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Premier 100 IT Leaders: Earning the rewards of risk-taking

IT leadership can be a high-wire act of managing game-changing projects at high speed. Here's how the Premier 100 make it work.

February 27, 2012 06:00 AM ET

Computerworld - Editor's note: Each year, Computerworld's Premier 100 IT Leaders awards program honors the best and brightest IT executives. This year's class of 100 men and women are especially unique, in that many have made their marks by successfully executing on bold, high-risk decisions that are yielding big business benefits.

Explore the full package by viewing the listing of this year's honorees, along with their photos, predictions, cool projects and more. This year's class joins a fellowship of hundreds of Premier 100 alumni listed here, each of whom has demonstrated exemplary leadership qualities throughout their careers.

To launch your own successful IT management career, check out the best management advice from Computerworld's editors and learn more about the 13th annual Premier 100 IT Leaders conference, which draws together these IT leaders alumni and other top IT executives to network and exchange ideas.

A little over two years ago, GlaxoSmithKline's new president revamped the pharmaceutical maker's North American operating model, triggering a massive business and IT transformation. Changes included shifting from a product-centric view of the business to a customer-centric approach, re-engineering the sales and sales incentive processes and revamping all systems that support those processes. Other initiatives involved equipping salespeople with iPads and mobile apps, and dismantling the centralized IT organization to embed tech experts in various business departments. From start to finish, the whole revamp took 15 months.

"IT has to keep pace with the clock speed of business," says Joe Touey, senior vice president of IT for North America Pharmaceuticals at GlaxoSmithKline. "You can't say it will take two years to get there if the CEO wants to transform in six months."

Making big changes is always risky, but doing it at breakneck speed is especially perilous. Yet, that's precisely how so many of this year's Premier 100 IT Leaders are making their mark -- by quickly and successfully executing on bold decisions that are yielding big business benefits, thanks to rigorous attention to detail, expert risk management and unparalleled leadership skills.

"The big game-changer events have the highest risks," says Mary Gendron, CIO at Toronto-based Celestica, an electronics manufacturing services company whose customers include Cisco, HP and IBM.

Among Gendron's high-risk/high-reward moves in the past 18 months was the decision to opt out of using a commercial software system as the company's manufacturing execution system (MES) -- the lifeblood of Celestica's worldwide operations. Instead, Gendron empowered employees to create a custom MES using open-source software, even though Celestica had never before attempted an open-source approach to software development. There was also the risk that shop-floor production would halt if the homegrown software failed.

Yet, as Gendron saw it, "in the area of shop floor, we are the experts. Our ability to build and develop an application that is agile, flexible, nimble and accommodating to over 80 customers' shop-floor requirements is our differentiating capability," she says. In her view, it was precisely the right moment "to double down on custom software."

First, Gendron and her team set up a social networking system to link all shop-floor locations around the globe. A Celestica software team in Thailand managed the development, with developers contributing from Celestica sites worldwide.

"The world is changing at an incredible pace, so ideas and concepts can come from anywhere. We have to embrace all of these ideas to learn what is successful and then translate that to Celestica," she says.

The result: a highly nimble system that is updated every 10 days, as opposed to once a quarter -- as was the case with the old MES. The project has also delivered a significant financial impact, driving more than $3 million out of Celestica's operational costs. Moreover, it will continue to yield more than $1.5 million in efficiencies year over year, Gendron notes. Additional financial savings are realized through reduced training costs as a result of the shared global platform.

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Integration

It's Deja Vu as IT Centralizes

Changing business priorities, a need for new skill sets and a desire to more tightly integrate IT and the business are key factors driving a significant number of IT leaders to shake up their IT departments.

Complete organizational overhauls are not uncommon.

"We did a complete redesign," notes Todd Coombes, CIO at CNO Financial Group. "Once we had our strategy figured out and it was aligned and integrated with the business, it became clear that our IT organization needed to change to fit the new strategies. More than half of the entire IT staff ended up having a different VP to report to, and more than one-third of the staff have a different direct manager."

Centralization and standardization are the major themes behind the moves, Coombes says. Before, for example, testing teams were affiliated with the applications they supported. Under the new design, all testing teams have gathered into a single group.

"We wanted to enhance our ability to do testing one way instead of having a lot of different approaches to the same thing," Coombes explains.

At Target, CIO Beth Jacob reorganized IT so that staffers are now centralized into functional groups rather than scattered among different teams supporting various parts of the business, such as merchandising and marketing.

"Instead of having what were many organizations, we pulled people together," Jacob says. "Now, all of our architects work together, which allows us to take current plans and knit them together into multiyear road maps. This way, we can identify the best places to leverage technologies and take out redundancies," she says.

— Julia King



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