The latest subject in our series is Diogo Rau, Chief Information and Digital Officer of Eli Lilly and Company, who shares the best – and worst – career advice he ever received, and the one CIO soft skill that matters most.

Steve Rovniak: How did you get your start in a career in technology?

Diogo Rau, CIO, Eli Lilly 300Diogo Rau: It really began when I was in college. I took a class in computer science and I got a B in it. That made me really mad, so I decided to major in computer science. This was back in the '90s when computer science wasn't that cool, not what it is today, to the point that I actually would lie about my major. It turns out it wasn't a good idea to tell the person cutting your hair that you were studying computer science. Anthropology majors got better looking haircuts.

From there, I studied industrial engineering and engineering management because I always liked the intersection of technology and people in actual use cases. Then I spent a few years as a management consultant with A. T. Kearney. It was 1999, the dot-com era, and like so many young professionals, I left that job, brought together several of my friends from college and started a software company. We had a fantastic time.

After the dot-com boom, I went back to consulting, this time at McKinsey. McKinsey was not yet a tech-centric place, but they were starting to get into it, and I actually did a lot of technology engagements for banks and for technology companies too. I worked my way up the ranks and eventually became a partner. Then I did the very unpartner-like thing and left McKinsey.

Why did you decide to leave McKinsey?

I got a call one day from a recruiter at Apple who said, "I want to talk to you about an opportunity that involves innovation at Apple." How can you say no when you get a call like that?

My job at Apple was to run technology and engineering for the retail stores, which was a lot of fun. They had about 300 stores at the time, which was 2011, and we added lots of new stores and lots of new technology.

You had no retail experience, so what was is it that Apple saw in your background that qualified you for that job?

It was a combination of technical depth and, at the same time, being able to work across multiple clients and stakeholders. And the cultural fit was a really, really big deal for Apple.

In 2014, when the CEO of Burberry, Angela Ahrendts, joined Apple as SVP of Retail, we brought online and stores together into one team. So, at that time I picked up engineering responsibility for online as well. Historically, online had been a very, very different culture and a very different group. Merging the two taught me that nothing really merges until you merge the roles of your leaders.

What prompted your move from Apple to Lilly?

I was having a great time at Apple when I got a call about an interesting opportunity here at Lilly that stuck out from the very beginning. The job wasn’t just about technology. It had IT, digital health, and information security, but also machine learning and advanced analytics, which I thought was really cool.

 

About Lilly

Eli Lilly and Company is an American pharmaceutical company headquartered in Indianapolis, with offices in 18 countries. Its products are sold in approximately 125 countries and include clinical depression drugs Prozac and Cymbalta, antipsychotic medication Zyprexa, and the diabetes drugs Trulicity and Humalog.

 

Is there a piece of advice were given early in your career that has helped you succeed?

Sometimes I wonder if there is more bad advice out there than good advice. But there is one piece of advice that I received from a former colleague at McKinsey decades ago that has stuck with me. His advice was, “Take the professor, not the class.”

Translated to one’s career, I think it means don't focus on whether what you are doing is the most interesting work. Instead, focus on the people that you're working with and learning from. It's much better to have a boss you like and a team that feels great to work with than a project that you think is interesting for the moment. You can work on the most interesting project in the world, but if you don't like the people you're working with or working for, it's not going to be fun, no matter what. And I give that advice to everybody now too.

Since you brought it up, I have to ask. What is some bad advice you have received?

Back when I had my startup, a former CIO I met gave me one piece of advice that never sat well with me, and I still question it to this day. Her advice was, “Never say you're sorry.” I actually feel the exact opposite. I love people who say, “I'm sorry. I screwed up. I messed that up." Those are the people that I want to work with.

What mistakes do you see up-and-coming IT leaders making?

One mistake I see rising leaders make is managing rather than leading. A lot of people think that the goal is to move up and to manage more people. But what we really need, what the world really needs, are more leaders. We need people who have a point of view, who have a vision and can inspire the people on their teams to have a vision, and to take things forward themselves.

The second mistake that I see people make is letting their technical skills get dull—their technical chops. Technical skills change quickly, and it's going to be virtually impossible to stay as sharp as you were when you were an individual contributor, but I think you have to invest time to keep certain skills sharp, and stay modern.

The third mistake I see up-and-coming IT leaders make is not cultivating soft skills. I think this is the reason why some CIOs are being replaced by people from outside of IT. Because the CIOs don't have the soft skills and have not made the connections. They are not listening, are not connecting, and don't have the relationships with all the partners.

What soft skills do you rely on most as a CIO?

It's really only one for me: empathy. That's the one that I think that I see too many people are lacking, especially technology leaders. But it’s one of the things that I pay attention to the most. For example, I never walk into a meeting without visualizing what is it that every person in the room cares about, what's going to be on their minds.

There are times when you have to be willing to release your agenda. As soon as you pick up a facial expression that indicates that that somebody is wondering about something, you have to pause whatever you're trying to get through and explore it, ask more questions and listen. I do think it's a skill that can be learned. My nine-year-old daughter seems to have been born with it, but I wasn’t. So, I've had to work at it all of my career. I had to build that up. You can learn it, and it makes a difference.

 

What is the definition of a CIO?

 

Can you describe an example of a career risk you took that ended up paying off?

At Apple, when I picked up responsibility for the online team in addition to stores, I made what was a very big, very risky move, which was to bring the two teams together as one. The problem was that the two teams had grown up for decades not related to each other at all — completely independent. They actually competed with one another and didn't share anything. And so, as a result, they had developed two completely different cultures.

The thing that really made the difference was to actually change the role of every single one of my direct reports all on the same day. I mixed everything up so that nobody had responsibilities in a single channel. There was no one left who was only on stores, nobody only on online. Everybody had a foot in both sides, so there was never going to be any more finger-pointing.

I remember (SVP of Retail) Angela Ahrendts asking, "Do we really have to do that, change your entire team all at the same time? Why take on that much risk?" As it turns out, it was probably the smartest move that I made in my time at Apple. It ended up working out fantastically well. Not only did we fix a lot of the problems, but people started designing things from the beginning that were meant to work for both the stores and online.

How long did that re-org take?

I think it was about 18 months before I did the re-org. I should have trusted my instincts much earlier on, and then I could've done it about 12 months earlier. So, I wasted a year. But from the time that we made the announcement, it was just a few months until we got everything really working. It came together very quickly.

What part of being a CIO do you love the most?

I love the hard problems and the learning. In the course of just one day, I'm switching between things like how we use machine learning to discover new molecules, to where we can put new technology into clinical trials. So right now, instead of keeping my technical skills sharp, I've been working on my science skills. I'm reading chemistry textbooks at night and trying to bone up on model-driven drug discovery

What do you find to be the most challenging part of the CIO job?

The hardest part is just time management, something that I have not cracked the code on. My days are really long. I'm not spending as much time with my family as I’d like. I'm working as long hours as I did when I was 25 years old, but it's good work, and it's all interesting work.

What is one of your most effective recruiting or retention strategies for top IT talent?

I mentioned one of the things already, which is “Take the professor, not the class,” which I think is really important for recruiting and retaining talent.

So as the leader, be the professor whose class everyone wants to sign up for.

Exactly. The second part is having really interesting work for people to do. There is something that is different about technologists compared to, say, finance people. No offense meant to my wife and the many other fine finance professionals out there, but good engineers and developers don't switch off their brains. They're always playing with something or they've got a hunger to do new and interesting things.

What do you think the role of CIO or the senior IT executive is going to look like in five years?

I feel pretty lucky because I might actually be in that role right now. I think we're going to see more CIOs reporting to the CEO, like I do, and sitting on the executive team where they’re considered an integral part of the company.
The second thing about the CIO role in the future is that it will bring together not just the IT and digital pieces, and security, but also machine learning and analytics. That is the first thing that caught my attention when I read my job description, the inclusion of the data science as well.

Is there one piece of career advice that you would offer to aspiring CIOs?

You should recognize that you're in a relationship with the organization and it needs to be a two-way street. So, if you realize that you have a CEO who just doesn't get technology, or that the technology leader is buried three layers down from the CEO, the most important career advice that I can give someone is that you need to leave. Even if you were to become CIO of that organization one day, you'd never get the chance to do your best work. You're not going to be able to develop top talent. You're not going to end up with real accomplishments to be proud of. I have seen a number of amazing people over the years who didn't reach their true potential, and it is really just because they were not in the right environment. Even if you have to make a lateral move, or take a step down to get yourself into the right environment, it will still be a step forward for your career.

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