The CIO Interview with Kristy Folkwein, CIO at Dow Corning, by Martha Heller, Heller Search Associates.

Kristy Folkwein, CIO, Dow CorningIn the last year, what is the most valuable project, program or innovation that your IT organization has delivered?

Innovation is the lifeblood of Dow Corning. With the challenges in the global economy and the chemical industry over the past 12 months, we have had to become much more disciplined with process standardization, which, in turn, enables further innovation for our customers.

One of our foundational projects has been putting in place a funding allocation committee, which I co-chair, that is made up of the CEO, CFO, the company’s business leaders and the owners of our 11 key processes.  The committee recently met and reviewed a portfolio of the most valuable opportunities for 2013, and where we want to invest.

We have also built a project management office that spans the entire enterprise, not just IT. With the EPMO and the funding allocation committee in place, our executive group together can make investment decisions across our enterprise.

Before establishing this process, we faced the same challenge as many other companies: too many opportunities. Now, decision-making takes place at the right level of the company. We are able to make big investments and expect bigger payoffs rather than taking 1000 bites out of 1000 apples.

"In addition to IT, I am being asked to lead enterprise business processes, enterprise PMO and shared services.  That’s one way I know I’ve broken the CIO paradox."

What advice do you have for establishing a funding allocation committee that is as effective and engaged as yours?

It starts with the CEO. If you don’t have the CEO with you every step of the way, you will not engage the rest of the company. In my career, I’ve worked for CEOs who viewed IT simply as a cost to be incurred and others who could clearly see the power of IT-enabled common processes. As you can imagine, when the IT organization is empowered and supported, their ability to deliver results is incredible. I’ve seen that first-hand. As I was making my choice to join Dow Corning, the vision and engagement of the CEO made a huge difference in my final decision.

How would your team describe your leadership style?

I set very high expectations and drive for results. I clearly articulate what we are trying to achieve and the problems we are trying to solve – and I hold people accountable to deliver it. But, I don't ask them to do anything I'm not willing to do myself. I am right in the trenches with them.

What career advice would you give to other leaders?

About 10 years ago when I was leading the IT group at my prior job, I was heavily involved in day-to-day operations. I was asked to take on an additional role, but because I didn’t know a lot about this new role, inevitably it was going to take up a lot of my time.

I had to really depend on my key leaders in IT while I put the majority of my focus on the new role. What I discovered during that period of time - and I didn't know this until I saw it all play out – is that I didn’t have to be the single point of contact for my team anymore.

When I pulled myself out of the middle, my senior leaders started to work directly with each other. Removing myself from the day-to-day operations allowed our IT organization to become so much more powerful. Our team was much more cohesive and worked well together.

So, the advice is: "Rather than helping your leaders solve all of their day-to-day problems, expect them to work together to solve problems and bring you recommendations." 

When you are interviewing senior level candidates, do you have any interview questions that you typically will use to find the right cultural fit?

Dow Corning's culture is a very special one, and it takes a specific type of person to thrive here. Our culture is not command and control. It is extremely collaborative. Command and control leaders will not survive here.

When we recently hired several senior leaders, we assigned each candidate a case study and asked questions about how they would approach it.  This allowed us to see how the candidate thinks and how they interact with the rest of the team in their decision-making style. It also showed us whether they were collaborative, if they could accept input, if they were willing to hear new ideas. That case study approach turned out to be a very valuable tool.

Allowing your team to work together demands some patience on your part, which is often antithetical to a CIO’s desire to dive in and produce results.

Every new CIO wants to hit the ground running. Slowing down and thoroughly assessing the situation can be a difficult thing to do, especially when you have executive leaders asking you to move quickly. It can be challenging to stand firm and take the time to make those changes.  But, the better aligned you are with the company’s executives, especially the CEO, the better able you are to take the time you need to set up the right organization.

If you didn't become an IT leader, is there another profession you might have pursued?

I would have loved to have been a stockbroker.  I have a master's degree in Finance and am fascinated by the financial markets.

The CIO Paradox is a set of contradictions (operations v. strategy/cost v. innovation, eg.) that can prevent CIOs from delivering maximum business value.  How do you know when you have broken the Paradox?

At Dow Corning we have not fully achieved this yet, but we are well on our way. 

I am valued for much more than my IT knowledge. In addition to IT, I am being asked to lead enterprise business processes, enterprise PMO and shared services.  That’s one way I know I’ve broken the CIO paradox.

About Kristy Folkwein and Dow Corning

Kristy Folkwein joined Dow Corning as Vice President and Chief Information Officer in 2010. Prior to joining Dow Corning, she served as Vice President of Information Technology at Ashland, Inc., a Fortune 500 diversified chemical company with headquarters in the U.S. and operations in more than 100 countries worldwide. While at Ashland, she helped lead eight successful implementations of SAP within North America, Europe, Middle East and Africa, and Asia Pacific.

A global leader in silicones, silicon based technology and innovation, Dow Corning offers more than 7,000 products and services to 25,000 customers via its Dow Corning and XIAMETER brands. Dow Corning is equally owned by The Dow Chemical Company and Corning, Incorporated. More than half of Dow Corning’s annual sales are outside the United States.

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