Sarah K. White
Senior Writer

J&J’s Jim Swanson brings mission-driven leadership to the CIO role

Aug 21, 20237 mins
IT Leadership

Jim Swanson’s extensive background in science, technology, and pharmaceuticals has defined his path to servant leadership as CIO at J&J.

Jim Swanson, EVP and Group CIO, Johnson & Johnson
Credit: Johnson & Johnson

Jim Swanson’s career path to CIO of Johnson & Johnson didn’t begin in technology. He started out as a scientist, working his way up the research and development ranks in the pharmaceutical industry, an experience steeped in curiosity that has helped shape his emphasis on continuous learning to this day.

That early work in research and development eventually led Swanson to a new career opportunity: heading up IT for J&J’s pharmaceutical R&D unit —  a move that enabled Swanson to combine his experience in science and technology in support of a mission-based company, something that has been at the center of his career decisions ever since.

Recruited to lead IT at Merck Research Labs, Swanson later became interested in broadening his experience outside of R&D to expand his skillset, as a mentor had advised, landing his first role as CIO in the agriculture industry, at Monsanto, where he “learned what it meant to be a CIO on a global scale,” gaining experience in operations, cybersecurity, board interactions, international business, and more.

“I came from a lot bigger companies but that was a great first CIO job where it wasn’t so huge or overwhelming,” Swanson says, adding that the organization’s size, sector, complexity, and opportunities provided “the right mix” for him to learn a lot in his first CIO post and opened his eyes to the importance of diversity of experience for the betterment of one’s career and company.

Swanson’s extensive and diverse leadership background has been pivotal in defining his leadership style, which Swanson describes as leading people the way he wants to be led. As a leader, Swanson is focused on fostering an open environment that encourages continual learning, promotes diversity of thought, and enables everyone to contribute their best work.

“I believe in humble servant leadership — I’m here to support my teams,” he says. 

After six years heading IT and digital transformation at Monsanto and then Bayer Crop Science, Swanson brought that leadership ethos back to J&J in his new role as executive vice president and enterprise CIO, which he has held since 2019.

For his leadership prowess, influence on the IT profession, and advancement of the CIO role, Swanson this year was inducted into the CIO Hall of Fame. Following is a closer look at Swanson’s thoughts on IT leadership and how CIOs should go about making the most of their teams today.

Open, accountable, and diverse

Teamwork is a key principle for Swanson, who notes that strong leadership is not about being the “smartest guy in the room.” Instead, Swanson believes problems are best solved through collaboration, something that requires an “open and transparent culture” where everyone can bring their authentic selves to work. Fostering such a culture is critical for ensuring that employees can “bring news to the table, whether good or bad, so that everybody can work on it,” he says.

Swanson is also a big believer in accountability, something he models for his teams. “No matter what happens in the organization, the buck stops with me. I’m accountable for everything that’s going on,” he says.

But it’s also important for CIOs to ensure everyone on the team is accountable to the “results that we commit to.”

“You have to learn and gain experience, and know that you’re going to fail, and that’s part of trying to do new and innovative things,” he says.

Diversity is another keystone of Swanson’s leadership ethos — whether it’s “gender, ethnicity, geography, or work experience.” Swanson says IT leaders can unlock higher levels of performance and innovation from their teams if they emphasize diversity in team building. Recruiting people from nontraditional settings or other industries can bring a new and different perspective that is vital to advancing IT, he says.

“Bringing that diversity of thought and fostering an environment that allows them to flourish is super critical,” he adds.

To that end, Swanson regularly evaluates his leadership teams to ensure he has a strong diversity of thought, gender, ethnicity, and geographic location represented from the top down. Continuously checking in on representation and diversity of thought and experiences across leadership teams is something Swanson believes is vital to the CIO role today.

Swanson himself is the executive sponsor of the South Asian Professional Network (SAFRA) ERG at J&J, and he notes that each executive committee member takes on the responsibility of sponsoring an ERG. The company has also held talks for leadership on a variety of diversity topics, ensuring that leaders learn about implicit bias, microaggressions, inclusivity, and other important DEI topics that help foster inclusive, safe environments.

Another area where leaders can make a difference is in developing more diverse interview panels, Swanson says, noting that to hire the best talent it’s important to ensure candidates see themselves represented during the interview process and view the company as an inclusive space with diverse viewpoints. Swanson and J&J are also working with organizations such as Year Up to foster more diverse talent pipelines — moving away from the traditional focus on college degrees to find passionate young people from underrepresented demographics who are eager to learn and embark on a career in tech.

Fostering growth, focusing on mission

Employee retention has become a key issue in IT, and one way Swanson is tackling that at J&J is in placing a strong emphasis on professional development, noting that the “half-life of an IT professional is about 18 months — that’s how fast technology continues to evolve.”

“I use myself as an example,” Swanson says. “I finished my master’s in computer science in, I think, 1998. Think about the technology in 1998. It was things like the Mosaic browser and client/server. There’s no way I’d be in this role today if I wasn’t continually learning and evolving.”                      

To establish tracks for continuous learning, Swanson identifies skills the organization will need in the future, whether it’s product management, AI, cloud computing, user experience, or design. Curriculums targeting those skills are then built on the J&J Learn platform, where employees have access to self-paced learning to gain new skills. They also have the option to participate in job rotations where they can gain hands-on experience.

“I don’t think any CIO is going to be successful unless they invest in developing their skills internally to make their organization, what I call, ‘always future ready’ by putting the environments in place and the incentives in place [for employees] to do it,” Swanson says, adding that CIOs must also be selective in bringing in external talent to help amplify or accelerate that work.

To that end, Swanson identified the need for more product management skills in-house, so he brought in external hires who are helping shape the product management curriculum on J&J Learn around what it means to be a good product manager. This curriculum is beneficial for those in the organization who need to better understand the product manager role, or to take on the responsibilities of a product manager in their own role.

What Swanson loves most about his role as CIO at J&J is that his work is mission-based. It’s about using science and technology to “improve patient’s lives,” and he’s working in an environment where “science and technology really do matter.”

“I’ve loved the people. I love the challenges. I love the excitement of technology, and I’m convinced there’s no better time to be a CIO, no matter what industry you’re in. And I don’t think there’s a better company on the planet than J&J, it being the largest most diverse healthcare company,” he says.