Jun 2 2014, 11:34am CDT | by Forbes
Ralph Szygenda was one of the first star CIOs in the US. He was the CIO of Texas Instruments from 1989 through 1993, the CIO of Bell Atlantic from 1993 through 1996, and then he took on perhaps the largest IT job in America as CIO of General Motors in 2000, and he would remain in that post through 2009. Szygenda’s was among the first CIOs to be asked to join the boards of major companies, starting 20 years ago. He has been on seven boards since. Szygenda has also been quite influential in terms of the number of major company CIOs who once worked for him. Given the size scale of operations that he led, and the long period in which he was a CIO, that is not surprising.
I was curious about what he got out of his board participation, what, in turn, the companies valued from his counsel, and what lessons he might impart on CIOs who would wish to follow in his footsteps.
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Peter High: Ralph, you were a CIO at a variety of companies during your career. You were among the first CIOs to be asked to join a board, having joined the Sodalia Corporation board in 1994 while you were the CIO of Bell Atlantic. What compelled you to join the board of Sodalia Corporation while you were the CIO of Bell Atlantic, and what compelled them to ask in the first place?
Ralph Szygenda: Sodalia was a telecommunication software company, and at that time, I was in the telecommunication business. So it was a nice fit, where clearly, you want to add value to a board that you’re going to, and as well, you want to learn from it. They gave me that opportunity; they wanted me to come and be part of it. It had an international flare, because it also was owned to some extent by Telecom Italia and Bell Atlantic. I think it was interesting; it was the time of deregulation of the telecommunication industry and so there was a lot of innovation happening, which made this opportunity particularly interesting.
High: You were also, famously, the CIO of General Motors for most of the 2000s. During that period, a number of board opportunities were presented to you. How did you choose which ones to join and which not to join?
Szygenda: It was interesting. Clearly, there were a number of boards that wanted me to join, but during my time at General Motors, the company had an overall rule that you could not be on a board of directors. So most of all the boards that I was asked to be on, I had to turn down, just because of that. Handleman Corporation, which was a logistic supply chain company, was an exception. There was a past president of General Motors that was on this Board of Directors of Handleman, and he thought that they needed somebody like me. He asked if they could approve or let me interview for a board position on that company. They thought I could add a lot to it. There was a board level discussion about it at GM, and luckily, they permitted me to go be on that one board, and I was the only member of the officers in the company on any Board of Directors.
High: What factors in a CIO lend themselves well to that individual being “board material?” Also, what benefits did you garner from joining boards?
Szygenda: Clearly, first you have to be a business-driven CIO, so you have to have a strong technology capability but any Board is going to be looking for business financial background, as well as technology. The experience was enjoyable because it really puts you in the middle of the execution of business, the profit and loss side of a company, and really learn how to help and coach a corporation without managing it because truth be told on a Board of Directors, you don’t really manage anything. You are there to coach and represent the stock holders but there’s the management team that is in place. If you don’t like the management team, you have to find a way to change it. But effectively, it’s your responsibility to coach, make it better and really give you a different mindset.
The best way to become knowledgeable in technology and business is seeing many different verticals in the industry, different types of companies. And I think all of them make you better, because you’re really trying to serve the end customer. By learning more about customers of different companies, you tend to be better at what you do.
High: Were there aspects of your background prior to being a CIO that set you apart?
Szygenda: I think my background’s a little different. The first 20 years of my career, I was involved in running businesses that specifically were technology businesses, defense businesses, all wrapped around computerization. I had profit and loss responsibility, and also was involved in designing products, so I had a tremendous foundation.
Later on, I also got involved in selling goods – military computers, running my own information technology segment at Texas Instruments and in the marketplace serving the major, global companies. This was all prior to becoming a CIO.
The second twenty years of my career was a CIO of three companies. Frankly, I didn’t know what a CIO did. The CEO of Texas Instruments asked me to take over IT as I ran another business simultaneously. I got to learn the customer side, I saw the actual information technology fulfilment side, and I also saw how you implement IT in the corporation.
I’m five years into the next 20 years of my career. I am back to selling information technology and advising multiple companies from their boards. So I’m coming back to home where I started. I think that mixture is very very critical that everyone that even thinks of being on a Board of Directors needs to have both a business and a technology background, and a CIO must have that if they are going to be considered for a board.
High: It’s interesting through several of your answers, the degree to which you’ve been cognizant of and the degree to which you have worked with end customers of the businesses that you’ve been a part of. It sounds like you’ve never had that sort of disconnect where IT was less than the rest of the organization, but rather a true contributor to the value that the company brings. Is that right?
Szygenda: You are correct. I wouldn’t want to just be a technologist. I started out, and I always wanted to help companies change and improve. A lot of CIOs who have spent their entire careers in IT probably have never sold information technology; they’ve been more a technologist in data centers and things of that sort. There’s nothing wrong with that; that might be a great need for a company, but they have a harder time understanding the business ramifications, without having that background. Now at the same time, if you’re a pure business leader without information technology understanding, you have problems as well. So you have to have both./>/>
High: As someone who has been a CIO, sold to them, and advised them, what do you think of the state of the role of CIO?
Szygenda: The world is changing so quickly today. Today, the overall cycle time that a CIO has to get something done is just multiple factors difference today than they were before. So you have to be quick on your feet. CIOs have to have both the business and the technology environment, and the technology is a business itself. Industrials used to drive our economy. Now, increasingly, it is technology companies like Google and Facebook.
So, it’s much harder being a CIO today. I think you have different types of CIOs today, and it depends on what a company needs at any given time. There are technical CIOs, who are deeply embedded in trends like the cloud. There are analytics CIOs, who tend to be more customer-centric. There are other versions, as well.
Today, more than in years past, CIOs need to drive revenue in addition to reducing costs. It used to be more of an emphasis on the former. A different skillset is necessary for this.
The difference today is most of them are growing up with information technology as a part of their everyday life. That was not what I grew up with – I mean, we didn’t cell phones, we didn’t have the internet. Today, they’re going through school with all of that. So when they come through, they have a greater understanding of the sensitivity of the customer.
High: What are some trends that particularly excites you as you look in your own personal crystal ball to the future?
Szygenda: The first meaningful trend is mobility. It has been driven by the customer who increasingly wants 24 by 7 access to products and services. As your customers have access to you almost constantly, companies really have to come across as having concern for them and having the products to serve their needs.
The next one is clearly the explosion of information and data. We’ve built business processes; we’ve optimized the companies, and the differentiator now is how do you use that information from those processes to make your company better and to serve your customers better?
Third is the cloud; the aspect that information technology is not within the walls of your company anymore. I know that there are old CIOs who would like to push it all within their company walls, but I have to let them know that that will never happen, because there’s information and information technology assets and systems all over the place that you’re looking at to effectively leverage. Just as the internet cannot be controlled within our walls, the same can be said of technology more generally.
Fourth is opportunities and risks associated with compliance and security. Those are hot issues, because now everybody has this cloud environment, and they’re accessing things outside of their company, and they’re accessing things inside the company. They still have to meet legal compliance requirements. They have to really protect customer information; that’s a big area that CIOs must master.
The last one, I think people are starting to ask, what’s the next generation of computing look like? We’ve gone through mainframe computing and we’ve gone through distribute computing, and we’ve gone through PCs, and we’ve gone through handheld devices. What’s the computer of the future look like? Not only in form factor, but how’s it fabricated? Is it Silicon? Is it something else? What’s the speed of those computers that handle all this processing power? Is there going to be another discontinuity over the next number of years in finding a new world of computing that changes? I think those are the things that I see right now as I talk to CIOs and heads of IT companies.
High: As I think about the list of things you just listed off all resonate. It exemplifies just how challenging the role of CIO is, to be contemplating each of those. There’s innovation and revenue opportunities on the one hand; there’s the need to balance cost-cutting and risk mitigation on the other. As you pointed out earlier, the role of CIO is only becoming more complex as a result.
Ralph Szygenda: Exactly, and that’s why CIOs moving to these board positions need to be more broad in their experiences. The complexity of technology and the complexity of business are increasing. So I think the opportunity for CIOs that really have great business and technology understanding is really going to be important as time goes on. I think there are still corporations and recruiters for boards that really don’t understand this sufficiently.
He is also the author of World Class IT: Why Businesses Succeed When IT Triumphs , and the moderator of the Forum on World Class IT podcast series. To read his series on CIO-pluses, visit this link . To read his series profiling CIOs who have risen beyond that role, visit this link . Follow him on Twitter @WorldClassIT. In September, Wiley Press will publish his next book, Implementing World Class IT Strategy.
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