Michael Bertha

CIO Diane Schwarz on the power of professional ecosystems

Jul 27, 20237 mins
CareersIT Leadership

IT leaders must foster multidimensional networks based on a strong understanding of their company’s currency, investments in peer relationships, and a continually authentic personal brand.

Diane Schwarz stylized
Credit: Johnson Controls / Diane Schwarz

Diane Schwarz knows it as well as anyone: You can’t climb to the C-suite alone. It takes an ecosystem of colleagues, clients, and partners — all of whom help you navigate what is often a nonlinear path.

Such has been the case in Diane’s own storied career, from her education at Notre Dame and Chicago Booth to CIO posts at Textron, Hunt Energy, and most recently, Johnson Controls, the $25 billion global enterprise that is helping to create smart, sustainable buildings through its OpenBlue suite of digital solutions for connecting the equipment and systems in a building.

“When you’re comfortable being vulnerable, you can see your blind spots. And then you can build an ecosystem to address them” says Schwarz. “It takes a village, and you can’t be self-reliant for everything.”

Most IT leaders know that what got them to their current position won’t necessarily get them to their next role, especially given the constantly evolving technology space — and role of the CIO. Often, they discover that to get to the next level, they have to strengthen their network by making it multidimensional. They have to build an ecosystem.

But how? Schwarz recommends taking the time to do three things: Know the value of your company’s currency, invest heavily in peer relationships, and above all, be authentic to your personal brand.

Understand your company’s currency

You can’t develop a professional ecosystem unless you truly understand the business you’re in, know how its profits are made, and can pinpoint where smart money is being spent and why. To do that, you should interact with three key stakeholder groups: customers, suppliers, and venture capital.

“CIOs today are engaged in a realm of external customer discussions less prevalent than they were ten years ago,” Schwarz says. It’s becoming more common to sell digital solutions outside of the traditional IT scope, which has created more reasons to invest in relationships with CIOs at customer organizations. “It’s important to identify scenarios where you can reach out to help remove objections or dispel myths,” ultimately carving paths to revenue contributions

These relationships help in myriad ways beyond the commercial. Schwarz recalls a time when the CIO of a supplier (who was also a customer) helped her resolve a critical outage. Having already built a relationship with the CIO, Schwarz was able to get the issue escalated and resolved very quickly.

Strong partnerships with suppliers are also critical, says Schwarz, as they help improve business outcomes and advance careers by creating all sorts of unexpected opportunities.

Here Schwarz points to her strong relationship with the executive team at Oracle. In part because of that relationship, she was recently asked to the main stage at Oracle’s CloudWorld, where she discussed the link between technology and sustainability and her company’s role in driving decarbonization. That exposure created a halo effect for Johnson Controls and her IT team. It signaled credibility to the audience, the marketplace, and her peers.

As a means of strengthening supplier relationships, Schwarz recommends joining a supplier’s customer advisory board, as she has done at Salesforce and Infosys. Such positions can serve as a platform for building impact. Not sure how to get on one? “Just ask,” says Schwarz. “It’s no different than advocating for a position at work: Don’t expect people to know you’re interested unless you put yourself out there.”

VC firms are another outlet for building your professional ecosystem, especially if, like Schwarz, you put a premium on diversity of thought and the innovation that follows it. VC firms can expose you and your teams to new ways of working that “challenge unconscious biases on risk tolerance, speed, and financial decisions” — and that shed light on the trends shaping the tech landscape.

“I like to expose my team to venture capital because it’s a whole other side of the world we don’t deal with on a daily basis,” says Schwarz, who adds that the relationship is not a one-way street. “Digital leaders have to give back to the broader tech community. To whom much is given, much is required.” To this end, she finds sharing feedback on product market fit with VC-backed portfolio companies as one of the “purest ways to give back to the tech community.”

Invest in peer relationships

Schwarz sees her continual investment in peer relationships as the centerpiece of her journey to the C-suite three times over.

“You have to make network a verb,” she says, referring to the perpetual effort one must invest in building and sustaining relationships, especially when it comes to building internal relationships to support cohesive go-to-market motions or external ones that can complement existing skill sets.

Because, according to Schwarz, you never go to market alone. Strong peer relationships are vital for making strategic decisions, she says, pointing to her relationship with Johnson Controls CTO Vijay Sankaran.

Schwarz and Sankaran work in lockstep in the digital landscape but manage different aspects of the 360-degree relationship with tech suppliers. While Schwarz assesses suppliers in terms of consumption, budget, and their impact on internal stakeholder experiences, Sankaran evaluates impacts on the capabilities that enable Johnson Controls’ OpenBlue suite of technology solutions. Perspectives on go-to-market or customer views require gathering input from the chief commercial officer or the president of a business unit. In each case, the point is clear: Your strategic decisions are only as cohesive as your internal ecosystem.

When it comes to cultivating external peer relationships, Schwarz emphasized the importance of a group founded by happenstance at a 2016 executive women’s dinner in Dallas. “We realized the potential of how powerful our voices could be together.” With that, T200 was founded with the mission to foster, celebrate, and advance women’s leadership in tech. Seven years and 245 members later, the percentage of female CIOs in the F500 is climbing, and every member has a peer network of digital and technology executives standing by for questions, talent referrals, and coaching conversations. “We have each other’s backs, and we actively advocate for each other.”

Be authentic to your brand

If you’re ambitious enough to become a person of influence in your ecosystem, it’s likely that others are doing their homework on you. Recruiters, prospective employees and employers, and many others could be researching you at any time. What they learn may determine what happens next. “Make sure your brand is authentic to how you operate,” says Schwarz.

What might others say about you based on your physical and digital interactions? What conclusions might one draw from your social media presence? Ask yourself these questions and make sure you like the answers. This narrative reflects the brand you aspire to project in your ecosystem. Also important, Schwarz notes: “Never burn a bridge, because you’re sure to cross paths multiple times in the future.” 

In Getting to Nimble: How to Transform Your Company into a Digital Leader, Peter High posits that CIOs should seek inspiration from five sources: customers, peers, venture capitalists, executive recruiters, and external partners. Diane’s ecosystem reflects this and is living proof that a thriving ecosystem will not only get you there but also provide a platform for future growth, no matter how the CIO role evolves. “We have to be self-aware and willing to ask for help.”

Michael Bertha

Michael Bertha is a Partner at Metis Strategy, a strategy and management consulting firm specializing in the intersection of business strategy and technology. Michael is the Head of the firm's Central Office, where he advises Fortune 500 CIOs and Digital executives on the role that technology plays in differentiating the customer experience, developing new products & services, unlocking new business models, and improving organizational operations. Prior to joining Metis Strategy, Michael spent 9 years in the IT Strategy practice at Deloitte Consulting, where he focused on working with senior leadership teams across several industries on strategic, IT-enabled business transformations. Michael has an MBA from Cornell University, and a master’s degree in the Management of IT from the University of Virginia.

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