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Crayola's CIO colors outside the lines

CIO Sandra Brandon has broken down barriers at historic crayon maker Crayola LLC.

Crayola LLC, whose iconic crayons now come boxed in 120 shades and bouquets of "Silly Scents," will soon be using software from SAP AG for its order-to-cash process and for manufacturing. Even the best-planned ERP implementations can go seriously awry, but CIO Sandra Brandon says she isn't much concerned about the technology, or whether the company's network is up to snuff, or indeed about "pulling it all together" to make the major project a go.

"I am concerned, because the way that every single person in our organization does their job and values themselves is going to change," said Brandon, a certified pilot who joined Easton, Pa.-based Crayola six years ago. "Nothing they do from here on forward is going to look anything like what they do right now."

Brandon was one of four CIOs who spoke at a recent event held by the New York chapter of Women in Technology International (WITI) about leading change at their organizations. Sponsored by Columbia University's Center for Technology, Innovation and Community Engagement, the panel also featured Harriet Edelman, who recently retired as CIO at New York-based Avon Products Inc. after 29 years at the beauty products company; Candace Fleming, CIO of Columbia University since mid-2005; and Beatrice Leon, CIO for Pernod Ricard Americas in Purchase, N.Y., a subsidiary of the giant French spirits producer Pernod Ricard SA.

The panel members dissected how and why they embraced change during their successful careers, from navigating mergers and acquisitions and re-engineering IT infrastructures, to changing the perception of IT at their corporations. One theme that ran through all their tales of change was the importance of nurturing employees' strengths and cultivating a workplace of mutual respect. Indeed, the panel was adamant that meaningful change cannot occur without the consent and cooperation of its people.

The leadership styles of female CIOs have been give a lot of attention this past year, including in our exploration of the topic in the April 2007 issue of CIO Decisions magazine. Studies by consulting firms such as Gartner Inc. have made much of women's superior communication and listening skills, and the importance of these qualities for leading change in a global economy.

But superior communication skills are not sufficient. A survey in 2006 conducted by consulting firm Compel Ltd. and WITI found that overcoming hurdles and seizing opportunities -- common CIO traits -- were as true for female CIOs as for their male counterparts.

"It was striking how often these women CIOs talked about the importance of risk, the opportunity and challenge in high-risk projects, and their eagerness and enjoyment of it," said Patricia Shafer, who co-authored the study with Barbara Trautlein. The study uncovered another important trait, Shafer said. "Good leaders are those who can engage the strength of the people in their organizations."

No more silos

When Brandon was recruited for the CIO job at Crayola in 2002, she walked into a 130-year-old brand determined to reinvent itself. Her mandate was to move a moribund global IT operation "into the world of business transformation." Not easy in a siloed organization, Brandon said. Her domestic team numbered 58, "and people didn't even know each other's names."

She "thinned out" some upper-level management, brought in new leadership and rebranded Information Systems as Information Solutions to reflect the can-do attitude she expected of her team. Then she began what has been a six-year effort to teach her Information Solutions team to "think as a business person."

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Thinking like a business person had long been second nature for Brandon, whose work history began in the steel mills in Pittsburgh and included a stint in operations for a Pennsylvania Burger King franchisee. While she credits a subsequent job in voice and data services at Westinghouse for teaching her technology, she said the 90-hour weeks at Burger King, leading a team of people ranging from 14 years old to 80, taught her how to motivate people, talk to customers and think like a business person.

"I learned it was my responsibility to professionally develop every employee," Brandon said. Along the way, she also learned supply chain and cash management.

At Crayola, where the youngest IT system was more than 20 years old, change was long overdue. She and her team (some of them third- and fourth-generation employees) have centralized worldwide IT operations, installed the company's first warehouse management system and rolled out a Siebel customer relationship management system to monitor sales and also help customers design better displays: a huge change in business processes.

"Technically, it was easy to do; culturally not so much," she said, recounting tense conversations with regional CIOs in Mexico, Montreal and the United Kingdom who were panicked about giving up control. "It is very important to do the people work up front, before your start the re-engineering."

"It's been an incredible ride," Brandon said, referring to both the radical transformation within her IS team and IS's role in helping reinvent Crayola.

Change in IT almost always means redefining the way people do their jobs, Brandon said, which is cultural, not technical. "Our packers, for example, cannot turn around and grab whatever they want from any line, because it is closer. They have to go to the line for the crayons produced for that box," she said. At Crayola, this could be an "80-year-old employee who has been doing the same job since he was 18." Attention must be paid.

Value of a deep bench

I learned
it was my responsibility to professionally develop every employee.

Sandra Brandon
CIOCrayola LLC
As Brandon's job has evolved from field general to devoting about 70% of her time to board-level issues, she has made a point of developing a strong management team.

"You need to develop your bench. And you need to develop your No. 2," Brandon said, not only to ensure continuity but to also realize that elusive work/life balance CIOs dream about. "This will be the person who can step in when you need to step out for that all-important soccer game."

Brandon had another suggestion for fledgling IT execs: hire to your weakness. "I am not a programmer, hate it, hate it, hate it," she said, so she makes sure that deficit is covered by her talented bench.

Let us know what you think about the story; email: Linda Tucci, Senior News Writer

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