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A chemical industry CIO recounts what she has learned about leading a digital transformation.
By Christy Barker, VP - Chief Information Officer, Olin Corporation
I joined Olin in 2016, shortly after the company completed a major acquisition, a move that significantly increased the number of employees, and dramatically expanded our operations in the United States and into more than 20 countries.
Olin’s digital journey entails the largest strategic investment in digital technologies in the company’s history. It involves executing a global transformation program that includes implementing a new standardized ERP platform, new solutions for manufacturing and engineering, and additional capabilities to make our IT infrastructure around the world more reliable. We’ve also tried to use the integration as an opportunity to simplify our architecture by selecting a few key technologies and platforms we want to support going forward.
An Amazing Opportunity
For a technology leader, a digital transformation is an amazing opportunity. Often, if you are just running an IT organization, you’re mostly making small incremental changes. It can often feel like you’re running a utility. Olin’s major acquisition created a huge opportunity to really think about some massive changes to modernize and standardize business processes across our chemical businesses to maximize cost effectiveness, efficiency and control across our now global operations.
This is actually my second global integration. Before Olin, I worked for several years on a global IT transformation at another company, re-organizing people and staff and building business shared services. I took some assignments in Israel and Europe.
People tend to misunderstand the nature of a digital transformation. They hear the word digital and think it's an IT project, when in fact, it’s hardly about the technology at all – the technology is a relatively easy part of the transformation. The hard part is trying to shift how people work each day, how decisions get made, how to ensure that everyone has clarity on the end goal and that the value we set out to capture is realized. That’s the real challenge.
Support at the top
One key is to make sure that the transformation is being pushed top-down from the executive leadership team. They need to be clear about the business change that they’re expecting and they need to help you drive that change. It has to start at the top because you need top-level support during the inevitable difficult times. As we all know, one of the main challenges of digital transformation is that, at the same time that you’re overhauling the organization, you’re in a business serving customers. It’s easy to lose sight of that while you’re focusing on the transformation of your capabilities by implementing new technology.
Our executive management team is also serving as the steering committee for the transformation. We meet every month, where we address challenges that the teams need help with. We also have a second team – we call it our business readiness team – that helps ensure we have frequent and transparent communication and planning with the extended leadership across the world. We’ve also established some informal networks that help us disseminate information and receive informal feedback on how the change process is going.
Beyond the integration project, I’m also very focused on finding IT talent. Finding tech talent is not easy. And finding tech leaders can be even harder – someone who can bridge the software and engineering worlds and who is also a strong visionary and leader. I think to address that shortage, we really need to think about tapping in to all the potential talent in our population, to create an environment that is open and inclusive to a diverse group of talented people.
Striving for balance
Early in my career, there were very few women leaders in technology, which made it difficult for me to envision being the CIO of a global Fortune 500 company. Today, I think companies realize the lost opportunity and are making strides in awareness and training, but the progress is still too slow. Even now, less than 20% of CIOs in Fortune 500 are women.
I never had a mentor, which is part of why I’m very open to mentoring others. For example, recently, another CIO at another large Fortune 500 company introduced me to one of his rising leaders, a woman who aspires to be a CIO at some point in her future.
I think it was helpful for both of us to speak openly about the challenges we face balancing career and family and helpful for her to hear how I navigated my career along the way.
One key is that I’ve got great family around me and a great support system. In particular, I have an extremely supportive spouse. There was a point early on in our marriage where we had to decide which career was going to be allowed to explode, because we also wanted to have a family. Having two go-getters just wasn’t going to support that.
We have one kid now in college and one in high school. My being so busy made that challenging, but it gave them huge opportunities as well, such as the chance to live outside the country.
Developing a career and caring for a family do not have to be mutually exclusive. Given the right mindset, you can do both. For me, the key was to realize I didn’t need to be a superhero and do everything perfectly. I just needed to offer my best every day and not be too hard on myself.
I also always take my vacation and never leave a day unused. We make sure we do things that we all like to do together, like hike, so that when I get back to the office, I don’t feel like I’ve given up one aspect of my life.
I usually try to have another goal outside of my career too. For example, I ran marathons for a while. I would get up very early in the morning and take long runs, always working towards a race.
Now I maintain balance and fitness by practicing yoga. Some days, I make sure to mark my calendar and get out of here on time so I can hit the yoga studio and be part of that community. There’s a time management aspect to having a balanced life. Don't expect someone to give you the time. You’ve got to create it yourself.
The biggest challenge in a digital technology transformation is handling the human change management it entails.
C-suite buy-in and involvement is an essential part of a transformation.
You can’t have a career and a family if you’re a perfectionist, but you can if you work hard and you’re accepting of your limitations.