The CIO Interview with Sonny Garg of Exelon Corp., by Martha Heller, President, Heller Search Associates.
What is the most valuable project, program or innovation your IT organization has delivered over the last year?
Given that I’m new to the IT organization, I would say it's the customer billing system implementation we did at our Baltimore Gas & Electric utility, which joined the Exelon family of companies in March 2012. Those large implementations can be challenging for utilities. But at BGE, they really did a nice job and people consider it one of the best implementations of a customer system that they've seen. It was an enormous project and touched every customer in the central Maryland BGE territory. They really pulled it off.
What is one critical success factor for IT project delivery?
It has to be change management. Think about it: You sit down with your architect and design this great new house, and the contractors start to build it. But they come back to you and say, “We may have to change this a little, and we may have to change that a little.” And in the end, where you thought you were going isn't exactly where you end up. IT needs to stay closely connected with the end user in the business.
When we were doing a large upgrade of our financial systems, we set up change agent networks of financial employees. They were not a part of the IT project team, but they became deeply knowledgeable about the system and drove that change within their business units. These are the people whom the CFO is going to ask, “Does the new system give us what we asked for?” You do not want your IT employees to be your change agents.
It is also a good idea to do periodic training sessions throughout the program. If you just give employees a couple days of training, they won’t remember most of it. Unfortunately, most project leaders target training first when they need to cut something out of the budget.
What would you say your leadership style is like?
There are probably three key elements to my leadership style. One is just being authentic. I'm not going to try to pretend to be something I’m not. I've realized over my career that the relationship between an individual and an organization is very similar to the relationship between two individuals on a date. You can take the two best people you know, put them on a date, and think they should get married, but somehow it still doesn't work. That doesn't mean that one of them is not a good person. It just means that they can't be their authentic selves within that relationship.
The same thing happens in organizations where people sometimes try to become something that they believe the organization wants them to be. But you can only sustain that for so long.
A second element of my leadership style is to be very results focused. If we don't deliver, then there is no reason for us to be here.
The third is driven by an idea I read in a Clayton Christensen article: “Management is a noble profession.” When people go home to their families at night, the way they feel in large part is dependent on how they're treated that day by their organization.
So if you can create an environment that allows people to feel good when they go home, you are in a noble profession.
What book has had a major impact on you as a leader?
If you really want to be a good leader, you should avoid books on leadership. I think good leadership is all about your personal sense of who you are; your personal identity. You can’t get that in a book.
What was the best piece of career advice you have received?
When I was a senior in college I told my mentor that I needed a five-year plan. He looked at me cross-eyed and said, “You don’t want a five-year plan. A five-year plan will close more doors than it opens because you’ll be so focused on it that you won’t see other opportunities.”
He also told me that there are three key elements to a good career: learning, contributing and enjoying others. He told me not to worry about the rest of it. If you are learning, contributing and enjoying others, good things will happen.
Did you apply that philosophy to your decision to lead IT at Exelon?
I came to Exelon 10 years ago from the public sector. My wife told me to “get a real job” in private industry, and Exelon looked like an interesting place. I am currently in my seventh job at the company. I've done everything from running finance for one of the companies to being the head of human resources for all of Exelon to running all of our non-nuclear power plants, which are powered by fossil fuels and renewables. And now I’m Chief Information and Innovation Officer or CIIO. My kids make fun of my title, because it sounds like Old MacDonald, you know, E-I-E-I-O.
Is there a technology or business innovation that you are excited about?
It's just such an unbelievably disruptive time that everything is exciting to me, but big data is probably the most fascinating. We’ve been operating the same way for so long in our industry that the predictive tools and insights that come from big data could really change things.
Big data does get a little frightening, though. With a very high degree of accuracy, Google knows where you're going to be on any given day just from your historic travel patterns. It’s humbling to realize that you're far more predictable and far less special than you thought you were.
The CIO Paradox is a set of contradictions (IT “and” the business, for example) that prevents CIOs from delivering maximum business value. How do you know when you have broken the Paradox?
First, I don't think any of these paradoxes are unique to IT. Every executive has to deal with contradictions in their role, including the CEO.
For IT leaders, we know when we’ve broken the paradox when IT becomes more of a pull than a push -- when the business is seeking us out. We want to become like a good lawyer who gives counsel to his clients. A good lawyer will be able to say, “You can go to trial, you can plea bargain, or you can try to escape to Mexico.” I think you break the paradox when the business looks to you for counsel in the same way. You can show them the risk and reward of each option, and they trust your judgment.
In many companies, people are not treating IT as a trusted attorney. They are not asking their IT people for advice. Instead, they see them as an impediment to getting things done.
About Sonny Garg and Exelon
In March 2012, Sonny Garg was promoted to Chief Innovation and Information Officer of Exelon Corporation. Prior he was president of Exelon Power where he oversaw the management, operation, and maintenance of Exelon’s fossil (coal, oil, and natural gas), landfill gas, hydro, wind and solar-powered fleet of generating assets located in 11 states and capable of producing more than 8,500 megawatts of electricity.
Before joining Exelon Power, Garg served as senior vice president, Human Resources, for Exelon Corporation. Prior to that, he served as vice president of Finance for Exelon’s Business Services Company and the co-executive owner for Finance’s $110 million Finance Transformation Integration Program. In addition, he led Exelon’s cost management initiative, which saved $350 million
Garg joined Exelon in 2002 and has focused extensively on integration work within the company, including managing the centralization of Exelon’s supply chains and overseeing integration planning work for the company’s proposed merger with New Jersey-based utility PSEG.
Garg also has considerable experience in both the public and non-profit sectors. He served as an Assistant to Chicago Mayor Richard Daley and was appointed a White House Fellow by President Bill Clinton. Prior to those experiences, he was an associate with The Chapin Hall Center for Children, a research and development center at the University of Chicago, where he co-authored a number of papers and co-chaired a new division researching efforts to improve K-12 education by increasing involvement of community organizations.
Exelon Corporation (NYSE:EXC) is a leading competitive energy provider, with approximately $33 billion in annual revenues. Headquartered in Chicago, Exelon has operations and business activities in 47 states, the District of Columbia and Canada. The company has approximately 35,000 megawatts of owned capacity, comprising one of the nation’s cleanest and lowest-cost power generation fleets. The company’s Constellation business unit provides energy products and services to approximately 100,000 business and public sector customers and approximately 1 million residential customers. Exelon’s utilities deliver electricity and natural gas to more than 6.6 million customers in central Maryland (BGE), northern Illinois (ComEd) and southeastern Pennsylvania (PECO).
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