Maryfran Johnson

IDEXX CIO Ken Grady: Why you need to be a commercial CIO

Feb 12, 2022
CareersCIOIT Leadership

The CIO role is the only IT job where you’re not being hired by someone in IT, says IDEXX CIO, Ken Grady. That career-changing realization pushed him towards a more collaborative relationship with his peers in sales and marketing.

Ken Grady, CIO, IDEXX Laboratories
Credit: IDEXX Laboratories

If you happen to be one of CIO Ken Grady’s 3,280 followers on LinkedIn, his New Year’s message may have already struck a chord in your heart — as it did in mine.

“The most important intention I have for the new year is a very firm resolution to be more gentle with people, including myself,” he wrote. “My ‘driven’ instincts don’t always translate to ‘helpful.’ Being kind does not mean being unwilling to do the hard work. Being gentle does not mean being unable to step up.”

Grady is the technology leader of Maine-based IDEXX Laboratories, a pet healthcare diagnostics company serving veterinarians and customers in 175 countries. His IT career trajectory has taken him through leadership roles from small start-ups to Fortune 500 global companies across life sciences, R&D organizations and supply chain operations.

As I read his thoughtful, uplifting message to fellow CIOs about facing yet-another pandemic year of continued uncertainty, what resonated for me was his advice to look at 2022 as “a blank page, waiting for us to write our own intentions.”

“You will have more to offer others, if you make sure that you support your own space to make mistakes, learn, and thrive,” he advised. “Be good to yourselves. 2022 needs us.”

Grady is the only CIO I know who creates his own brief TikTok videos – every week since the pandemic began — to update his globally dispersed team about company news and to share his thoughts. I caught up with him recently to hear more about how he’s putting his 2022 intentions into practice.  

Maryfran Johnson: CIOs talk about empathy as a crucial leadership skill much more openly today than ever before, but you’ve added a kindness dimension to that. Why does that matter?

Ken Grady: I actually want to be a kind leader and creating empathy means putting yourself in other’s shoes and being kind. I know it sounds very aspirational, but with everything we’re all going thru with Covid, the world needs more kindness. The CIO job is very people intensive. Our job is to deliver and create change – by changing the way people work, or engage with customers, or determine how employees work. If you’re not people-centric, it’s hard to create change.

Talking about it may sound soft and squishy, but I have specific sets of goals around the employee experience, to make it business-centric. Talking about it out loud is also important, otherwise they won’t know. You have to model it out loud.

What made you think of creating TikTok videos? It’s hugely popular with Millennials and GenZ, but for a GenXer CIO like yourself, it’s a bit unexpected.  

That first week of lockdown, we all went home and just kept working. It was such a white-knuckle time for everyone, and I thought ‘I gotta say something to the team!’ So I pointed the phone at my face, and did a kind of ‘We’ll get through this’ video.’ Every Friday morning since then, I do a wrap-up video for my team. I’ve always had a very global team, with people in China, Brazil, all over the place, and they didn’t hear from me very often. Now they hear from me every week.

Was it easy to become such a TikTok-friendly CIO?

No, it was super awkward at first! But after 40-50 times, less so. I’m usually on TikTok every day and creating my walking videos that way is super effective. The internal videos are about 10 minutes long, but my external ones are much shorter.

A big part of the reason I’m creating content to post out in the world is that we can’t get out in the world much anymore. How will talented IT people know they want to work for IDEXX? I want them to google us and find stuff that looks interesting. Anyone can work anywhere these days, so it’s key to create a culture that makes anyone want to stay – or to join us. It’s been a very deliberate strategy.

With your decade of CIO experience now, between IDEXX and New England Biolabs, what has changed in your own career strategy?

What nobody realizes about being a CIO (or those aspiring to be CIO) is that it’s the only job in IT where you’re *not* being hired by someone in IT. You have to be a business leader and an expert who understands tech. The biggest change for me was realizing I needed to become a commercial CIO. I used to be one of those CIOs who avoided sales and marketing. I didn’t want to work with those guys, yet the entire company depends on them. So I pivoted into working and collaborating with marketing and sales. It was a career-changer. And I tell the tech people that I mentor today that nobody else owns your development plan. There’s no roadmap to becoming a CIO, no boxes to tick. Of course, there are tools and resources to help you, but it’s best accomplished if you’re intentional.