Being pushed out of your comfort zone can make your IT career

Vanguard CIO John Marcante was working his dream job as the head of the company’s software development team. However, things were about to change.

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The first is technology savviness. That doesn’t mean knowing every bit and byte—instead, it’s the ability to understand what technology can do, and how it can enable a business.

The second is business acumen. In the IT leadership discussion, we have opined for years about the necessity for IT leaders to understand their businesses—not just the financials, but the behavior of customers or clients, competitors and market forces. Marcante was fortunate to see these in his software-development leadership roles, but even more so in his business leadership roles.

The first two circles are rather obvious, though often misunderstood or understated by both business and IT leaders. But Marcante makes an important point: the overlapping of technology and business smarts provides fertile ground for innovation.

[ Related: 5 ways to cultivate a culture of IT innovation ]

The third circle, laid over the first two, is leadership. It includes all the skills Marcante mentioned previously, but for Vanguard, he summarizes it as the ability to create an entrepreneurial spirit that yields the breakthroughs the company needs to stay on top and beat away the countless numbers of insurgents seeking to disrupt the financial services arena.

As a whole, too, those leadership attributes go way beyond a checklist for current or aspiring IT leaders. “They are what is expected today of every leader,” Marcante says. “Take IT out of it. Every executive at every company has to have business acumen, but they have to understand what technology can do. And technology is the primary disruptor for us today,” he added.

Vanguard, as an organization, is a longtime believer in the power of technology, evidenced by some of the executive promotions Vanguard has made in recent years. When Marcante joined the executive committee as CIO, he joined two of his predecessors, Paul Heller and Tim Buckley, who had rotated to other business-leadership roles.

In terms of disruption, Marcante notes that while Vanguard has been wildly successful, its leaders are “perpetually dissatisfied.” “We are never complacent,” he says. “It is drilled in our heads to be paranoid.”

[ Related: CIO strategy for driving IT innovation ]

Across the financial services spectrum, Marcante sees dramatically lower barriers to entry and dramatically faster speed from ideas to mass adoption. So his mandate has become, as he calls it, “delivering business value at startup speed.”

From a technology perspective, that involves a foundational level of nimble infrastructure, where he is making investments in public cloud. Moving up the stack, Marcante is looking to boost continuous development and take advantage of the cloud’s scalability and elasticity by implementing more Agile development.

But for Marcante, the challenge is less about technology. How do you create an entrepreneurial spirit inside a 40-year-old legacy? For him, it’s maybe 30 percent technology, and 70 percent culture. For that, Marcante closely studied the “Lean Enterprise” approach, traveling with McNabb, Vanguard’s current chairman, and other company leaders to meet with IT leaders and venture capital giants in Silicon Valley to learn how companies have become nimbler and more innovative. Today, he is applying those lessons inside Vanguard, combining cross-functional teams to solve business problems and find new opportunities to create business value.

Despite the innate organizational “paranoia” and dissatisfaction, Marcante remains confident that Vanguard will continue its legacy of both innovative breakthroughs and market leadership. Combine Vanguard’s long track record of success, customer loyalty and scale with speed, and Vanguard has, in Marcante’s words, “something that’s unbeatable.”

About 15 years ago, Marcante thought he reached the pinnacle of his career. Now he sits in the driver’s seat of bringing dramatic change and new competitive capabilities to the same company, using the leadership skills he further developed by stepping outside the comfort zone of IT.

“Looking back, I am so happy I did the things that I did, because I gained perspective,” Marcante says. “I benefitted immensely from the support and guidance of those who I’ve had the opportunity to work for and, as a result, I’m actually better qualified for this job today than if I had been left on my own.”

Copyright © 2016 IDG Communications, Inc.

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