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By taking personal responsibility for his career, this executive achieved his goal of becoming a CIO by age 40.
By Larry A. Pickett Jr.
VP and CIO, Purdue Pharma LP
If there were a recipe for a successful career as an IT leader, the most important ingredient would be initiative. When I give advice to potential IT leaders, I tell them they have to take control of their professional destiny. Unfortunately, you can’t rely on a company, boss, or mentor to develop your career. You have to take the initiative. You have to have something in your gut that says, “This is my goal, this is my plan, I’m going for it!”
Ambition to make it to the highest levels is something I see missing in a lot of job candidates today. They have the experience. They have the skills. They have the knowledge. But they don’t have the drive.
Just as importantly, you have to take risks. You never know where your career may take you. That path rarely proceeds in a straight line. There will invariably be a lot of zig-zagging before you get to your end goal. But with a clear goal in mind—and the willingness to embrace the unknown—you may go further than you ever imagined.
I speak from experience.
When I got my undergraduate degree in chemistry at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, I was planning to become a pharmacist. I’d been working part time at a small publishing house to help pay for school. I wasn’t terribly thrilled about working in a lab after graduation and I was eager to stay in my home state. So I kept working for that publishing company after I got my degree. The director let me work in every department, giving me six-month stints to troubleshoot problems in various areas of the business. I learned about process improvement and business transformation. I would analyze the way things were done and come up with a plan to optimize and automate those processes. I learned success was as much about people and change as it was about process. What I realize now is that this was the perfect training ground to become a CIO.
It would be years before I became a CIO. Years filled not only with tremendous learning and growth, but also unexpected disappointment and setbacks. But with drive — and willingness to take chances — I achieved the somewhat ambitious career goal I had set for myself.
Expecting the Unexpected
I realized early on that IT was the place for me. I don’t know how anyone in IT could ever be bored. Technology moves so quickly and is constantly changing. People who are good at it are fueled by that speed and pace. It’s what drives us. For some people, change is difficult. But those of us in IT love it. And things are accelerating even faster now.
While I was working at the publishing company, mini computers arrived on the scene. I was learning about technology, how to apply it to the business, and getting my MBA at night. I thought there was great potential to use technology to optimize and automate the various business functions in the company, and that’s how I stumbled into IT in a way I never could have anticipated. I learned programming, started buying computers, and took on new people management responsibilities. I got amazing on-the-job education over the course of my five years with the publishing company that I could have never gotten anywhere else.
Of course, changes aren’t always easy. I left the publishing company to join ITT Telecom, and along with my new wife I moved to a new city. Then one Friday afternoon — an afternoon I remember well — I was laid off along with 1,200 other people, including my wife, who was six months pregnant.
It was a major shock. I thought that working for a big company would provide stability. I learned an important lesson that day. You can never rely on a company for your career. You have to rely on your own skills and abilities. And you have to take control of your own career by learning constantly and staying current. The constant change of IT also helped shape my leadership style, and I encourage my team to continually update their skills.
I took a job at GE’s semiconductor business division. Jack Welch was the new CEO and his strategy was clear. If a division was not number one or two in its industry, it was not going to continue to be a part of the organization. Our business was number three. I saw the writing on the wall.
Not wanting to go through another downsizing, I found a job at Glaxo. ITT Telecom and GE were big companies and they were great companies – they just weren’t the right industry for me. But they led me to make a really great next decision.
DIY Career Development
As I moved into IT middle management at Glaxo, it became clear to me that I eventually wanted to take the top IT spot at a pharmaceutical company. I set an ambitious career goal for myself — to become a pharma CIO within 10 years, by age 40.
With that as my objective, I sought out as many different experiences in IT and the business as I could: end-user computing, research and development, manufacturing, commercial, application development. I forced myself to rotate through as many different areas as I could. And because the company was expanding rapidly during my eight years there — growing from a $750 million company to an $8 billion one — there was plenty of opportunity for me to do so.
That’s something I tell both the candidates I interview and the IT leaders that I develop: you will only be limited by yourself and your thinking. A lot of people assume that companies are going to take care of their career development. Some may help, but you really need to take a DIY – a do-it-yourself – approach. You ultimately have to take the initiative to make it happen.
When Glaxo merged with Wellcome in 1995, creating new positions, I felt I was ready to advance to a role leading the company’s commercial systems. I knew that was the next logical step if I were to become a CIO. When I was told they had gone with someone else, I didn’t hesitate and immediately began working on my resume. Leaving Glaxo — a big growing company where I was comfortable in my native North Carolina — was the biggest and hardest career decision I ever made. I didn’t want to leave, but I had exhausted all the possibilities there. Thirty days later, I had a job offer at Merck Medco and was packing up my family and moving to New Jersey.
Embracing the Unknown
It wasn’t a huge career risk to move to Merck, another big healthcare company with a large commercial business. But it was difficult personally, uprooting my family from our home.
Just three months after I arrived, however, I got a call from a much smaller company called Purdue Pharma about their CIO position. I’d never heard of them, and I was enjoying Merck. I loved working for and learning from Stuart McGuigan – now the CIO at J&J – who was a phenomenal leader. The company was treating me well. I was just getting started there. So I said, “No.” It was way too soon. Three months later, they called again. And then again. After a year, I decided I would at least talk to them.
I interviewed six times with Purdue. At one point, I told the recruiter to just forget it. If they couldn’t decide after that many interviews and that much time that I could do the job, I thought, they’d never move quickly enough to keep pace with technology changes. Luckily, the recruiter talked me off the ledge. He explained that broad buy-in was part of the company culture and they wanted to make sure I was the right person for the critical role of CIO. And eventually they decided that I was. I had achieved a key career goal – becoming a CIO – but quickly learned that was just the beginning.
I had been preparing myself to become a CIO when I joined Purdue. What I wasn’t prepared for was the magnitude of the problems I was inheriting. IT had been underfunded and the environment was broken. Skills needed upgrading. Sixty days after I arrived, I told my boss, “If I knew then what I know now, I wouldn’t have taken this job.”
There were so many challenges. I just had to go about systematically addressing each one, starting with understanding the business needs, upgrading our talent while building a team culture, and finally introducing new technology—skills I’d been acquiring and developing in my years leading up to becoming a CIO.
The company was planning to implement a part of the legacy SSA Business Planning and upgrade the Control System from an AS/400 environment to Unix. I knew it was a huge risk and not the right platform for the future. If Purdue wanted to scale from a $250 million company to a multi-billion dollar one, it needed to be on SAP rather than fragmented legacy systems. It took some time, but I convinced the Board to make the biggest IT investment the company had ever made. But having gotten that buy-in, it was critical to deliver. We couldn’t do it alone – any critical business system implementation has to be a partnership between the business and IT. We created a steering committee of business leaders that closely managed the resources and scope month by month. And we jointly delivered, on time and under budget. We are still leveraging that enterprise platform today.
Encouraging the CIOs of Tomorrow
I’ve had several opportunities to leave or make a career change in my time at Purdue Pharma, but I’ve always chosen to stay. The Board and leadership team have been extremely supportive and see effective IT as a competitive advantage. They keep raising the bar and our team keeps delivering. And, more importantly, I enjoy my team and the people with whom I work.
I feel like I’ve worked for four different companies since I joined Purdue Pharma. When I first came aboard we were in a period of rapid growth. Then we lost a very important patent and had to restructure, entering a very difficult period of downsizing. After things stabilized, we started growing again and got even larger. Then last year, we hired our first external CEO (from Merck, coincidentally) who is bringing an exciting, new strategy and culture to the company.
As IT gets more and more embedded in the business, I’ve had the chance to have an even more significant impact in my role. We are striving to apply technology to improve the lives of patients and improve engagement with our customers. It’s less about my personal career path now and more about making a difference in the business while developing IT leaders of the future. I’ve said you can never be bored in IT. There’s always something new. Most recently, we’ve been investing in predictive analytics and machine learning—something we weren’t even thinking about five years ago. We created an innovative analytics capability that delivers 10x performance at 20% of the cost with positive business results.
One of my passions is to help others develop and find ways in which they can make an impact and grow their careers. I enjoy the challenge of finding exceptional talent and developing them into leaders. It took more than a year and many interviews to hire each of my two direct reports, but they’re top performers. Another two of my direct reports started at the very lowest level of the IT organization. One was working on the service desk; he’s our CTO now. The other was a contract programmer; today he’s the head of systems development and analytics. Now I learn from them every day and they will be CIOs one day – when they choose.
In all my experiences and through all the changes, one concept stayed true and unwavering – when you combine what’s best for the business and what’s best for an individual’s career, and then add challenging assignments to the mix, you can really make good things happen.
How will you take control of your professional destiny today?