A two-decade, cross-industry, multi-functional career has satisfied an appetite for continuous learning and prepared Guardant Health’s CIO to take on his biggest leadership challenges.

If there’s a theme in Kumud Kalia’s career, it could be diversity of experience. He’s held leadership positions in a variety of industries, including biotech, finance, telecom, energy, cybersecurity, and software. He’s taken on varied roles both inside and outside of IT, including product development, operations, facilities, offshore delivery, customer success, and M&A integration. He’s worked through all kinds of economic cycles, business conditions, and technology advances and disruptions.

And Kalia wouldn’t have it any other way. Curious by nature and driven to learn new things, the changes fuel him. As he shares with the high-potential professionals he mentors, “If you’re learning, you’re growing, and that leads to more career fulfilment.” Kalia’s broad background has given him a solid foundation to take on entirely new challenges as CIO of Guardant Health, a precision oncology company with a mission to conquer cancer with data. Here, Kalia shares his leadership lessons from the past twenty years and advice for aspiring CIOs.

Stephanie Overby: You’ve been a CIO for two decades, through a variety of technology advances and business disruptions. In what ways do those experiences inform your approach as a CIO today? 

Kumud Kalia 216Kumad Kalia: From the beginning, I’ve witnessed technology-driven changes create profound impacts on business and society, from smartphones and social media to big data and AI. I’ve also seen some new technologies that came with hype but have yet to see widespread adoption, such as blockchain. With experience, you can recognize these tech cycles and better judge when and how to engage.

Human aversion to change is a constant. This is why we see enterprises adopt new technologies and solutions more slowly than expected. As humans, we get comfortable and dislike radical change. This is also why companies slow down as they get larger, even as start-ups that adopt new ways of doing things prosper. The lesson learned is that digital business transformations can have profound impacts but require united leadership to overcome the reluctance to change.

You’ve taken on many roles in addition to CIO. How does that broad background help you as a technology and business leader?

Understanding the business is necessary to drive cross-functional initiatives and enable collaboration across the company. I can relate to the priorities and practices within each team and help build alignment with business objectives. A major part of the CIO role is building executive relationships and negotiating to align on key business priorities, and that is easier with first-hand experience from different perspectives.

How much of the CIO skillset have you found to be portable as you’ve changed industries?

All companies do some of the same things: take orders from customers, manage contracts, pay suppliers, manage the employee experience, report quarterly earnings. The people who can do those things can do them anywhere. Since all these standard business processes are operated through systems and data, that part of a CIO’s role is portable across industries.

Then there are capabilities that are unique to companies and industries. CIOs must learn to integrate those unique functions and combine them with best practices they can bring from other industries.

How is the CIO role different, if at all, depending on the macroeconomics at play? Is it more difficult to lead IT during times of economic distress or uncertainty versus, say, boom times? Or is the IT remit to do as much as possible with as little as possible no matter what?

Economic conditions have a lot to do with how a company operates, and how a CIO can best contribute. In times of growth and low cost of capital, CIOs can move quickly to build infrastructure to scale business operations. “Doing more with less” can become a priority, leading to efficiency and profitability. Or there may be industry consolidation through acquisitions, so the CIO’s priorities can move toward M&A integration or enabling strategic partnerships.

Some CIOs like to specialize within a single part of the economic cycle, such as high-growth startups, turnaround situations, large-scale M&A, or outsourcing. Others, like me, prefer to adapt to changing economic conditions and apply the appropriate skillsets.

 

Related article:

Mark Sander of Azurity Pharmaceuticals on Leading in Times of Dynamic Growth and Change

 

You joined Guardant Health, a precision oncology company, just over four years ago. What’s unique about leading the IT organization at a biotech company, in which data drives the business?

Biotech was a new industry sector for me, and there was — and still is — a lot to learn. Multiple deeply skilled disciplines need to come together — medicine, software, genomics, engineering, biochemistry, lab operations, statistics, and others — to allow the company to innovate and bring novel techniques to cancer treatment. As CIO, I’m working with leaders from across these disciplines to help bring new solutions to market, operating the company efficiently as we scale.

Our mission is to conquer cancer with data. We keep the patient front and center in all that we do. Many at the company have been impacted by cancer in some way, so for us, it’s personal. Guardant employees bring passion and a sense of urgency. Our work saves lives by transforming cancer care and will have profound social impact for years to come.

Speaking of years to come, you’re also passionate about developing the next generation of IT leaders. How does your own career path and experience influence the way you work with up-and-coming IT and business leaders?

I’ve always considered it my responsibility to develop the next generation of leaders. In growth companies, there will be opportunities for new leadership roles, and I try to get people ready to fill those roles. More than a dozen people whom I’ve led over the years have migrated into CxO roles. It’s very rewarding to see people I’ve worked with fulfill their potential and become great leaders.

My curiosity and willingness to learn new things has influenced my career, and I encourage others to do the same. In a field like technology, there’s always something new to learn, whether it’s a new method to solve problems or a technologically-enabled disruption we need to adapt to. Continuous learning is a big theme for me.

What are the most important skills for would-be CIOs to develop?

Aspiring CIOs must transition from technology leader to business leader and become skilled in business disciplines. That may come from rotations in different parts of the business, formal education, or a mix of both. Developing partnerships with business leaders across the company is a skill CIOs get to practice every day. If you want to remain solely within technology domains, then the CIO role may not be for you!

 

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