What it means to be a transformational leader with Jay Ferro


In this episode, I’m joined by CIO Jay Ferro. Jay serves as the Chief Information Officer for Quikrete and previously served as CIO for a number of other companies including Earthlink, American Cancer Society and AIG.

The transformational CIO is a very different persona from that of a traditional CIO. Do you know the difference? In this episode, we take a provocative look at the CIO role and ways to make the shift. Jay also talks about his ‘three C’s’ and how his last ‘C’ lead to 6 CIOs in the metro Atlanta area that Jay has had an opportunity to hire and mentor over the years.

Whether you are a CIO, a c-suite executive or board member, you will not want to miss this discussion.


Jay Ferro LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/jacobferro/

Jay Ferro Twitter: https://twitter.com/jayferro

Quikrete: https://www.quikrete.com

Earthlink: https://www.earthlink.net/

American Cancer Society: https://www.cancer.org

AIG: https://www.aig.com/

Podcast Episode

Episode Transcript

Tim Crawford:               Hello, and welcome to the CIO in the Know podcast, where I take a provocative but pragmatic look at the intersection of business and technology. I’m your host, Tim Crawford, a CIO analyst and strategic advisor at AVOA.

Tim Crawford:               In this episode I’m joined by CIO Jay Ferro. Jay serves as the chief information officer for Quikrete and previously served as CIO for a number of other companies including EarthLink, American Cancer Society, and AIG. The transformational CIO is a very different persona from that of a traditional CIO. Do you know the difference?

Tim Crawford:               In this episode, we take a provocative look at the CIO role and ways to make the shift. Jay also talks about his three Cs and how that last C led to six CIOs in the metro Atlanta area that Jay has had the opportunity to hire and mentor over the years. Whether you’re a CIO a C-Suite executive, or board member, you will not wanna miss this discussion.

Tim Crawford:               So Jay, thanks again for taking the time to join me on the podcast today. I’m joined by Jay Ferro, how is the CIO of Quikrete and has been the CIO for a number of organizations including EarthLink, the American Cancer Society, AIG, and TransPerfect. Thanks, Jay, for joining the program.

Jay Ferro:                      Hey, Tim. Thanks for having me. I appreciate it.

Tim Crawford:               Let’s … You and I have gone back and forth on a number of different things that are a little provocative and let’s just jump right into one of those. Which is this difference between the traditional CIO and transformational CIO. What do you think is causing this issue?

Jay Ferro:                      I think it starts with the CIO themselves. I think part of it is a timing. We’re at kind of an inflection point in the journey of a CIO, where we still have a whole group of them that grew up in an era before transformation and digital transformation became sexy. Where CIOs were truly responsible only for keeping the trains running on time in core corporate systems and they’ve had to adapt.

Jay Ferro:                      I think there’s a newer generation of CIO that grew up in the digital era that never had to do that, that perhaps were even business leaders first. I think about myself where I grew up in an era that I learned how to program COBOL and Basic but I never started off to be a CIO. I didn’t even know what a CIO was when I was in college, let alone aspire to be one. I always came at it business first, so I think part of it is that weird timing just between generations. I certainly don’t mean age but just eras maybe.

Jay Ferro:                      Part of it is, look, we love technology and many times CIOs fall back into their comfort zone of leading with technology. They lead with support, they lead with operations, they lead with, “We’re here if you need us and we’re super reactive.” There’s this hyper focus on internal users and that’s really where they stop. Or they may nip at the edges beyond that, but that’s not where the transformational CIO plays.

Tim Crawford:               Where do you think the CIO should be? And kind of as a follow up to that, can these traditional CIOs change or are they … Is there something holding them back?

Jay Ferro:                      It’s a great question and when I think about the nature of a CIO leader changing, it all comes down to self awareness and an acknowledgment that we as leaders, and note that I didn’t say technical leaders just leaders, continually have to evolve. We have to transform ourselves first and we’ve heard the term physician heal thyself, CIO transform thyself. It’s the topic of my new book by Jay Ferro, no I’m just kidding. Copyright Jay Ferro 2019, don’t be stealing that, Tim.

Jay Ferro:                      But it’s true. And the answer of course is all people can change. Are you self aware enough to realize that you need to? Are you willing to put in the work to change? I think it has to start there and realizing that the role of the CIO, the modern transformational CIO, is not just those things I mentioned earlier. Although we still are responsible for all of that. We’re not absolved of keeping the trains running on time, but we are expected to be strategic. We are expected to be proactive. We are expected to be business facing and business focused. We are expected to get up out of our seats and engage with the board, engage with the C-Suite, understand the business.

Tim Crawford:               I wanna kind of dig into that a little bit. Do you think the motivation is there amongst the traditional CIOs? Do you think they understand what they need to do? ‘Cause there seems to be this huge gap, this huge gulf, that exists between what the C-Suite wants or what the board wants, and what they need versus what the CIO thinks and their perspective on this. Do you think the motivation is there and do you think they have the right tools, that fire in their belly if you will, to make the change?

Jay Ferro:                      I think that starts with the personal reflection, a personal journey. I think overall we’re seeing the motivation there because I’m seeing it. I don’t know about you, and you talk to as many if not more CIOs than I do. You and I are both highly connected and you’ve seen CIOs lose their jobs or be replaced. Very often, there’s a change in leadership and perhaps they’ve done nothing wrong. But very often it’s because they need a new voice. I see it time and time again where CIOs are obstinate. They’re stuck in their old ways and they’re unwilling.

Jay Ferro:                      It’s like that football coach that just is so dedicated to the run and makes no adjustments at halftime. You know what I mean? Where it’s just, “I have my philosophy. I have my model. And I don’t have the players to execute it, but dammit, we’re gonna do it anyway.” And they’re not looking at the fact that, “Wait a minute. I’ve got a spread quarterback back here. He’s not a traditional pocket passer, but he’s lightning with his legs. Maybe I should take advantage of that.”

Jay Ferro:                      And that’s very similar to CIOs where you have to be … You have to look at the demand for what we’re expected to do. What a transformational CIO and look at that and say, “Gosh, I’m not delivering that. What got me here won’t get me there.” I think part of that has led to the advent of a CMO taking a more prominent role, part of that has led to the advent of a CDO title, our Chief Digital Officer which clearly didn’t exist 10 years ago. We’re only now at the point where we’re seeing that be a more common title. And as I’ve said many times, I don’t know if you agree with this or not, I think the role of the CDO is directly correlated to the fact that many CIOs aren’t evolving and doing their jobs.

Jay Ferro:                      I’ve said that with Martha Heller and many other people. I’ve said, “Period. Full stop. Do not tell me that a CDO is bringing anything that a CIO couldn’t.”

Tim Crawford:               Yeah, is an indicator I often have said, “If you have a CDO or think you need a CDO, the indication that that brings is that you have a problem with your CIO.”

Jay Ferro:                      Amen. Well said. I agree with that 1000%. That’s a great indication for a more traditional CIO to begin to point the finger at themselves and their team, but it always starts with yourself. Am I doing enough? And as you see and meet world class CIOs who have evolved, are you aware enough to look at them and say, “She’s doing something that’s really amazing. She’s embodying characteristics that I’m not. What can I learn from them?” Just this type of conversation. You and I have known each other for a number of years. I read your stuff. You and I are obviously Twitter friends and we see each other from time to time in real life.

Jay Ferro:                      But that’s how I get smarter and better. I get challenged by folks like you and all of the other folks that we chat with online. I think to myself, “I’m not doing any of that. Maybe I need to point the finger and look in the mirror and realize I need to evolve, too.”

Tim Crawford:               Yeah, I worry though that … And I’d love to get your thoughts on this. I worry that for those traditional CIOs, are they really taking that introspective look? If you have C-Suite or have a board that says, “Look, we need to leverage technology in a more meaningful way,” and the CIO thinks, “Hey, we got it under control. We’re okay. The problem is not us.”

Jay Ferro:                      That’s that traditional IT problem, isn’t it? It’s a user error. It’s not us, it’s you. Look at all of our technology. We’ve got containers over here, we’ve got IOT, we’ve got an innovation center.

Tim Crawford:               Right, but how do you break through that log jam? How do you break through that conversation where you have a CIO that thinks that they’ve got it all together and they’ve got a great solution in place and I’ve had these conversations with other CIOs, not you, but other CIOs that they think they actually do have everything together. They strongly believe that in their heart of hearts.

Tim Crawford:               But yet the C-Suite has a very different perspective. One of the challenges is how do you bridge that gap? And I’d love to get your thoughts on that.

Jay Ferro:                      If you and I could figure that out here today, I think we would have a best seller in the CIO space on our hands. If we could crack that nut. Going back, and I know I sound like a broken record, it all comes down to humility and the ability for a CIO or any leader who has been in his or her role for enough time, to point the finger and say, “I keep hearing that we’re not doing enough. They just don’t understand. They don’t get it, they don’t understand the technology. I’ve got five nines, I’ve got happy users internally. We just rolled out an ERP.” Look, those are all super important things.

Jay Ferro:                      To me it starts with humility and it starts with going to your boss and your board and saying, “Okay, I’m hearing some unrest. I don’t get it. Help me understand whether it’s outcomes or communication. What are you seeing that we or I or we as an organization are not delivering for you?” And be willing to listen. And honestly, check your ego at the door. Look, I take great comfort in the technology, too. I’m a lifelong IT guy. I love it.

Jay Ferro:                      But you’ve heard me say this and I know you agree with me that it’s people process technology in that order. The Legos that you and I put together as CIOs will looks very different in 20 years. They look very different now than they did 20 years ago. The technology is awesome, I love it, it’s changing the world. But it’s secondary when it comes to leadership in the CIO role. CIOs have to read the tea leaves. If you hear something two or three times from your CIO or from your board, I think at that point you’ve gotta kind of raise your hand and go, “It’s gotta be me. I’m not listening enough.”

Jay Ferro:                      If you don’t, you’re gonna be out of a job, Tim, honestly. It’s just the bus leaves the station only so many times. The coach that refuses to change and hires bad people and is stubborn but it’s like, “Look, we’re almost there. We’re nine wins every year. That’s awesome.” Eventually …

Tim Crawford:               I see this in a very poignant way. You talked to it. Which is, you see the CIO being excused, there’s a search for a new CIO. But I also hear this challenge where, and I hear this from executive recruiters too, where they’re being asked to find someone that looks just like their own CIO but at the same time they want some of these new qualities. Can you have it both ways?

Jay Ferro:                      Gosh, can I get everything I had plus more, right? In other words, Jay kept the trains running on time, he wasn’t a bad guy, but we want Jay 2.0. We want Jay 3.0. I think we all want that unicorn in any role whether it’s a CEO, CMO, CFO, et cetera. I think we all kind of strive for that. I think you and I in our roles, we look for that in our respective organizations. I want a VP of app development that is uber technical but uber business facing and uber business process focused and uber strategic. You can’t always get every quality you want.

Jay Ferro:                      But yeah, I think companies should demand that. I look at the soft skills that you and I have talked about many times, and to me they are as much table stakes as five nines used to be for us 10 years ago, 20 years.

Tim Crawford:               Yeah but the problem is five nines, that’s an IT metric. That’s not a business metric.

Jay Ferro:                      No, but what I’m saying is it’s a table stake, as a leader, as a CIO leader. But you’re right, you’re right. Operational excellence, then. It’s a fair point. You should expect from me, I’m gonna bring operational rigor and excellence to my organization but you should also expect that in 2019 as a CIO that I’m a business first, technology second CIO. Not less important but that the priority of course is on understanding the organizational goals and outcomes, hyper focused on our external customer and delivery, all of those things. To me, that’s table stakes. I don’t know any other way to be.

Jay Ferro:                      You and I are maybe are rarer animals than we think we are, but I think honestly anyone can do it if they’re self aware enough.

Tim Crawford:               Let’s kind of put the shoe on the other foot if you will. If you’re an executive team, a CEO, a COO that is looking to bridge this gap. Not just the CIO looking to bridge the gap, but from the other side of the relationship looking to bridge the gap, where do you get started? What’s the best way to do this short of just saying, “I don’t have the right CIO. I need to put a CDO in or I need to replace my CIO?”

Jay Ferro:                      I think finding examples of what you want and being very clear about those qualities I think is important. I think there are enough examples of transformational CIOs in the marketplace that a CEO could easily say, “This person. She seems to have it together. I have a colleague, I got to know them, I’m reading articles.” That kind of thing, where it’s just not … You’re running to something, not away from someone. We always hear that when it comes to a job search.

Jay Ferro:                      In other words, you’re not just saying, “Well I don’t know what I want but it ain’t him.” The CEO has to put in the work and really dig deep and say, “Here are the qualities that Joe had that were awesome. Here are the three or four that Joe didn’t have as a leader that I really think are paramount to success in this role.” And be very clear about that with the search firm, with your board, and saying, “Look, this is very specifically what I’m looking for.” Versus, “Well just not him. He didn’t get it.” What does that mean? Be fair because otherwise you’re just gonna set up the next individual for failure if you can’t be clear about what you want.

Tim Crawford:               And it seems like it’s more than just the qualities, but it also comes back to the culture and the role that the CIO fills in. Are they truly filling in the Chief part of the role or the they one level below the C-Suite and filling a very different role?

Jay Ferro:                      No, that is a great, a great, great point. I know you know this and I do, too, where a CEO or a president will say, “We want somebody super strategic. We want a unicorn, the CIO unicorn.” Then they bury him or her a couple of levels deep. They’re not invited to the table, they’re not part of those strategic discussions, they’re still treated as a utility provider. Yet they’re being held accountable to something that maybe they’re not set up to deliver. They’re not enabled or empowered to deliver.

Jay Ferro:                      So CEOs and I think you’re spot on, have to be able to walk the talk as well. If you want those qualities, then you’d better position the CIO in the organization and help him or her establish a culture where those qualities will be allowed to flourish. No CEO or CIO rather worth his or her salt who has those qualities is gonna come in and go, “By the way, don’t bother me unless there’s a big issue. I’ll let you know if I need you. Make sure email is working.”

Tim Crawford:               How important is it, just maybe throwing in a slight obtuse question in here, how important is it for the CIO to reach out to others and engage with others outside of the organization within their peer group? And also ensure that those folks are not traditional CIOs that help kind of ingrain them in that old thinking, that traditional thinking?

Jay Ferro:                      What a great point. As much as you and I will say, “Look, I learned so much from my peers.” I think there’s a responsibility for our peers to call us out when they see behaviors or when we see behaviors. It’s A, we need to be reaching out and helping and providing, give with no expectation of return. I think the CIO community very much has that in its DNA, I really do. I don’t know a more collegial group than the IT leaders that you and I interact with.

Jay Ferro:                      Taking that one step further, I think it’s incumbent on us to be on the lookout when we hear senior IT executives maybe embodying more of the old school flavor than they really should and challenge them and say, “Do you really think that’s the right way to approach this? Here’s what I’m hearing.” And to be able to do that in a non combative, non judgmental way but in a collegial way, can really help save somebody from themselves. God knows I’ve been called out. Whether it’s a CIO peer or another executive peer. I have mentors that I lean on. I’ll present and say, “Here’s kind of the way I’m gonna attack this.”

Jay Ferro:                      I’d say more often than not, I come at it from the right angle. But I will say also that I’ve been called down say, “Jay, if you do that they’re gonna run you out of there on rails.” I’m grateful that I have those peers to keep me in line and to coach me. I think there’s a tremendous responsibility for us to police one another, too.

Tim Crawford:               You know, I have to say just to toot your horn a little bit, I’ve always been inspired by your perspective of pushing the envelope but in a productive way. It’s not pushing the envelope to say, “Here’s the future state. How you get there is God only knows.” But rather to say, “Let’s question some of these norms and let’s kind of dig into it a bit.”

Jay Ferro:                      Well thank you. You’re very kind, my friend. God knows I’ve learned far more from you than you will ever learn from me probably, but I need to tell you that more. I do read your stuff quite a bit and obviously we interact. But you really understand what it takes to be a successful, transformative CIO and you understand the market well.

Tim Crawford:               This is the mutual admiration.

Jay Ferro:                      All right, I’ll leave it then. Our heads won’t even fit into the …

Tim Crawford:               Yeah, we have to be careful about this. People are gonna think it’s …

Jay Ferro:                      But the reality is I feel like we have a responsibility. Being a CIO is hard enough without being your own worst enemy. We’ve got a big job, the C-Suite in general. Not just CIOs but C-Suite, we’ve got a big job. We’ve got a lot of authority, a lot of accountability, yes most of us are comped fairly well. And I love the accountability part. I love having my name on the dotted line. That’s one of my favorite parts.

Jay Ferro:                      But our job is hard. I love it. I wouldn’t do anything else. But let’s not make it harder than it actually needs to be by pointing the gun at ourselves and shooting ourselves in the foot by being stubborn, obstinate, inflexible, unwilling to adapt. Think about this, last point I’ll make is I don’t know about you but one of the qualities I always look for in an employee at any level, up to and including SVPs that I’ve hired. I know, knowing you, you have too.

Jay Ferro:                      Adaptability. You want somebody who is not bound by their job description. When Tim’s hiring somebody, he wants somebody who can roll with the punches, who is resilient, who can morph, can pivot on a dime. Because that’s the reality we live in in 2019. ERP one day, email the next, IOT the next. You’re jumping from thing to thing. Yes, there’s a method to our madness and organization. Board of directors, mad user, everything, you’ve gotta be resilient and adaptable. Why wouldn’t we expect that of ourselves?

Jay Ferro:                      I gotta point the finger at myself and say, “Am I being too inflexible? Is it me?” So when I see a CIO doing that, and I see us leading with the hammer and going, “I’m just looking for nails, man.” I take it as a personal challenge to help maybe hold up the mirror a little bit.

Tim Crawford:               It’s a great point the way that I’ve articulated it very similarly in the past is when I’ve hired folks I would much rather take someone that is maybe even more junior to the particular role but has that fire in their belly, has that thirst to learn more over someone who is set in their way.

Jay Ferro:                      100 times out of 100.

Tim Crawford:               …. Is really challenging to work with. Last question as we kind of wrap here. If I think about the CIO role and people who are listening think about the CIO role whether they’re the CIOs, someone coming up through the rank in files, someone outside of the IT organization, what excites you most about the CIO role today?

Jay Ferro:                      You know, very few people I think go through life … I break up what we do for a living into three categories. Most people have a job. I think the rare few have a career. And the luckiest few have a crusade. I personally found my crusade. I love what I do. What excites me is we sit at that intersection of technology which I love because we understand what it can do. It’s ever evolving, it’s empowering, it’s bringing the world closer together, it’s delivering value, it’s putting us in touch with our customers, it’s all of these things that we talk about.

Jay Ferro:                      But we’re mixing it with the other thing that I’m passionate about, other than my children who’s at the top of the list.

Tim Crawford:               Absolutely.

Jay Ferro:                      But the other thing is leadership and this ability to drive change and to get the most out of people and to bring people into your organization and watch them flourish. I love that and it’s the perfect melding of those two passions. So I love the role. I get angry when people disrespect the role because I think for me it’s a dream job. That doesn’t mean I wouldn’t change at some point or be the CEO if the opportunity presented itself of a technical firm.

Jay Ferro:                      But I love it. If the CIO is an absolutely fine destination. So that’s what excites me about it is there’s always something new. You and I can have this conversation a year from now about technology and there will be three things we haven’t even heard of yet. That part is amazing. The last thing I’ll say about it is just mentoring that young, that next generation of CIOs. I’m proud to say … I’ll toot my own horn. There are six CIOs in the metro Atlanta area that are all mentees of mine that I hired and groomed. By the way, that was 99% them and 1% me.

Tim Crawford:               Wow, that’s great.

Jay Ferro:                      Other than for hiring them. But the CIO, there are six. The CIO of Tire Hub and McKinneys, Old Republic Aerospace, and a number of others are all folks that I had a chance to mentor, to hire and mentor over the years.

Tim Crawford:               That’s incredible.

Jay Ferro:                      Yes, but I’m even more proud that I stood for something. If nothing else, a cautionary tale of what not to do. Jay Ferro was awful. Let me just do the opposite of him and hey man, CIO.

Tim Crawford:               And our next guest on the podcast is … Jay, this has been incredible. I always enjoy the time that we have together. I always learn something new from you. It’s always a joy for us to connect, and I look forward to our next conversation.

Jay Ferro:                      I feel the same. It’s an honor to be here with you, my friend. Keep up the great work, and best to you over the weekend. I look forward to seeing you soon.

Tim Crawford:               Sounds good. Jay Ferro, thank you so much.

Jay Ferro:                      Thanks, Tim.

Tim Crawford:               For more information on the CIO in the Know podcast series, visit us online at cioitk.com or you can find us on Sound Cloud, iTunes, Google Play, and Stitcher. Don’t forget to subscribe and thank you for listening.

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