Making a Successful CIO Transition

By Pat O'Connell  |  Posted 09-18-2013
Success, Failure sign

Making a Successful CIO Transition

By Pat O’Connell

Switching industries for a CIO creates both challenges and opportunities to make a quick impact. Mark Katz, CIO of the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP), talks about what it takes to make a successful transition.

Katz’s career began in financial services and steadily progressed in a number of firms before he become the CIO of a major reinsurer. When moving to ASCAP this time last year, Katz’s goal was to turn IT into a leaner, more agile organization. With the full support of the executive management team, he undertook some significant challenges to turn around the IT department. 

“When I arrived, the teams were in silos, with some operating independently, dedicated to certain users, and not effectively communicating to other team members about what and how they were providing solutions,” says Katz. “IT was acting in some capacities as an order taker for a great number of break/fix projects. There was little transparency across the entire project portfolio. Most salient, however, was that larger projects were using a traditional waterfall approach methodology. Probably of more concern, though, was that all requested changes were granted for each business request, with less of an eye toward the overall impact to the portfolio, the business and the technology department. In addition, there were some ‘stealth’ projects that had no real business case in a lot of instances.” Katz worked with ASCAP COO Al Wallace, his senior IT team and business line leaders to bring about transparent and meaningful governance.        

Initially, Katz invested a great deal of time with the business users to understand their  needs and priorities, and a lot of time with his staff, including one-on-one meetings with every IT member, as he worked on changing the culture in IT as part of a planned re-organization of the department.

Katz next addressed IT methodologies. “I’m a big fan of the agile methodology and self-organized teams,” he says. After spending some time first understanding ASCAP’s culture, Katz wanted to ensure that agile was properly introduced to the firm. “Indeed, agile represents much more than a methodology change,” he says. “It is about alignment, transparency and commitment in partnership with the business: adoption through real ‘opting in.’ With this new approach, IT now has a more informed seat at the table with the business, and we’ve been able to get key business people to fully participate in agile scrums. However, to really ensure that agile was adopted at ASCAP, open space meetings were held where business users and technology staff participated. Attendance was excellent.”

Open space meetings represent a repeatable technique for getting a rapid and lasting agile adoption. It’s based on the hypothesis that human engagement is what actually powers genuine and lasting agile adoptions.

“In terms of the mechanics of agile, we start by writing the epic story for each product team, then breaking the story down into sprints, all prioritized by the business, working through the product owners,” says Katz. “Then we have the daily 15-minute scrum with a view to releasing useable software every two to three weeks. Our approach is “yes, we can,” not “no, we can’t.” Change is always welcomed, even late in a sprint. The business users decide the priorities, and the scrums are very candid and very honest. This has led to velocity, but, more importantly, to vastly improved communication with the business lines.”

Another key initiative for Katz was governance, and he developed a project management office (PMO) for the major systems projects. “The PMO is creating integrated process workflows across the company. Its charter is to provide increased transparency that further builds upon business trust. ASCAP leverages a federated governance model with full business and IT participation. Large projects over a certain threshold are approved on an up or down vote via the executive committee. All other projects are assessed for synergies and duplication and then prioritized with the business.” Katz collaborated with the Wallace, the COO, to ensure a full business case was presented for the significant projects.

Making a Successful CIO Transition

ASCAP was in the middle on a major infrastructure project when Katz joined the organization. The large-scale project required spending a great amount of time with hardware vendors. “As a new CIO, I initially had to spend a lot of time with my managers to understand the applications and the infrastructure. They were extremely knowledgeable and critical to my success. The vendors did not provide any off-the-shelf packages, so everything is custom-built for every performance-rights organization in business, of which ASCAP is the largest in the world.” Not unique to the music industry, many vendors tried to sell one-stop shopping solutions to Katz without fully understanding ASCAP’s needs. “Vendors wasted a lot of my time,” Katz says. “I now rely on industry sources, like Gartner, and trusted colleagues in the IT industry. Also, in moving to a new industry, it is critically important to avail one’s self of industry conferences as well.”

In terms of managing his time in a new company, Katz concentrated on controlling the number of meetings he attended, as well as effectively managing each meeting. “Too many meetings were break/fix discussions that turned into open-ended design and ‘solutions on the spot’ meetings,” says Katz. “I empower managers to work with their teams on issues like this, and I focus my IT meetings as decision-making meetings. You have to pay attention to the meeting agenda, and focus on what you want out of the meeting.” Katz found that these steps have led to having more time to meet with business users and his direct reports. “I have a weekly one-on-one meeting with my directs, as well as a weekly management team meeting. In addition, I have quarterly town hall meetings, with speakers from the business, as well as for providing updates on the IT vision for the company.”

In meeting with the business, clear and constant communication is key, Katz notes. “Explaining the justifications and benefits of moving the data center was a major priority. You have to spend time on the strategic level, not down in the weeds. You have to understand their thinking processes and what their issues are. Speaking the same language as the business is important. Explaining infrastructure improvements without providing examples of productivity and dollar savings is meaningless.”

Lastly, Katz suggests that “you have to take time to understand the people and the culture, before making change. Getting buy-in, and alignment, and learning when and how to say no. And getting the right people in the right roles.” Katz notes that as a fairly accomplished keyboard player himself, he has a great deal of passion to ensure that the 470,000 songwriter and composer members of ASCAP are treated with the utmost care and respect, and that ASCAP’s technology platform enables it to remain the leading performance-rights organization in the world.

About the Author

Pat O'Connell is the founder and president of The Conall Group, a consulting and research firm, and an adjunct professor at Columbia University in its Executive Masters of Science In Technology Management Program. Prior to starting The Conall Group, he worked for several years at three of the major global financial services companies, attaining the role of regional CIO of the equity division in one of the firms.