The 2014 Premier 100 IT Leaders: Reinventing themselves many times over

Editor's note: Each year, Computerworld's Premier 100 IT Leaders awards program honors the best and brightest IT executives. This year's class of 100 men and women are on the move, transforming their careers regularly on the way to the top.

Explore the full package by viewing the listing of this year's honorees, along with their photos, predictions, cool projects and more. This year's class joins a fellowship of hundreds of Premier 100 alumni, each of whom has demonstrated exemplary leadership qualities throughout their careers.

To revitalize your own IT career, check out the best management advice from Computerworld's editors and learn more about the 15th annual Premier 100 IT Leaders Conference, which draws together these IT leaders, alumni and other top IT executives to network and exchange ideas.

John Marcante, managing director and CIO at Vanguard, says he knew virtually nothing about computer hardware when his CEO informed him he was being reassigned from a role he loved to a new job heading up the data center.

"He said, 'You're the right guy. You'll learn,'" says Marcante, who was leading an application development group at the time of his transfer. As it turned out, his accomplishments in the new job included overseeing the largest operating budget at the mutual funds company, while doubling its production infrastructure and cutting costs.

The first time Jim Stalder, CTO at Cook Children's Health Care System in Fort Worth, Texas, set foot inside a hospital was for a CIO interview at a large medical center in downtown Baltimore. Previously, he was working as a business and product strategist for a successful Internet startup.

Stalder got the job. "But I have to say, it was very awkward on my first day," he says. "I had just come from a high-flying dot-com that had a successful IPO to healthcare IT, where the offices were literally in the basement next to the morgue."

David Behen, CIO for the state of Michigan, had a degree in history and Soviet studies when he moved from Washington, D.C., to the Kalamazoo area to take a municipal manager's job so he could be near his future wife. From there, he got his foot in the door of the county government in Ann Arbor and then moved through a series of positions in facilities operations, planning, environmental management and IT.

David Behen

David Behen

"I learned a lot of lessons in that period," Behen says. "One is never to turn away a good opportunity. I was asked to do a lot of different things and I didn't have the background to do some of them, but I had mentors -- people who had been there and done that and who could guide me. They said, 'You can do it.'"

Fearless Career Flight

Stories like these are common among the 2014 class of Computerworld Premier 100 IT Leaders. Every few years, most of these IT and business standouts have taken on new and often radically different challenges on their way to leadership roles. Not one has relied on a proscribed career map or corporate organizational chart to plot his or her course. Instead, leaps toward learning, a commitment to mastering relationships, and trust in influential and experienced mentors have been key drivers on their leadership journeys.

"Sometimes, it's about trusting other people," Marcante says. "I went and immersed myself in infrastructure and networks, and we doubled our production infrastructure and lowered operating costs in three years." After that, he went on to lead Vanguard's Six Sigma program, then moved again to manage Vanguard's high-net-worth business before moving back to IT.

"Never say no to an opportunity because you feel scared or under-ready or not ready. Take the leap, because you're going to learn a tremendous amount," says Marcante. "It's a personal philosophy that I try to pass on to other people."

Doreen Griffith, CIO at Securities America, built her career in big leaps. She started out as an intensive care nurse with "no inclination of going into business, let alone technology," she recalls. But after working as a nurse for a while, she discovered she wanted something different. She moved to the retail industry and from there to telecommunications and consulting. "I wasn't afraid to change companies and get out of my comfort zone. I learned very quickly that no job would be too difficult if I just take it one bite at a time and move on. That's how I've taken my entire career," she says.

Career Reinvention

Easier the Second Time Around

Moving from a technical project management role to a client-facing account manager's job was one of the most gut-wrenching changes in Sukumar Rajagopal's professional life.

"I lost over 10 pounds and was almost a nervous wreck," says Rajagopal, who is Cognizant's CIO and head of innovation. "But I reinvented myself."

Since then, he has reinvented himself three more times, but minus the slimming side effects.

Instead, he turned to mentors for guidance, drew heavily on the unflinching support of his wife, joined Toastmasters and, last but not least, figured out how to manage other experts in key areas without being an expert in that area himself. "Transformative change management is now my forte," he says.

"When I became a client partner, I had to sell, I had to manage people and projects and make sure people were getting paid and take care of all of these operational things and budgets and forecasts," he recalls. "But I was trying to do it all myself and not trusting my staff to do most or all of it."

Looking back on his career so far, "I should have taken leadership and management more seriously earlier on in my career," he says. "But because I was an engineer, I didn't even consider it. I didn't have a favorable view of management, and that's putting it mildly. When you're an engineer and a really good programmer, you think managers are bozos. I didn't want to go from being an engineer to being a bozo."

Today, Rajagopal says he firmly believes that "leadership is a skill that can be learned and it's something you should start learning from day one."

-- Julia King

Mike Macrie, CIO at Land O'Lakes, a member-owned agricultural cooperative based in Shoreview, Minn., calculates that he has so far reinvented himself three times -- from a technologist to a project leader, then to a big-picture thinker and from there to a relationship-builder.

"There's no linear career path" to a leadership role, Macrie says. "You've got to be adaptable. One day you're working on cost-cutting and budgets, the next day you're working on a major acquisition and the day after that, an innovative new product that will change your industry."

Along the way, one of his biggest lessons learned is that "it's not about being right," Macrie says. "It's about working with others to get the best solution for your company or project and influencing people to get to the right outcome."

At the beginning of his career, Macrie says, "I was a bit of a perfectionist. That created internal frustration. What I learned is that if you can get 90% of the value of a project and you move the business forward, that's a huge impact. There's always another opportunity to go after the other 10%."

It's a strategy that's alive and well at Land O'Lakes, where Macrie and his IT team recently developed and launched new products designed to help growers optimize the production of corn and soybeans using a combination of data and mobile, GPS and satellite imaging technology.

"It's a great story of how IT can reinvent itself as a revenue-generator," Macrie says. So far, "we have two or three products and have a pipeline of 10 more," he adds.

Jeffrey Johnson, assistant director at the FBI, says he has always learned the most from taking "uncomfortable and nontraditional steps" in his career. Over the years, Johnson has reinvented himself at least a half-dozen times. As a U.S. Naval officer, he moved from specializing in surface warfare to IT and then to IT security. After he left the Navy, he took an executive role in the manufacturing industry. "What I've always looked for is where I can have the largest impact and where can I apply creative engineering techniques to solve some of the hardest problems," he says.

Shirin Hamid, CTO at the United Nations Development Programme, started her career at Deloitte Consulting and worked across several industries, including finance, manufacturing and the public sector, before joining the U.N. The reinventions were "a tremendous and fascinating growth period for me," she says. "I saw the whole life cycle of IT and IT's business value across different business sectors. It gave me an idea of how technology can work across different functions and industries."

Do the Next Right Thing

Rosa Akhtarkhavari started as a programmer and application developer and zigzagged through multiple roles and agencies within the city government of Orlando, Fla., before becoming CIO. She worked as an architect and project manager as well as an information security specialist and manager of the city's geographic information system (GIS) on projects ranging from police and fire dispatch systems to permit processing systems.

Career Reinvention

Living Outside the Box

Having always loved numbers, Cynthia Stoddard, CIO at NetApp, decided to study accounting in college and assumed she'd pursue a career in finance or perhaps become a tax attorney. But her instincts told her that understanding computers would be important, so after college she took a job as a programmer trainee at an insurance company. She found that she liked technology, but what she liked even more, she says, was "engaging with the business and being able to make a noticeable impact on business processes.

"I don't believe it's about a reinvention strategy as much as a personal career relationship strategy. I always look for opportunities to advance, and I volunteer for new things and explore projects beyond the normal scope," Stoddard says.

"I always push myself out of my comfort zone," she adds. "To make that work, I built all kinds of relationships along the way so my peers, managers and leaders had an understanding of what interested and motivated me."

-- Julia King

"I moved to an area, I tried to reshape it and stabilize it and then move to a different opportunity," she says of her career thus far.

"I never looked at career advancement when I was selected for a role," she says. "I just do what I think is right for the satisfaction of getting it done right. But every role and task I was assigned did impact my career," she says. For example, working on financial systems helped her understand finance and budgets. Working as an architect taught her how to strategize and look at the big picture. As a project manager, she learned about time management, resource management and understanding how to assess the trade-off between risk and value, she says.

All of these reinventions have made her a stronger leader, thanks to the business knowledge and relationships that came with them.

"I can sit with law enforcement professionals and understand their acronyms, and I know more than I need to know about wastewater treatment," she jokes. "If you don't know what your businesses do, you can't connect all of the dots. I'll never be a public safety, fire, police or solid-waste expert, but I do know what's important for their businesses," she says.

Sven Gerjets, senior vice president of IT at DirecTV in El Segundo, Calif., considers "a very strong business lens" the absolute most important nontechnical skill an IT leader must possess in today's world. "You almost have to have empathy for what each business organization is trying to do," he says.

By way of example, Gerjets notes that he knows not only the sales numbers for DirecTV's e-commerce site, but also who gets paid for each sale. "If sales are going down and it's a technical issue, I'd better know it. We are there to run a business. It just happens to be the technical aspect of that business," he says.

Reinventing Failure

Gerjets' primary focus over the past year has been reinventing the conventional definition of failure and developing new ways that IT can learn from its failures as a means to more quickly and fearlessly innovate for the business.

"We had to make failure less contentious and make it something that we can celebrate when we learn from it," Gerjets says. To this end, IT rolled out the F12 program, a platform for sharing project information and a "failure vault" through which managers can search for information on previous failures and use the data to build more accurate risk assessments and plans.

"Failure is a big word for a lot of people. Now we have a method to work through failures," he says. "Our ability to deliver has also increased significantly. We increased our output by about 30% this year."

By the Numbers

Premier 100 Priorities

Facts and figures about the honorees' budgets, purchasing plans and projects.

People

Average size of IT staff: 1,081

Average number of IT employees for which each honoree is responsible: 420

Average number of contract IT workers used to supplement the IT staff: 94

Partners

The 2014 honorees' top five vendor partners or suppliers:

1. Microsoft

2. Cisco

3. Oracle

4. IBM

5. Dell

Projects

The Premier 100 IT Leaders are making these projects their top five priorities in 2014:

1. Data management/business analytics

2. Mobile, including management, security, tablets and app stores

3. Application development, including ERP and CRM

4. Cloud computing, including public, private and hybrid cloud setups

This story, "The 2014 Premier 100 IT Leaders: Reinventing themselves many times over" was originally published by Computerworld .

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