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SIMposium 2016: Pfizer CIO on IT leadership trait needed to get ahead

Pfizer CIO Jeffrey Keisling schooled up-and-coming IT leaders at SIMposium 2016 on the career benefits of looking for trouble.

Pfizer Inc. CIO Jeffrey Keisling had a question for the up-and-coming IT leaders at SIMposium 2016. It was a question,...

he said, that their CEOs, CIOs, CTOs and other company executives were asking about them. And it concerned a leadership trait that would help them get ahead.

"Are you looking for trouble?" he asked.

IT leaders in the coming decade will be the people working on issues that are crucial to the enterprise's success, Keisling said. The megadeals that make headlines should be in their ken, but trouble might also be the next big product launch, or a critical infrastructure project or boosting the company's engineering capabilities. "Volunteer, find yourself in a place on a team, leading a team that's working on the toughest challenges at your company."

Keisling used his time on stage at SIMposium 2016 to highlight three Pfizer employees whose work and attitudes exemplified what he meant by "looking for trouble" as a path to IT leadership.

Jeffrey Keisling, CIO, PfizerJeffrey Keisling

The three people he planned to profile -- Robert V. Brown, Jane Wiltshire and Alicia Dellario -- are quite different from one another in background and expertise, Keisling said. But by the end of his talk, it was clear the Pfizer superstars share traits in common, including self-knowledge, an ability to galvanize people, a desire to give back -- and a penchant for trouble.

Leadership trait: Self-knowledge

Robert V. Brown, vice president of worldwide medical business technology. Keisling said he got to know Brown when he interviewed him in 2009 for an executive position on the business technology team responsible for the integration of the biggest acquisition of that year -- a roughly $70 billion deal. Asked to talk a little bit about himself during the interview, Brown, who joined Pfizer in 2005 as senior director of development portfolio ops, said the first thing to know was that he shouldn't have been there. "I'm thinking this is going to be a really short discussion," Keisling told the SIMposium audience. Brown went on to recount his hardscrabble upbringing on the "mean streets of Philadelphia" and the challenges he had overcome -- and he got the job.

Fast-forward five years. Brown was meeting with Keisling about a new patient-safety effort: a system that would allow patients to get information in real time about the medicines Pfizer sells. It was a tough project, never been done before, a company advantage -- and risky. "He said, 'Let me take this on.' RVB put himself in a place, looking for trouble," Keisling said, using the initials Brown goes by.

Four weeks ago, the company "celebrated the success of RVB" with the launch of a global platform that will improve patient safety in 170 countries, according to Keisling. Brown and a business partner are now applying that patient-safety information to cognitive computing -- looking at how machine learning systems can help improve the lives of patients, he said. Brown and his business partner recently knocked on his door, asking for support to take the project to the next level, even though they didn't yet know the outcome -- demonstrating, in Keisling's view, another key leadership trait: "You have to bet on yourself."

Leadership trait: Working to benefit others

She didn't start out thinking, 'I'm going to manage $160 billion of a company's capital, one of the largest companies on the planet.' She started out thinking, 'I'm going to work for the benefit of others.'
Jeffrey KeislingCIO, Pfizer

Jane Wiltshire, senior director of business technology, acquisitions, collaborations and divestitures. Wiltshire, who joined Pfizer in 2001 as a manager of end-user services, also interviewed with Keisling in 2009. She had lived in many places growing up and had worked around the world. To get a better sense of who she was, Keisling asked what she wanted to be when she was growing up. "She said, 'I wanted to be a park ranger,' and I thought, 'This is going to be a short conversation,'" he recounted. Wiltshire went on to be involved in $120 billion in integration deals at Pfizer and roughly $40 billion worth of divestiture deals. "She didn't start out thinking, 'I'm going to manage $160 billion of a company's capital, one of the largest companies on the planet.' She started out thinking, 'I'm going to work for the benefit of others,'" Keisling said.

Five years ago, Wiltshire got involved with an effort to securely connect research scientists and physicians to share insights on treating diseases such as cancer and Alzheimer's, a project she branded the Alliance Engine Cloud. "It sounds like a cool technology thing, and it is," Keisling said, involving sophisticated IT systems. "But the end goal was aimed at helping the patient." Recently, Wiltshire has "invented another way to give back," Keisling noted. She started a development program that is helping IT recruit and retain talent, by convincing hiring managers to let new hires rotate through four assignments over two years in other areas of business technology.

Leadership trait: Galvanizing others

Alicia Dellario, senior director of business technology operations and planning. Dellario spent the early part of her career at Pfizer in clinical systems, mainly in the quality assurance and compliance areas. "She found a way to create a tremendous coalition of people who supported her," Keisling said, even though compliance usually means audit. He knew her as a deep expert in these fields until the day she knocked on his door and said she wanted to lead the integration of the roughly $4 billion proposed acquisition of King Pharmaceuticals.

"On that note, Alicia Dellario, consistent with the rest of her career, went looking for trouble. It was one of the most important things going on in the company at that time, and she said, 'Put me in, Jeff. I can do it,'" Keisling said, noting that she also suggested the team for the job. Acquisition integrations are tough work and tough on people, he said. At the end of the integration, Keisling said he noticed a pile of boxes sitting outside her office and asked Dellario about them. Was she moving? She said they were gifts from people at the acquired company, including the CIO of King Pharmaceuticals. "This is how she handles herself, by putting people first in a corporate merger," he said.

Two years ago, Dellario came to Keisling with some bad news; she had been diagnosed with late-stage ovarian cancer. She got well, and in the process, "she found a way to advocate for patients around the world," Keisling noted, becoming the top fundraiser for the southeastern region of the National Ovarian Cancer Coalition. About 15 months ago, the cancer retuned. "She got well a second time," he said, supported by the huge network -- Alicia's Army, as it's called -- that she had created to raise money for the disease. His three Pfizer colleagues were in attendance at SIMposium 2016. Keisling asked them to stand.

About SIMposium 2016

SIMposium is an annual event organized by members of the Society for Information Management, an association for senior IT leaders now in its 47th year. "20/20 Vision" was the theme of this year's three-day conference, held in Uncasville, Conn., at the Mohegan Sun Resort and Casino. Sessions were designed to help senior IT leaders plan for the next four years in areas ranging from risk management to financial planning, with a heavy dose of leadership advice.

How to get ahead in IT

In closing, Keisling called out these leadership traits as being essential to CIO leaders in the coming decade:

  • Takes on risk, but does not go it alone: The Pfizer standouts he profiled each "formed extraordinarily strong coalitions of people" who supported them on these risky projects, Keisling said.
  • Engenders trust, has empathy: People want to "get on the cruise," because these leaders have built up trust. It's often the case that team members remember these challenging projects as the best years of their careers.
  • Creates "binding culture": One of the hallmarks of the binding culture is the idea of "paying it forward," he said.
  • Connects with business partners: In successful business technology projects, "you can't tell who works in IT" and who is in the business three weeks into the job, he said.

Were you at SIMposium 2016? What is your view of Pfizer CIO Jeffrey Keisling’s keynote on the career benefit’s of "looking for trouble?" Email Linda Tucci, executive editor, or find her on Twitter @ltucci.

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