CIOs boost their careers doing double duty

Many CIOs find it exhilarating to take on business functions outside of IT. But CIO-plus roles require a new mindset and trusted deputies.

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Andy Potts


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After stints as a CIO at three different companies, Elizabeth Hackenson was, well, a little bored. As CIO at The AES Corp., a $17 billion global power company, she had surrounded herself with a formidable team and had no desire to micromanage them. She longed to “let go a little.”

In search of more and bigger challenges, Hackenson approached her CEO and listed the groups and responsibilities that interested her.

She got what she asked for and more. Today, as CIO and senior vice president of technology and services, Hackenson oversees IT, cybersecurity, corporate services, the internal audit group, the global insurance group and a new energy business that includes a rooftop solar company.

“A lot of what’s been moved under me is stuff where you need strong relationships rather than command and control. It’s more about influence,” Hackenson says.

An emphasis on relationships and relationship-building is a common theme for executives with dual titles and so-called CIO-plus responsibilities. The primary reason is that IT increasingly permeates everything companies do. As technology is woven further into the overall business strategy, CIO roles--and titles--are expanding.

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Elizabeth Hackenson, CIO and senior vice president of technology and services at AES, and has taken on several non-IT functions, so she relies on her deputy CIO, Hugo Vasquez, to handle the bulk of IT responsibilities

This expansion of duties has its benefits and practical challenges. IT already is tied to every single part of a business. As a result, technology executives have a keen horizontal perspective of all of a company’s business processes. From that unique perch, they can more readily identify business stumbling blocks and innovate process improvements that increase business value.

“The CIO is one of the few people in an organization who sees all the processes from cradle to grave and truly has an expansive point of view. That lends itself to leading other parts of the organization,” says Peter High, president of CIO advisory firm Metis Strategy and author of the book Implementing World Class IT.

It’s also economically advantageous, especially for small and midsize companies. “Having people do two jobs and not paying them double seems like a good idea to a lot of organizations,” High says.

Moreover, IT departments on the whole are shrinking, as companies increasingly turn to outside providers of software and services. This makes IT less labor-intensive to manage, freeing up CIOs to pursue other business and career interests.

Yet CIOs with dual titles and non-IT duties are not new. IT executives have been venturing beyond the traditional technology domain for at least a decade, playing key roles in activities such as performing due diligence before mergers and acquisitions, managing the supply chain, and developing new products and services.

But today, the challenges are both more numerous and more complex. CIOs with multiple titles and responsibilities need to juggle more priorities. The danger of getting spread too thin is very real. In fact, people in these diversified roles say one of their greatest challenges is to keep their focus on strategy and stay clear of the pull of day-to-day operations.

“That’s been the biggest transition--to really, really let go,” says Hackenson.

But at the same time, dual-role IT executives need to deeply immerse themselves in additional parts of the business where a whole new set of challenges lie in wait. Incumbent managers and staffers may resist the insertion of an outsider who didn’t grow up in that business function. CIO-plus executives also need to adapt their management and leadership styles to their broader, non-IT constituency.

Not all CIOs are up to these challenges. “Only an executive who is ambitious takes this on,” says High. “This is such a complex set of responsibilities. If they don’t have a desire for additional responsibilities, or haven’t been active enough to suggest that they could do it, it’s not likely that [expanded titles and duties] will be suggested to a passive CIO.”

AES’s Hackenson agrees, saying she doubts that her CEO would have asked her to take on her other roles if she wanted to simply remain in the CIO’s position.

The new energy solutions group she heads is a disruptive business in the 125-year-old, somewhat stodgy power industry. That’s likely the main reason she was assigned to lead the group. “I had been in other industries like telecom that went through transformations,” says Hackenson, a former CIO at Alcatel-Lucent and MCI Worldcom.

“What I do think is some CIOs are really great business people and management and boards are recognizing they can do more. But I think it’s the CIO who makes the choice,” she says.

Required: A Great Supporting Cast

Ironically, taking on greater responsibilities entails a good deal of letting go. There simply isn’t time for CIO-plus executives to micromanage things like vendor management or the operational efficiency of the data center.

Hackenson estimates that now she spends only 10 percent of her time on IT, and she says she appointed a deputy CIO, Hugo Vasquez, to handle the bulk of those IT responsibilities.

“It doesn’t feel good at first. Every time you move up the ladder, you have to let go, and yet you’re letting go of things that got you to that position,” Hackenson says.

Now, she adds, “I have very limited day-to-day activity in IT. Most days, I’m not even focused on it.”

The only way to successfully do that is to surround yourself with an extraordinary, high-performing team, Hackenson says.

But with letting go comes watching people on your team make mistakes.“You learn to watch, but to focus more on what the person learned going through [the mistake],” she says. “I’ve become a lot calmer. In the past, I’d be upset by mistakes. Now I look at them as a growth opportunity, a learning. If I tell people what to do, they won’t learn.”

Hackenson has developed what she describes as a methodical process of asking questions of her direct reports, instead of micromanaging. This eventually leads team members to come up with the right answers themselves. “And when they come up with the answer, it’s their idea. I can see their energy and they really take off with it,” she says.

“Most CIOs like to heavy-lift,” she says, “but once you get to this level with all of the other responsibilities, [it’s more] about guiding, giving advice, coaching and mentoring. Mentoring is huge.”

Praveen Chopra started that type of team-building process a little over a year ago, when he took on the role of chief information and transformative innovative environment officer at Thomas Jefferson University and Jefferson Health in Philadelphia.

He admits that it’s a long and lofty title, especially for a former supply-chain manager who describes himself as an “accidental CIO.”

“A few years back I was in supply chain at Home Depot and then moved to Children’s Hospital of Atlanta as chief supply chain officer,” Chopra recalls. “The CIO role came open. Other people at the hospital asked me to accept the CIO role, which I did. And I loved it. I really, really loved it.”

Last year, during the process of interviewing for his current position at Jefferson, Chopra says he and Jefferson CEO Stephen Klasko had a “meeting of the minds.”

“[Klasko] believed healthcare needed to change fundamentally,” Chopra says. “And I believe the healthcare organization of the future will be the one that figures out how to leverage the power of the digital economy in a fundamentally different way.”

Gaining such leverage was Chopra’s overarching goal in completely overhauling Jefferson’s IT organization. “I absolutely have to rely on building a very, very high-performance team,” he says.

One of his first moves was to create a team of eight direct reports and several new titles, including vice president of innovation technology, and vice president of innovation and consumer experience. The goal, he says, is to think about technology innovation “ahead of the curve.”

“We used to wait for something to come out, like iPads, and then go figure out how to support it,” Chopra says. “Now, we want to know all of what’s going on with healthcare and the Internet of Things and start experimenting and figuring out use cases. We have to experiment and try new things.”

And while other companies have vice presidents of business applications, Chopra created a new title, vice president of business partnering, to focus attention not on the technologies, but on the people in the business units who use technology. “Business partnering is about how we use applications to do something. It’s about accomplishing something with [software] applications. These people think more like account managers,” he explains.

Another new title at Jefferson is vice president of enterprise analytics and chief data scientist. “This role focuses on taking disparate data assets for student affairs, clinical trials, financial systems, quality systems and more, and creating an enterprise center for health information management that provides actionable insights,” Chopra says.

Chopra says he didn’t hire people for the vice president positions based primarily on technical expertise. Instead, he hired with an eye toward making every one of them a CIO someday.

“The way I hire people is unique. I hire them to be leaders first and functional experts second,” he says. “I’m hiring a person who can be a future CIO. I’m looking at these people as future leaders.”

Chopra meets with this team of eight once a week for two hours. At these gatherings, he says, “we spend less time on day-to-day business issues and more time on priorities, leadership, communication and engagement, and creating high-performance teams.” The idea is to have his deputies lead their own groups without Chopra micromanaging them.

“I’m more about people, strategy and exception management,” he explains. “It frees up my time for the executive cabinet, creating new business models, and [figuring out] how to create a degree program or certification for telehealth and other healthcare technologies.”

Jefferson’s telehealth initiative is one of the first tangible results of this leadership style, which encourages innovation and the move toward a patient-centric model. The hospital is investing about $20 million to open multiple urgent-care centers and develop the telehealth program, called Jeff Connect, which includes video consultations so patients can receive care in their homes.

In late June, Jefferson began offering more than 17,000 employees and their families a mobile app they can use to schedule 15-minute video-based physician appointments, which, according to Chopra, are “secure and HIPAA-compliant.” While the app is currently just for Jefferson employees, he says “we plan to sell this product to customers like Bank of America and Comcast and others.”

Start With a ‘Beginner’s Mind’

As CIOs move into expanded roles, they find that adapting their leadership styles to effectively collaborate with the new array of professionals they encounter is a major challenge.

CIO-plus executives “need to make sure that they are humble enough,” says High, of Metis Strategy. “Even if they have been intricately involved in the new function, they need to approach their new set of responsibilities with humility. Everything that worked in IT won’t translate to HR or supply chain or other functions. It’s important to have a ‘beginner’s mind’ of sorts,” he says, referring to the mindset of people who are open to learning about new topics, without preconceptions.

Mike Capone, former CIO and head of product development at ADP, says managing diverse people was one of his greatest challenges--and most rewarding lessons--at the financial services company.

“As you get out of more traditional IT and into product management, you have to manage differently. It stretched me a little bit,” says Capone, who is now COO at Medidata Solutions.

For example, he explains, “when you think about core IT, results are typically black and white. Was the system up and running? Did the project end on time?” But Capone says he has learned that you can’t apply that same thinking and management style to, say, a data science team. “They’d constantly remind me that this is a science and not about outcomes,” he recalls. “They had to remind me that they had to test data and experiment with it. It’s the same with user experience teams. They do a lot of experimentation and iterations. It changes the way you think about the world.”

Anne Ayer, CIO and vice president of corporate development at paper company Sappi North America, came to her CIO-plus role as an experienced business executive who was open to learning about technology.

“My background had really been on the strategy and corporate development side before joining Sappi,” Ayer says. “CIO was something the CEO asked me to take on. In my prior experience working in consulting, I had some clients on the high-tech side and in my time at Sappi I had been involved in projects that had a strong IT component, but I’m definitely not a technologist by training or background.”

So she redefined the technology side of her role to one of translator, she says.

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