For our My CIO Career series, Sander, chief digital and information officer at Azurity, explains what it means to unite people to pursue strategic goals, no matter their role or location.

When Mark Sander stepped into the chief digital and information officer position at Azurity Pharmaceuticals in 2022, the veteran IT leader became the first to occupy the role at the quickly growing, privately held company that specializes in providing innovative alternative dosage forms of established medicines for patients who need them.

Since that time, Sander has grown his team from three IT staffers to nearly 30 as of February 2024, with plans to expand to 35 globally in the following quarter. He has transformed and expanded the technology stack. And he has built a humming digital and technology department around four pillars: business enablement; IT operations and security; systems assurance and administration, which includes compliance and quality assurance; and enterprise data and analytics.And he has done all this while leading an IT organization and collaborating with C-suite colleagues in a multinational enterprise where employees continue to work in the hybrid model begun during the pandemic.

In a January interview for the My CIO Career series, Sander spoke about the advantages and challenges of building a team in this age of continuing remote work, what it takes to be a leader, and the future of the CIO role.

Mary K. Pratt: Is it a benefit or a challenge to oversee remote and geographically dispersed teams as a new executive?

Mark_Sanders_216Mark Sander: It is both. I have people everywhere, which is a benefit, and we are on the phone or on video chat all day long, so it is almost as if I am seated next to the team.

Where I think it is difficult is building a culture where the people near company locations work hybrid schedules with three days a week in the office when I am not working on site. I am concerned it could be seen as hypocrisy, so I make sure I have a lot of face time with those teams. If I am on site at one of our six locations for a two-day executive meeting, for example, I will spend four days there total so I can meet with the team.

I believe in management by walking around. I started my career in manufacturing, where managers and executives learn what is going on by spending time on the line – not by sitting in an office. Walking around keeps me in touch with people at all levels of the organization and two fingers on the pulse of the team.

As a member of the Industrial Advisory Board at Rutgers University for its Master’s of Business and Science Program, I occasionally lecture and I speak about management by walking around, although I believe my role is more about leadership than management.

Management is about budgets, who reports to whom, business processes, tactical things that come up day to day. Leadership is motivating people, helping them understand how they fit, getting them to work as a team, getting people to understand their roles within the team, and guiding them.

How do you know if you are successful at leading and not just managing?

I will give you an example. As part of one of my prior roles, I was co-chairing a steering committee for a project where we were building and implementing a global maintenance management and calibration paperless system in 30 plants around the globe.

I co-chaired this committee with the company’s head of global engineering. We had the team presenting information about a problem and how they were overcoming it.

After hearing the project manager’s presentation, the head of engineering said to me, “That is how an engineer thinks. Why can’t your people work that way?” 

I smiled and said, “That is my project manager.” The team worked so well together that he could not tell who worked for whom. That is the goal of good leadership.

Where did you learn leadership skills?

I learned what I know about leadership mainly in two places. The first was the Boy Scouts. I am an Eagle Scout, and I underwent and later taught troop leader training. And the second place was in my first job out of school managing a packaging line, where I had to learn to lead 50 people who were older than my grandparents and in a union.

I do not think leadership is something you necessarily learn just by being a manager, and it is not something that is routinely taught.

However, leadership can be learned, but you have to seek out environments that give you that opportunity.

Another place where I learned leadership, for example, was in a volunteer organization. I was a crew chief and officer with a volunteer ambulance corps. And because people were volunteering to be there, you are not managing them; you have to learn to lead them.

I think executives have to create situations for their direct reports to learn leadership, where they can then coach and develop their direct reports to become leaders.

 

Related article:

My CIO Career: Hands-on Involvement Serving Clients Informs CIO Sharay Erskine’s Strategy at Atlanta Community Food Bank

 

You have been an IT executive for more than two decades, most of it in the pharmaceutical industry, but also in leadership roles at a consumer packaged goods company and consultancy. What drew you to your current position?

I had been doing some strategic consulting in technology and compliance, but I missed building a team. I was coaching and I was leading, but I was not building my own team. Then I received a phone call for this opportunity, which was to build a team and grow it as the company scaled. The position also offered the opportunity to come in and build not only a team but also the digital transformation aspect.

Also, I believe the company has an interesting business model. At Azurity Pharmaceuticals, we take existing chemical entities and biologic agents and make them easier for patients to take to treat unmet medical needs.

It is also important to me that in this position I report to the CEO, because if you really want to do digital transformation, you cannot report to the CFO as is traditional in pharmaceuticals. Here, I am a peer to all the other CXOs in the company. I am an equal member of the leadership team, and not just “invited” to their meetings. That was quite important to me, because it allows me to move a lot faster on the digital pieces. However, that also brought challenges that I had not anticipated.

What are those challenges?

I now have more people to educate and convince and to be challenged by.

There are also more meetings. When the CIO is one level lower and reporting to the CFO, the CIO has more time to be hands-on and involved in the core IT mission. On the other hand, I’m in those meetings where we are determining product launches and return on investments on development initiatives, and that really helps me guide my department.

That does not mean I work any harder than other CIOs. All CIOs work incredible hours; we work the hours that we physically have available. Instead, it means now more than ever understanding how I add value to the business processes and understanding the business enough to speak about that value in business terms.

That is what got me this far in my career and helps me succeed with digital, which is all about solving business problems.

What is the advantage of owning digital as part of the CIO role?

Now that I own both IT and digital, I see that there are definitely efficiencies. As CDIO, I have a much deeper role around data than making sure it is just safe, secure and accessible. In fact, I think digital and artificial intelligence, which also relies on data, are changing the trajectory of the CIO role very quickly. Let’s face it: This is not our fathers’ IT Department. We do not build much anymore; most of IT is in the cloud. That is making the CIO role different. Increasingly the role will be about connecting data to the business strategy and operation, making it available to users and formulating a data strategy across the different applications to advance all parts of the business.

Given your early-career experience on the business side in manufacturing, do you believe aspiring CIOs should have non-IT work at some point in their profession?

Yes, I think that experience is critical, but it is also important when in your career you have that experience. I have seen senior people who are about to become CIOs work in the business in a high-level position, but it is difficult at that level to dig into the many processes and functions of the business. That experience does not help them understand what is below the surface. So I would advise those aspiring CIOs to forget salary and title for a couple of years and take a step backwards, go down a few levels, to really learn the business to the degree they should.

 

All About the CIO Role

Roles We Recruit


 

Read our weekly e-newsletter packed with career advice and resources for the strategic technology leader, and information about active searches.

The Heller Report

Add a Comment

How Shawn Harrs, CIO at Red Lobster, Developed a Template for IT Success

Apr 3, 2024

Breaking Down Organizational Silos: Harnessing the Power of Business Relationship Management (BRM)

Apr 3, 2024