The Team at the Top

What CIOs look for in their top leadership teams reflects the changing role of IT in business.

When you look at the IT leadership team at Regions Financial Corp., you see a diverse group of individuals. The vice president of application delivery advanced through the business ranks, as did the CIO, while the other five team members have had solid careers in IT. The vice president of technology risk management is known for his strategic and broad technical knowledge, while the vice president of telecommunications has a more tactical, get-it-done approach. The vice president of production services is a natural communicator who connects well with people throughout the organization. The director of information management and enterprise architecture hails from outside the banking industry and has a strong data management background. The vice president of the project management office has been at Regions for more than 25 years, with management experience in several technical areas.

But the team members also bear some strong similarities. Most would score off the charts on an analytical-thinking test, and all are voracious problem-solvers. They see IT as a department that needs to be run as a business, and there’s no question in their minds that their common job is to support the bank’s strategy.

When you combine all these differences and similarities in a team, the group becomes stronger than the sum of its parts, says John Dick, CIO at the $84.6 billion financial organization in Birmingham, Ala. This can be invaluable when problems arise. For instance, a recent downturn in the performance of the bank’s online banking system prompted the leadership team members to jump in and apply their various approaches and skills rather than leave the problem to the application delivery group.

Dick says many leaders have yet to learn about the strength diversity brings to a team. “You see it all the time — people selecting leaders who are exactly like themselves, whether they’re heavily analytical or very creative,” Dick says. “And while homogenous teams can accomplish a lot in a short amount of time, to take it to the next level, you need a team with diverse experience and backgrounds.”

His team didn’t always perform at such a high level. When the group was formed five years ago, its members were more focused on their individual functions, Dick says. That meant he needed to spend more of his own time bringing the right mix of resources to bear when issues arose. But now, especially as the IT group takes on higher-impact projects that cross many functional areas of the bank, “there’s been a shift,” he says. “Now, everyone knows each other’s skills and capabilities, and everyone gets engaged in problem-solving, decision-making and fact-finding around lots of different topics.”

Running With the Big Dogs

The Regions group is a good example of what it takes to climb to the top ranks of IT leadership and then thrive in that rarified air. While technology prowess is still important, it takes a back seat to leadership skills and solid business acumen, Dick and other CIOs say. Many IT leaders still rise through the technology ranks, but the elevator doors now open exclusively for those who can effectively lead other people and who put business concerns first.

This wasn’t always true. “Just a few years ago, IT leaders were looking for people with specialized skill sets — the network guy, the e-mail person — and they wanted it all in-house,” says Sheleen Quish, a consultant at Cutter Consortium in Arlington, Mass. “The whole trick was to get the right skills at the right level, at the right price.”

Today, however, those skilled specialists have been replaced by people who can lead not just internal workers but also external vendors and integrators to drive business objectives, she says. “It’s a smaller group of people that have the ability to work as a team and who don’t think of themselves in silos,” Quish says.

In addition, the skills, backgrounds and capabilities needed on the top IT team are so varied that IT leaders realize they can’t fill the bill with one profile or type. When Chief Technology Officer Gary Greenwald was forming his five-person leadership team at TD Ameritrade in New York, for example, he says he was conscientious about mixing personalities and strengths. “We do a great deal of work to understand the mix of people on the team,” he says. “If someone is strong in two, three or four areas, we want to offset that with individuals with skills in three or four other areas — that’s when you put a great team together.”

That’s why CIOs are not just looking for highly capable individuals anymore; they’re looking for people who can blend their skills, talents and personalities into a smoothly operating team. At Regions, for instance, teamwork is so important that a couple of people with business expertise and strong technology capabilities were actually let go because “they fought the team environment,” Dick says. “They wanted to be the Lone Ranger and get all the credit for their own group, and that’s not tolerated here.”

“We won’t allow one of our team members to fail,” adds Steve Zimmerman, vice president of technology risk management at Regions. “We’ll cross lines to watch each other’s backs.”

Non-negotiables

But for many CIOs, there are certain competencies that are must-haves for every member of the top IT team. When Jody Davids, CIO at Cardinal Health Inc. in Dublin, Ohio, formed her 12-person IT team last year, her No. 1 objective was to find people with strong leadership capabilities. And no wonder: These people have to function in a company that, because of its many acquisitions, is undergoing fast growth. Two years ago, Cardinal Health went through a radical shift to a shared-services strategy, centralizing previously autonomous IT departments throughout the world. “They need to deal with constant change in an orderly fashion,” Davids says.

Her hand-picked team includes four people who head the IT “centers of expertise,” which handle business management, IT strategy, risk management and enterprise architecture. Another team member is in charge of the IT infrastructure group, and another leads the application development area. Six additional people lead the business-partner teams; their main job is to ensure business/technology alignment.

But no matter which roles they play, the most important thing each team member brings to the picture is what Davids calls “a bundle of skills” around communication, strategic thinking, facilitation, influence, the ability to foster “followership” on a team and the wherewithal to work through complex situations. They also need to be likable, knowledgeable and trustworthy, Davids adds. These leadership qualities are even more important than the person’s previous experience, she says.

A good example is Pegge LaValle, the woman Davids chose to lead the business management center of expertise and who had previously run the customer service organization at Cardinal Health. “I asked her to run the business management area, and she said she had nothing like that in her background,” Davids says. “But when I thought about what it took to be successful in that role, it wasn’t about finance. I needed a master diplomat, a person very skilled at building relationships and who could negotiate tough situations with client groups when pulling budgets together — and this is the person who came to mind right away.”

Davids persuaded LaValle to take the job, pointing out that she could hire people with financial and budgetary backgrounds to support her. “She had never envisioned doing anything like this, but it turns out I was right. She’s become extremely effective,” Davids says.

Another example is Jim Egan, the leader of the IT infrastructure group, whose background was not in infrastructure but in application development. “I knew he was a strong leader with a great deal of acumen around the business of running IT, which you need when you’re managing an enormous budget and a significant number of assets and you’re cutting large deals with suppliers on a regular basis,” says Davids. She also knew that he was able to assemble and manage a strong team and that he had excellent strategy development and execution capabilities.

Likewise, Steve Collignon, the person chosen to lead the risk management area, had previously run Cardinal Health’s technology infrastructure. Although he had no explicit experience in risk management, it was more important to Davids that he was capable of building a brand-new operation and had an exceptional ability to work effectively with people.

“Anybody in IT understands that if it weren’t for change, we wouldn’t have a job,” Davids says. “The ability to lead people through change is what makes the difference.”

Brandel is a Computerworld contributing writer in Newton, Mass. Contact her at marybrandel@verizon.net.

Copyright © 2006 IDG Communications, Inc.

7 inconvenient truths about the hybrid work trend
Shop Tech Products at Amazon