Proving IT can help drive growth: One CIO's experience

Proving IT can help drive growth: One CIO's experience

Embarking on major transformation takes strong leadership and support. James McPartland had both. Learn how he helped uncover the real value of IT to this 118-year-old company.

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July 20, 2018
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When James McPartland took on the CIO role at Torchmark Corporation in 2014, he had a big task before him: Show the rest of the business that IT could help drive growth. But elevating the IT function at a 100+ year old financial services holding company, came with its own set of challenges. Changing the mindset of IT as an "expense to be managed" versus an "investment to be optimized" took a lot of relationship building, collaborating, and strategic planning. 

To change that mindset throughout the organization, McPartland developed a three-phase IT investment strategy that would let him tackle the legacy challenges all IT organizations face, while also laying the groundwork for growth. And the strategy is paying off, not only has his IT organization used technology to streamline internal processes and reduce costs, but it has also led to the creation of a new revenue-generating platform.

[ See our related research:  Revenue-Generating CIOs: Smart Strategies to Grow the Business. ]

For his efforts, McPartland recently received the Enterprise Nonprofit CIO of the Year Award from the Dallas CIO Leadership Association. We asked McPartland to share lessons from this journey. In this interview, he explains the significance of reporting directly to the CEO, his approach for building key relationships with other executives, and his IT pet peeve (no doubt, something all CIOs can identify with).  

The Enterprisers Project (TEP): Your IT investment strategy progresses through three distinct phases: Modernize, Optimize, and Pioneer. “Pioneer” feels like a deliberate word choice that could be used in place of “innovate.” Why did you choose the word “pioneer” for that phase and how has that wording worked its way into your IT culture?

McPartland: As you guessed it was an attempt to avoid an overused buzzword. The bottom line in this progression from Modernize to Optimize to Pioneer is to change the legacy mindset of the organization both within and outside IT.  We had fallen into the trap of order taking all too often, and the business begins to treat IT like a vendor rather than a partner. We certainly have a long road ahead, but the progression to Pioneering is the idea that I and my leadership team need to be joining the leaders in business innovation rather than trailing. Seems a rather aged concept but still a reality for many organizations with a 100+ year lineage.    

TEP: Your IT organization recently delivered a digital platform for agent engagement designed to improve productivity. Developing and implementing the cloud-based, mobile solution is a big feat - getting agents to adopt the platform is another. How did you get agents to adopt this new platform? Any advice or guidance for other CIOs who are rolling out technology changes internally that require employees getting on board with a new system?  

McPartland: The most powerful element of an adoption program is an executive business champion who is a true partner with IT. In this case we have a strong business leader who “sold” the virtues of this platform very well. Our workforce is largely commission based and when we demonstrated that early adopters saw their productivity measures increase dramatically our momentum grew very quickly.  

I would hesitate to embark upon a major technology transformation that isn’t co-sponsored by an executive with the direct line of authority over adoption. While a carrot is definitely better than a stick, in many cases it takes a firm hand rather than a soft sell. You have to be in the right position (organizationally) to pull that off.

TEP: Key to your IT organization’s transformation was the strong partnerships between you and your peers in the C-Suite. How did you forge those relationships? What have you found to have been successful to allow for cross-functional collaboration between different teams in your organization?

"... execs don’t want to hear about all the hardships of legacy IT"

McPartland: The key here was speaking their language, not mine. Sounds cliché but once you’ve reached a certain level within IT, you cease to be a technology leader and transform to a business leader. IT is tough, you have to know your job and everyone else’s to be successful. Don’t expect them to know IT too – it doesn’t work both ways and execs don’t want to hear about all the hardships of legacy IT.  I’ve learned any technical challenge can and should be expressed in business terms.    

TEP: You’re Torchmark’s first CIO reporting into the CEO’s office. Among your accomplishments is changing the mindset of the organization to  "IT as an expense to be managed" to "IT as an investment to be optimized.” Did reporting into the CEO’s office help expedite your efforts in any way and/or help give you more runway to drive this shift?

McPartland: Absolutely – I credit our CEO with the vision to evolve our organization in a way that led to this transition. We focus on value, not expense. That resonates with the business minds of financial services companies. Old habits die hard, so I’ve made a point of not talking about IT expense without having the corresponding value demonstration be a part of the discussion. Having clear business owners for initiatives puts that responsibility where it belongs and makes the decision making process much more effective for our enterprise.  

TEP: One of a CIO’s many tasks is to focus on talent development. You have been known to move talent out of their comfort zone to grow their skills and expose them to new ways of thinking. How do you get your staff comfortable with taking on a new role that may be beyond their comfort zone? Any guidance for CIOs who may want to do more of this but without losing productivity?  

McPartland: Well first, to do this without losing productivity is tough, but to ignore it will likely result on attrition anyway. The key to maintaining performance for me is having a solid succession program for your leaders. Part of their ability to move forward is their ability to backfill themselves.

"When making a change that is dramatic I don’t think a sink or swim approach works. So if you aren’t ready to commit alongside them then don’t do it." 
 As for getting folks comfortable, I’m not sure that happens up front. I use judgment to know when someone is ready – I think that’s something CIO’s need to know about their people. There’s a bit of intuition here that I think most leaders have. As for bringing folks along once they are making a move, that’s where a CIO’s support is critical. Taking the time to work with her/him as they adapt is key. I think the critical element is ensuring you are prepared to spend the time coaching or mentoring to make that transition successful. When making a change that is dramatic I don’t think a sink or swim approach works. So if you aren’t ready to commit alongside them then don’t do it. 

TEP: As a CIO, what is something that you hear people say that you wish they’d stop saying - your biggest pet peeve about a phrase or word or expression used in IT? 

McPartland: My biggest pet peeve about being in IT is all the “armchair quarterbacking."  I don’t know of any other C-Suite role or function that is second guessed more than IT.  “It’s just a small thing!  Why does that take so long?!” I’ll admit I have to resist the urge to fire back, “Why is that EPS down? It’s just one number!”

[ Want to give your team a greater sense of urgency? Get our new resource: Fast Start Guide: Creating a sense of urgency, with John Kotter. ]

As community manager for The Enterprisers Project, Ginny Hamilton helps build the site's community of CIOs, IT leaders, and readers. She is responsible for helping tell the stories of leading IT executives – showcasing the projects, experiences, and challenges they're facing in their roles as IT leaders.

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