IT leadership: Mission-driven IT and finding your "why"

In this video, Clario IT leader Jay Ferro talks about how to build consensus for your digital transformation, how to foster a culture of resilience in IT, and why leaders should never stop asking questions.
No readers like this yet.
Side-by-side screens, each with one male, both smiling

I recently had the opportunity to interview Enterpriser Jay Ferro, EVP, chief information, technology, and product officer at Clario. During our discussion, Jay spoke about the importance of being mission-driven in IT–something he has been in every IT leadership role he has held throughout his career. Whether you call this your North Star or "finding your why," this work is critical for retaining talent and delivering value to customers. Watch the video for Jay's advice on this topic and others, like how to build consensus for your digital transformation, how to foster a culture of resilience in IT, and why leaders should never stop asking questions.

Video transcript

*Edited for grammar and clarity

Adam Clater: All right. Hello. I am Adam Clater, a contributor to the Enterprisers Project, which you can follow along with at Today I am joined by a very special guest, Jay Ferro. Jay is currently EVP, chief information, technology, and product officer at Clario, a global data and technology company that minimizes risk and uncertainty in clinical trials so that organizations can move ahead quickly and with confidence.

Jay is a transformative technology leader who works with diverse global corporations to accelerate growth, improve profitability, and achieve exceptional operational results. Jay possesses an unwavering commitment to excellence with highly effective planning, organizational development, continuous improvement, and communication skills. Jay, welcome to the Enterprisers Project. How are you doing?

Jay Ferro: Great, buddy. I don’t know who that guy is, but I want to meet him. He sounds terrific. But great to be here, Adam. Great to see you, and thanks for having me.

Clater: Yeah, absolutely. I get to read so many of those great bios, and I’m like, “Wow, this guy’s really—this is good. These are great.”

Ferro: I know. And then you have to meet me, and it’s, “Oh.”

Clater: It’s all good, Jay.

Ferro: So much for truth in advertising, right?

Clater: We’ll get there. We’ll get there. Don’t worry. All right. So, Jay, listen, I want to start with a couple of questions. You know, healthcare has been front and center for all of us probably in a bigger way for more people than any time I can remember in my lifetime. And in the role that you’re in, there’s a very real opportunity that what you’re working on could impact your family or friends or potentially millions beyond that. So could you talk to me a little bit about, like, the importance of being mission-driven in your role, especially for attracting and retaining IT talent, which is wildly difficult right now?

Ferro: You know, I love what you said, mission-driven. And I use the M word, the capital M-word, a hundred times a day. People talk about IT strategy or tech strategy or product strategy; they talk about deliverables, roadmaps, all of that stuff. To me, it all starts with the mission, and our mission is to transform lives by unlocking better evidence. And really what that means day to day is helping facilitate and support and enable the clinical trial process, which we know in recent years especially has—the importance of which is really second to none. It’s accelerated during the pandemic, naturally, as we look for treatments and preventatives for Covid. But now, what it’s done is it’s poured gas on the fire in a whole bunch of other areas, too.

So the industry is working faster than ever, and I like to think we’re doing life-changing work. I believe we are. And the technology that we build at Clario and the expertise that we bring helps support the companies that are running clinical trials, the sponsors, the people who are running trials day to day, the sponsor—or the trial teams, as well as the sites. You know, the folks, the nurses, the clinicians, the physicians who are all part of this process and helping facilitate this.

And most importantly, the patients, right? You’ve got to put the patients first. At the end of the day, people aren’t enrolling in clinical trials because they’re bored. These folks have—they’re looking for hope. They’re looking for relief. They’re looking for treatment. So at the end of the day, you know, we try to keep that top of mind. That’s our North Star to make sure the technology that we build, the processes, the support, the delivery of all of our products always keep our patients, our sites, and our sponsors top of mine. Because the role that we—the better we do our job, the more sure we are about whether or not treatments are effective and can get out to the public and help transform lives.

Clater: And so are you finding that—obviously, you and I both have this empathy, that this is an infectious mission.

Ferro: No pun intended. It is.

Clater: No pun intended, yeah. You’ve really got to take it seriously. So how is that impacting your ability to recruit and retain? Are you finding that the rest of your folks, they get behind that mission and that’s part of what motivates them, as well?

Ferro: I think so. And, look, it’s a hyper-competitive market. If you try to compete on money alone, there’s only a handful of companies that can do that, right? I mean, the one-percenters in the tech space will throw—you know, back up a truckload of money and just call it day. I don’t want to shortchange people’s cultures or anything like that. All I can control, to a certain degree, is my organization. We want to become and are becoming a destination employer. Part of that, besides just paying competitively, career pathing, fanatical commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion, all of those things.

But one of them is a life-changing mission. At the end of the day, you’re not making widgets or doing whatever, all important work, but you’re actually playing an important part in the process that delivers treatments and saves lives. So, I mean, no matter how tired you are, no matter how hard things are, you always seem to find a little extra gas in the tank because the capital-M mission that you’re charging toward is literally saving lives, which is a cool feeling.

Now, that doesn’t absolve us from the other things—great work experience, collaborative, transparent, innovative, giving people a career path, working on cool things—but it sure as heck helps people who want to do meaning—attract people who want to do meaningful work.

Clater: You also recently wrote an article for the Enterprisers Project about digital transformation. And one of the things that really resonated with me was finding your “why.” And as you came to Clario, what were the “whys” that defined the priorities for the digital transformation thus far? Really, what advice would you give to other IT leaders who are struggling to find their own “why”?

Ferro: I think it’s a great question. You know, we always start with “why,” start with a mission, start with a North Star, why you exist. If you can’t find that and you don’t understand that, I think you’re really putting yourself behind the 8 ball with attracting talent, living the mission every day, and coming into work feeling empowered. So it was important when I landed.

And who introduced me to the company was a guy named Joe Eazor, who was the CEO. I had worked for him before at EarthLink as his head of product and his CIO. I knew what he was about. He told me a little bit about the company and what they did. I had to do some research into the role that they played in the clinical trial process and was just blown away at the impact that we can make. So it wasn’t hard to understand the “why.” When you’re doing end-point data collection, we play a pivotal role in that, in the whole lifecycle of a clinical trial.

Where I think we struggled, honestly, Adam, is I don’t know that we did a terrific job—and we’re still improving; we’re not where I’d like to be—making sure everybody in the organization understands that “why.” I mean, beyond just the glossy pictures in the lunchroom and the town hall meetings, day to day, are we doing enough to get in front of people and get them exposed to the difference we’re making as an organization. I don’t care if you’re help desk level one or whatever.

[ Ready to level up your communication skills? Get advice from IT leaders. Download  10 resources to make you a better communicator. ]

I think other CIOs can do that. Even at Quikrete, you look and go, “Well, how the hell are you going to get excited about building materials?” Quikrete’s a really great company. They have a great culture. They have a huge history. And concrete’s the number one engineered material in the world. You’re literally transforming lives in the sense that the product that you make is building people’s homes, building shelters, buildings. You can look at Truist Park in Atlanta or some of these other terrific monuments and say, “My company played a role in building these things.”

So you can do that at just about any company, whether it’s fast food, whether it’s—certainly, pharma and healthcare are the ones that we always point to or a nonprofit role. But I think you can value in just about anything.

Clater: Yeah, absolutely. I think for medical, it’s good, right? Because everybody has interactions with the medical space. Concrete, I mean, it’s everywhere. You’re absolutely right. We are using it everywhere.

Ferro: Yeah. Look, is it saving lives? No, but you’re building hospitals. You’re building—you are making people’s lives better in the product. So the better that you do your role, the higher quality that product is, you can take pride that you're doing something that makes a difference in the world. And I think making sure people understand that they’re making a difference is the important piece. It doesn’t matter what role. The success of the company is due in no small part to the role that you play every day, regardless of what it is.

Clater: I love that. You know, in that [Enterprisers Project] article, you spoke about rallying support. And this, in my opinion, is one of the keys to leading organizations: building that consensus of support, taking the input, even sometimes negotiating the terms before you even begin to propose your idea at a leadership level. I learned that lesson from one of my great mentors and it’s served me quite well. Can you talk to me about your experiences with that sort of concept of building that consensus ahead of time?

Ferro: You know, it’s interesting and it’s a great question. And I think every company’s a little bit different, right? You have to meet an organization where they are. If you go in with the Adam or the Jay playbook and that is the only game you have, you might end up being in trouble because you’re going to be a little bit perceived, perhaps, as a little bit of a blunt instrument. So you kind of have to read the room a little bit, understand where the organization is in their maturity, their willingness to accept this change and to buy in.

And what I mean, I’ll give you a few examples. In some cases, even the term “digital transformation” can sound somewhat fluffy and provocative. So at Quikrete or—you go in and you start talking about digital transformation and all these high-minded topics in an 80-something-year-old family-run organization that’s very big but at the same time isn’t used to IT being an enabler, it might fall on deaf ears.

But if you go in talking about digital enablement and tools that allow them to make decisions better and consolidation of digital assets and automation and all the kind of things we talk about that are really components of digital transformation, you get people pretty excited. And then you can show them a little bit along the way, prototype, and say, “This is what I mean.” And they look up a couple years later and go, “Hey, wait a minute. Did we—are we on a digital transformation journey?” And you’re like, “Ah-ha.”

So you may have to come at it that way without the on-high digital transformation look of the CIO playbook that says I need to use that term constantly, 25 times a day.

[ Get exercises and approaches that make disparate teams stronger. Read the digital transformation eBook: Transformation Takes Practice. ]

In terms of building consensus, I think you learn to pick your battles. I will say at the American Cancer Society, certainly me stepping onto the ground, everybody didn’t buy into my vision immediately. It wasn’t like, “Oh, Jay Ferro. Thank gosh Jay Ferro is here. Everybody just give him what he needs.” What I did is build allies. I built an ally in the head of HR. Built an ally in the CMO, a very important one. Certainly, I had the CEO’s support. The chief operating officer support, et cetera. Others were a little slower.

You look and say, “Well, I don’t have a terrific out-of-the-gate vibe with the CFO,” as an example. Well, how do you build that credibility? I won their people over. And I went one level lower and listened to their pain points with reporting, closing the books, too many ERPs, too many GLs. Chipping away at quick wins, the stuff that’s there, and all of the sudden, they’re like, “Hey, IT’s really starting to change. They’re really delivering value.” And you win them over with execution and delivery versus coming in and saying, “Trust me. Give me two years and it’s going to be great.”

I think a playbook depends on the organization but it always starts with transparency, building relationships, listening, and the number one thing, execution.

We always talk about everybody loves winning—you know, winning cures all ills. You’re mad at your coach, you’re mad at your sports team, you’re like, “Man, we stink,” you get on a winning streak and suddenly all that noise goes away. So IT, CIO, CTO, no different. Get in, find quick wins, build relationships, listen, and come at it from a position of strength.

Clater: Execution. I love that. I love that point that if you’re not executing, no matter what else you’re doing, you’re not going to get the traction, right? I mean, you just have to deliver.

Ferro: You’ve got to pay the admission fee every single day. You know, don’t execute one thing and then say, “Okay, I’m good. I can take my eyes off the wheel.” The blocking and tackling, the trains running on time, whatever metaphor you want to use, you’ve got to do that every day. And if you do that every day, you earn a seat or you earn a ticket into the game because nobody can turn around and go, “Well, wait a minute. You’re coming at me with all this digital transformation stuff. Aren’t you the guy that can’t deliver email on time and the systems keep going down? What the hell are you doing?”

Clater: That gets us into our next topic, which is really resilience. And resilience is a topic we’re hearing more and more about lately and for good reason, right? Building greater agility and resilience into the culture of IT can help CIOs ensure readiness for unknown disruptions in the future. So how do you define your resilient IT culture and what are some of the characteristics and how do you build them on our team?

Ferro: It’s a quality I look for in every leader at every level in the organization. And I think looking for people who can operate in the gray is a real skill, where they don’t have to have all the answers. To me, building resilience starts with communication, and open and honest transparency, and creating a safe space. I think people are a bit more resilient when they have a boss who trusts them; who empowers them; who’s not micromanaging; who doesn’t get in their shorts every day about what’s going wrong; and where they feel safe to experiment. They feel safe failing forward. They know if they bring you moot news that’s suboptimal that you’re not going to lop their head off and that it’s one strike and you’re out.

[ Learn how to build a resilient IT culture. ]

But at the same time, when their team does perform, there’s celebration. And there’s a pause at least for the cause and you say, “Hey, look, we have a long way to go but let’s take a moment and realize how far we’ve come and celebrate,” whether that’s an online celebration, getting together for a happy hour, gift cards, whatever it needs to be. It could be just honestly a message from me to a team saying, “Hey, look, you may not know it but we’re making a huge difference and I’m personally grateful for all of you.”

So when you create that culture of empowerment, where failure is not fatal, that we always say, and that we’re going to celebrate, I think it allows people to be a bit more resilient because they’re willing to take calculated risks and they know that you have their back. One of the things I do—we always talk about the inverted pyramid in servant leadership, right, where I view myself at the bottom of that. You know, my role is to enable and empower everybody. I’m the least important person on the org chart. I promise you that. The people who are on the front lines delivering value to our customers, our patients, in and out of technology are the real heroes in the organization. And if I’m not supporting them or delivering solutions that make their lives easier, better, whatever, I’m failing. When you create a culture like that, there’s an inherent trust and I think it builds resiliency.

And I think continuing to promote and hire that and bring in real change agents and people begin to see the behavior being modeled. And then it’s on me ultimately to model the behavior, as well. If I get bent out of shape every other day and I’m not resilient, what the heck do I—why would I ever expect that they’re going to be?

Clater: I love that. Especially as you talk about the inverted pyramid of servant leadership, I think the thing that comes to my mind is that you have to be intentional almost every day about what you’re doing as a servant leader to affect the effectiveness or the ability of that team to execute on their mission.

Ferro: Oh, Adam, you’re 100% right. It’s every day. And, look, that means when you don’t feel like it. That means when you’re tired. That means when you’re not hitting your goals, something bad is going on at home. I’m in the middle of a home renovation and there are days when—you know, luckily, my much better half is doing the lion’s share of the work. But we have real life. We’re all 100% beings. We’re not work Jay versus home Jay, or work Adam versus home Adam. But you’ve still got to do it. And as leaders, we’re called to be human and we’re called to be authentic. But every day, you’ve got to come in and just be the best person you can be and remember that all eyes are watching.

Tough—and I don’t want to go off on too much of a tangent—a tough leadership lesson when I first became a CIO. This was a lifetime ago. You were nothing but a wee lad probably, Adam. You were very young back then. When I first became a CIO, I remember somebody coming to me who had worked for me one other time. And I had had—it was just one of tough days where two or three things are—two or 300 things are blowing up. We’re in the middle of kind of a big go-live. And I went into a meeting and I wasn’t my usual kind of Jay Ferro self and I kind of let my guard down. There was just noticeable angst and anger.

He came back to me later, said the teams are real upset. I said, “What do you mean?” They’re like, “What’s wrong with Jay?” And now, part of it is that Jay’s allowed to be human and you should never feel like you’ve got to fake it all the time and not be your authentic self. But at the same time, I realized that even walking down the hall, people commented that I wasn’t smiling. I didn’t stop and say hello. I allowed myself to be overwhelmed by the emotion of the day and it had a noticeable impact on people’s morale.

All eyes are watching you at all times. And if you can’t handle that as a C-level executive, then don’t bother. Because I have to show up at the meeting and you’re not blindly optimistic about everything, where you’re not realistic about the problems. But even under fire, you still—all eyes are on you. And it’s super important that you remember that at all times.

Clater: As humans, we’re constantly learning, processing data, and then passing that on throughout our organizations. It’s sometimes referred to as tribal knowledge. Sometimes it’s just mentoring. What has been the “ah-ha” learning that you’ve had while you’ve been at Clario that you’re now trying to instill in the rest of your team and organization?

Ferro: Oh, wow. Gosh. Such a good question. You know, I said something earlier about meeting the organization where it is in their journey. And I don’t know that I did a good enough job when I started, asking the dumb question. And part of that is just you believe the best in people and you don’t want to insult them. You want to put your best foot forward. You don’t want to be the guy that’s asking a hundred tough questions in every meeting as you get up to speed.

So I probably assumed things were better than maybe they were in certain areas when I joined. And had I just been a little bit better about asking the tough questions and recognizing the fact that, OK, there’s a pattern forming here where people are working very hard. We’ve grown very fast through acquisition. Maybe some things are missing that should be there that aren’t. Had I asked that, I probably could have nipped a few things in the bud earlier.

And so I guess my advice there is, never be afraid to ask the dumb question. The quote-unquote—and it’s not even really a dumb question but you know what I mean. Where you’re not going to insult people. Be the dumb new guy or the dumb new girl and just come in and go, “Look, I’m getting up to speed. I’m going to ask you a lot of questions. Please don’t be insulted. I’m just trying to learn. I’ve walked into too many places and not asked and regretted it. If the answer is yes, it’s being handled, cool, check, and we’ll move on. But I’m going to ask you a lot of kind of basic questions.” So don’t be afraid to do that.

I know some people have no issues with that. I generally don’t. You know, I probably just wasn’t as tough as I needed—not tough but you know what I mean—as direct as I needed to be at the beginning. So that would have gone a long way at the beginning of getting some of that tribal knowledge. We call it also folklore. There’s a lot of things lost to the sand of time.

The other part of that is that you hear things like, “Well, we’ve always done it that way,” but that whole concept of, “We have always done it that way,” masks itself as many other things: Well, the board said so; the CEO said so; well, it’s a regulation; well, the regs say that; the auditor told us that. Be willing to go, “What auditor? What regulation says that? Can you point me to the SOP? Are you sure the board said that?” Trust but verify.

[ Learn the non-negotiable skills, technologies, and processes CIOs are leaning on to build resilience and agility in this HBR Analytic Services report: Pillars of resilient digital transformation: How CIOs are driving organizational agility. ]

What to read next

Adam Clater
Adam Clater is a Chief Architect at Red Hat. He has worked internationally with federal agencies, integrators and Red Hat partners & communities to promote and define the use of enterprise open source solutions.