CIOs band together to lift Michigan's fortunes

CIOs band together to lift Michigan's fortunes

Three years ago, when David Behen signed on as the state of Michigan's CIO at the age of 42, he knew he didn't have all the knowledge or experience he would need to do the job. So he did what he says any good leader would do -- he asked for help.

Behen sent his request for assistance to both public- and private-sector IT executives across the financial, healthcare, automotive, transportation, education and government sectors.

4 Key Goals of the Michigan CIO Kitchen Cabinet

1. Establish long-lasting strategic partnerships between private-sector partners, local governments, educational institutions and the state of Michigan.

2. Provide expert advice and assistance to the state CIO to address Michigan's specific challenges.

3. Work together on new technologies and innovation.

4. Recruit top talent to the state.

"I told them, 'I can't give you money and I can't guarantee you contracts,'" he recalls. "But to a person, they all came back and said the same thing. 'If we can work to help the state of Michigan, it's going to help all of us.'"

Thus was born the CIO Kitchen Cabinet, a unique group of roughly two dozen IT executives from the Greater Detroit area who meet monthly to discuss critical business and technology issues. Initially, their main purpose was to advise Behen on matters ranging from bring-your-own-device and cybersecurity policies to reinventing economically ravaged Detroit and the rest of the state as a magnet for high-tech workers.

But in the two-plus years that the group has convened, advice and guidance has flowed freely in multiple directions, participants say. What started as an ad hoc advisory board for the state's new CIO has morphed into a pan-industry council of IT leaders who regularly and generously exchange ideas and best practices, in addition to gaining exposure for themselves and their organizations.

"The idea at first was to advise me, and then we morphed to a group about how to move the ball forward for all of us," says Behen. It's absolutely turned into more than I ever thought it could be."

An Inside Look

On this particular day, the 17-person group convenes to hear Linglong He, CIO at Quicken Loans, a perennially top-ranking entry on Computerworld's Best Places to Work in IT list, describe how the Detroit-based online mortgage company attracts and retains top IT talent. Aside from the much-publicized all-day popcorn and pingpong games available to IT staffers, there is an employee referral bonus program, training retreats in Las Vegas, regular salary increases and other bonuses.

"But money isn't the only thing that keeps people happy," He tells the group. Every Monday afternoon, calendars are kept clear so employees can work on their own pet projects.

"We also provide time for people to be innovative," she says. "All of the conference rooms are reserved, and we have a lot of innovative stuff come out of that time. It's a productive way to provide time for employees to be innovative."

But many of the CIOs gathered here are from organizations that don't have the time, money and/or staff to allow techies to work on their own innovations during working hours. Others are constrained by rules governing union personnel. And in some cases, dedicated innovation time doesn't jibe with company culture. But despite the differences in their organizational cultures, all of the members extol the value of each and every discussion the group has had as well as the numerous benefits of meeting regularly with their peers.

"It's my view that in IT, it is always good to see and learn about other environments and arenas," says Mark Cybulski, CIO at ZF North America, a driveline and chassis manufacturer that's one of the top 10 global suppliers to the automotive industry.

"My environment is not the same as many others in the group. For instance, we use lots of software packages and computer-aided engineering and, so far, we don't have pingpong tables or beach balls here. But discussing other topics, such as hearing firsthand evaluations of Google apps or Microsoft Office 365, can jump-start your own efforts," he says.

Even more valuable, Cybulski says, is the face time with fellow IT executives from other companies.

"Meeting as a group changes the mindset around collaboration. People are willing to divulge things verbally and face-to-face that they're not going to post online or tweet about. They're not going to tweet that they just had a massive failure with a cloud supplier. But here, if someone asks about my experience with a certain supplier, I'm willing to talk about things that they might want to be wary about and share lessons learned."

Security in numbers

It takes a network to protect a network

In 2012, the state of Michigan recorded an average of 187,000 cyber anomalies every day across government computer networks. CIO David Behen took the issue directly to the CIO Kitchen Cabinet.

The issue shot straight to the top of the cabinet's priority list. The CIOs assembled their chief information security officers into a cabinet of their own to collaborate on the issue. The end result: Michigan's first-ever Critical Cyber Response Strategy, a comprehensive framework for preventing, responding to and recovering from attacks on Michigan's critical infrastructure.

Released in September 2013, the strategic plan quickly attracted the attention of the White House and was held up by the Obama administration as a model for other states to follow.

"The CISO Cabinet gave us the opportunity to learn from each other. I learned from Consumers Energy, DTE Energy, Blue Cross and Blue Shield in Detroit and others," says Dan Lohrmann, chief security officer for the Michigan state government. "We toured each other's facilities and saw how each other ran security operations. In this group there is a lot of trust. By and large, there has been a real freedom of sharing."

"The good thing about all of this is no matter how large or small the members, we all have similar problems," says Behen. "The diversity of thought and in the way we all do things is of immeasurable value. The cyber disruption plan would never have been created if this group didn't come together on it."

Julia King

Open for Ideas

Members say open-mindedness and adaptability are keys to gleaning the greatest benefits from their discussions.

Today's meeting is a prime example. Many of the CIOs seated around the large conference table can't implement a bonus program or take their teams to Las Vegas, but they have adapted some of Quicken Loans' practices to suit their own organizations.

Oakland County Deputy Executive and CIO Phil Bertolini, for example, has reworked project management schedules to include lots of creative time as a way to provide county IT employees with opportunities to innovate freely.

It's one thing to sit in your office and bury yourself in day-to-day work, but the real value and the wins come from reaching out to people across industries who are doing a like function and learn from them.

Phil Bertolini, Deputy Executive And CIO, Oakland County

At BorgWarner, an automotive components supplier, CIO Jamal Farhat, another cabinet member, has instituted innovation awards for IT employees. Daniel Rainey, IT director and CIO for the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department, is revamping job titles and classifications within his organization so that they are more in line with IT positions in the private sector.

Subra Sripada, CIO at $2.3 billion Beaumont Health System, has instituted customized career maps for individual IT employees as a retention tool. That way, staffers can see future opportunities within the healthcare provider, he says.

"It's one thing to sit in your office and bury yourself in day-to-day work, but the real value and the wins come from reaching out to people across industries who are doing a like function and learn from them," says Bertolini.

That includes competitors. The key is sticking to noncompetitive issues that affect everyone, says member Steve Pickett, CIO at Penske, a $4 billion transportation company that competes with $6 billion Ryder System, whose vice president and CIO, Greg Knott, is also a member of the cabinet.

Keys to success

Building your own kitchen cabinet

Collaboration and cooperation are at the heart of what makes Michigan's CIO Kitchen Cabinet work so well. But there are several other key ingredients to ensuring the success of such a group, members say.

"There first needs to be a rallying cry for the entire group," says Doug Wiescinski, a cabinet member and partner at Plante Moran, a Southfield, Mich.-based management consultancy.

With Michigan's CIO Kitchen Cabinet, "everybody shares the same mission in that everyone wants the state of Michigan to do well, and this was a way that IT professionals could help," he says.

At the same time, there must also be trust if the group is to discuss issues with candor. "There's an understanding with the group that what is shared in the room is meant to be kept in the room," he says. "People come back because they get the benefit of that candor. They can walk away after a couple of hours in a meeting and have a nugget of information they can use."

Certain things are best spelled out in writing, however. Kitchen Cabinet founder David Behen, the state of Michigan's CIO, says several members have had their internal legal departments review documents and ask cabinet members to adhere to nondisclosure agreements in cases where sensitive issues were discussed. But for the most part, competitive concerns have been minimal to nonexistent, and when they do crop up, they tend to be dealt with informally.

"People selectively don't come sometimes," if the scheduled topic of discussion is too sensitive, Behen says. "That's the freedom of the group."

Making sure the group doesn't get too big is another key to success, says Oakland County CIO Phil Bertolini.

"My advice is to find the right people and start small and then determine what the wins and benefits and value to be gained are by each person in the room. If it's not a win, people stop coming," he says. "We all know each other well enough that we're not afraid to throw things out on the table. If you had 100 people, you're less likely to talk."

Members also say it's essential for the group to address a variety of issues that impact everyone. "There's value in the variety, and you're always getting perspectives outside the industry you deal with," says BorgWarner CIO Jamal Farhat. "For me, it's very good to see how hospitals and banking do things versus just the automotive industry."

Chemistry among members is another component to consider. "Most of the people in the cabinet are people who [Behen] and I know, and we have been sensitive to ensuring that we all have good chemistry," says Wiescinski, who helped Behen select and solicit the group's members at the outset. "We wanted to make sure we didn't have anyone who is too domineering. We wanted people to be open, but on the other hand, we didn't want anyone talking to the press about the conversations we held."

The two also made sure to recruit a mix of leaders from organizations of all sizes in a variety of industries.

The formula seems to have worked: "My sense is people would not participate unless they got benefits," says Wiescinski, "and the fact that the cabinet keeps going on suggests to me that it's of real value."

Julia King

Talent recruitment and retention is a perfect example, Pickett says. "The state of Michigan is doing a pretty good job of attracting technical talent with all of us working together to enhance that message," he says.

In fact, today's meeting of the Kitchen Cabinet is being held in a former General Motors facility now occupied by Hewlett-Packard, which not only bought and renovated the building, but also brought with it a large number of IT jobs when it moved its public-sector business to the Detroit area.

"With a common goal, the message from Quicken Loans, Penske, Ryder and Beaumont to attract talent is a similar-sounding message," Pickett notes. "The state of Michigan now has a big initiative to attract technical talent, and working together is what has caused the messaging to be consistent."

The guidance and information sharing also extend beyond the regular monthly meetings.

"The big value out of this are the personal relationships," says Rainey. "If you get into a bind professionally, you have a group of people you can reach out to, and a lot of them have experienced the same issues you have."

"You also get a broader perspective," he adds. "One of the risks of public-sector organizations is that they can get very insular. They tend to look at other organizations just like them. I belong to an organization for municipal CIOs, and it's a great organization, but we all have the same constraints and are in the same business. The Kitchen Cabinet puts me in an environment where the people are all different."

"Members are CIOs of the organizations that are the lifeblood of this region. To learn from them, work with them and build relationships with them is of immeasurable value," says cabinet founder Behen. "I can talk to any one of these well-known and well-regarded CIOs. It can be a personal or professional matter, and I know they'll pick up the phone."

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