Fortune 24 business. Why is it important for you to continue to learn?

One of our phrases is if you’re not winning, you’re learning. And we think that learning is fundamental to continuing to evolve our culture and our ability to deliver results. And, personally, I fell in love with technology over 30 years ago and have always loved the widgets. So, I’ve literally taught myself programming languages. Some of the younger programmers on the team will tell you that over the years, I have embarrassed myself learning Java and embarrassed myself trying to learn Golang and those types of things. But I really see that the analogy for me is if you love the widgets, then the work product is that much better.

In fact, my grandfather used to say the best furniture maker must love the smell of sawdust, and I really believe that’s true. I’ve never understood folks who try to work in a way without having the foundational pieces or an understanding of how things work. I was not a computer science major, but I have always felt very comfortable leading technology teams because I’ve always aspired to learn the technology. And when I say learn it, I don’t necessarily mean master it, but I mean understanding it at a level where I can have a good common sense about what it takes to do something. So, I think that’s important in any trade. If you don’t kind of have a love for the building blocks, it’s very difficult to oversee and lead.

The flip side of that is that the best leaders are also teachers. And I know you do that every day. Can you share with us about what you do on Monday evenings in your spare time?

I got involved in the Capstone course at Washington University here in St. Louis a few years back. And I teach that Capstone course, in part, because I have a real passion for the development of technology talent and the course is unique. It’s a course that assumes technical confidence. It assumes that at that point in your learning journey as a student you know the technology piece very well. But what it challenges you to do is to be a very constructive and active participant in a team.

It requires you to learn to write about technical concepts in a way that are discernible to non-technical audiences. And most importantly, it pushes the students to do an effective executive presentation where they make a recommendation to solve a problem; describe it technically again to audiences that are not necessarily technical. So, I think it’s a really good way to help technologists round out their skill set, and I hope over time, is impactful in terms of helping them to build their careers.

The last 18 months have been a challenging time, just in general, and certainly in IT. What are your thoughts on the future of the profession?

Well, I think that if I were to frame my response speaking to college graduates considering either a career in business or career in technology, I would really encourage them to consider a career in technology, because I think, ultimately, Centene’s philosophy that technology is the core competence of the business becomes just an accepted truth for all businesses at scale. Technology and the way that it’s evolved, the digital technologies fundamentally change the opportunity to do business. For example, where two smaller entities can disrupt legacy businesses.

In some ways, I feel like the learnings of the last 18 months, some of the acceleration that occurred because of the pandemic, even better positions individuals to benefit from a career in technology.

For more insights from Brooks on how to bridge IT and the business, as well as some of the lessons he’s learned from diverse business leaders and mentors over the years, listen to the full podcast episode here.

Dan Roberts

Dan Roberts is the CEO of Ouellette & Associates Consulting, host of the CIO Whisperers podcast, and author of numerous books, including "Unleashing the Power of IT" and "Confessions of a Successful CIO."