The Grill: Cynthia Nustad creates a culture of transparency

This CIO builds executive trust by combining honesty with accountability

Every year, the MIT Sloan CIO Symposium names four finalists to its CIO Leadership Award. This year's list includes Cynthia Nustad, senior vice president and CIO at Health Management Systems, which provides government-funded, commercial and private entities with cost-containment services for their healthcare payments. Like all good leaders, Nustad credits her team for the recognition. "I have a true sense of team, and I love when accolades go out to my group," she says. But Nustad also brings to the job her talent, insights and strategies -- gained from 17 years of IT experience. Here, she shares some of her ideas on what works in IT.

You started in your position in 2011. What was your strategy for getting up to speed? In a high-growth business, when the company is growing more than 20%, my priority first and foremost was to ensure my business partners and I were aligned with where the company was going so I could bend my technology team toward that. Because when you're as high-growth as we are, you get in, you hang on, and you want to make sure that your most precious resources are tied to the most precious clients and activities.

How did you make sure you were aligned? I had frequent meetings. I was outwardly facing with both my internal and external clients, and I had members of the technology team out with the business as we were creating new products or installing new clients.

How do you ensure that meetings produce results? One of the biggest things that my team is focused on now is honesty and accountability. My team will share where things aren't quite right, and they're making sure we're set up with them in those conversations. Then people can decide what's the best solution moving forward.

What has been your biggest challenge during your first two years? Building out the talent on the team. To overcome that, I work to ensure that we have depth on the recruiting side, in the personnel onboarding and training side, and knowing what to look for in the next hire. We do a lot of reflection on the types of candidates who are successful in our organization and therefore the types of candidates we want to go source.

What's been your biggest technology initiative? We've had two huge ones so far. One of them was our data center consolidation and modernization, so we have a platform that's highly flexible and scalable for our high growth, and our next-generation big data analytics. Since we are a company whose entire foundation of products and services is built on data, we engineered our future state with some very key technologies. Both have been done in the last two years, both were millions of dollars in investments. The challenges? Certainly keeping your initiatives alive while keeping the company's lights on and doors open and operational. But these two strategic initiatives were very well communicated to our executive management, we had a lot of buy-in on the process and expectations, and therefore the successes that came out of it. We had a very engaged management team, so they knew what our statuses were all along and what to expect from us.

What's your biggest initiative moving forward? One is project innovation. We are in an emerging field, and the more we lead the field in our data analytics, the better we'll serve our clients at large and our company. Second is keeping up with our growth, so making sure we have a scalable human infrastructure as well as technology and process infrastructure.

How do you get value from your core IT services? One thing that's a key priority for me is that the executive team, including some members of our board, has a very educated understanding as to what we're doing. I make sure that I take the veil of secrecy off IT and that [investments are] communicated at a level that anyone can understand what we're doing.

There are key things we do to make sure of that. We use our annual IT vision maps. It's a visual image of the journey we're taking as an IT team that year and what goals and objectives we put forth, and some key milestones the business can recognize as we achieve them. [We also] communicate our IT investments in a portfolio manner. Just like you would be managing your 401(k), you might fine-tune that portfolio. We explain our IT budgets in that manner and how you might want to move investments around.

What's the value in doing that? It's a chance for them to help select. One of the key values here is I don't hide any [items] in the IT budget, they're all transparent and exposed. As a CIO, you going to have risk putting them out there but you have tremendous reward in what gets funded.

What's the reward? Their vote, their courage for funding these specific initiatives, their buy-in and their involvement. And when executives have a voice in clear goals, there's a higher chance for success.

How do you make yourself a trusted partner? We earn it. We do what we say we're going to do and if there are risks, we expose and communicate them and we stand up for any mistakes we make. It kind of goes back to the two key things that are important to me: honesty and accountability.

-- Interview by Computerworld contributing writer Mary K. Pratt (marykpratt@verizon.net)

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