Former Medco CIO: Building IT Leaders

Before leaving in November 2009, I had been with Medco Health for 17 years in a number of roles, including the past six years as CIO. The company has an IT staff of roughly 1,200 people, split between locations in the United States and offshore.

During my tenure as CIO, we devised a number of programs for IT leadership development. For example, we helped second-level managers develop not only a broad sense of the business but also strong relationship-management skills for their interactions with internal and external customers.

In fact, we developed that type of training a few years ago for IT, business and account managers. To assist with this, I brought in a training group, Russell Martin and Associates, based in Indianapolis, that put together a five-day course for our managers, including a cross-section of IT managers. The training consisted of team building and role playing.

Professional actors came in and played the roles of IT managers, and IT managers acted as account managers. They got to eat a little bit of their own cooking. About 100 IT managers went through this training. They saw what went well in scenarios, what didn’t and how it could be reversed. And then the roles were switched around.

We had vice presidents and directors do a tour of duty in a business unit to help them increase their leadership skills and hone the relationship-management skills they had learned as managers. These tours would last for a year or two. Each of the IT executives would work in a business capacity, helping to coordinate services and oversee due diligence with vendors. Or they might handle operational due diligence with quality controls and supervise the requirements for a new product being rolled out.

In one instance, we assigned a senior IT executive to focus on a new product line, working closely with marketing, operations and vendors. After 18 months in this role, that IT executive could easily have moved into that business unit or operations area as an executive for one of those divisions. This demonstrates how you can create a business role for IT executives that allows them to immerse themselves in a broader role.

Another successful program is an IT managers’ forum that they run themselves, deciding what the priorities are and how to execute them. They then reach out to the executive team to gain high-level sponsorship for those initiatives. We also started a directors’ forum with 70 to 80 IT directors who select their own chairs and identify the issues they want to pursue.

What sprouts from this is an ecosystem of continuous improvement. For instance, members of the IT managers’ forum questioned why it sometimes took up to two weeks to get a new person up to speed with a desktop. They identified the barriers, developed a plan and executed it. Now new hires are up and running within two days.

We had already invested enough time, and executives from throughout the company saw the value in keeping these types of development programs alive even in a tough economic climate.

Business leaders have a couple of options when faced with challenges during an economic downturn. They can cut operational costs by 10 percent, or they can deliver 10 percent gains in productivity to meet those challenges. The latter option worked well for us at Medco.

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