‘It has always been an agenda of change and the cadence is definitely increasing.’CIO, Loren Brown

Welcome to Driving Change where we go for a drive with leading technology executives and dig deep into their beliefs, habits, routines, and influences.

Today we take a ride with Loren Brown CIO of Capella Education Company and discuss a variety of topics from the role of the CIO, Passion, Taking Risks, Brazil, and Flying Airplanes.

In this Episode:

1:12  Capella Education Company

2:18  Defining the role of CIO

3:24  Changing role of the CIO

4:43  How a CIO can go from good to great

5:40  Finding great technology talent

7:06  Looking back at memorable milestones

9:05  Challenges along the way

9:41  The impact on work today

10:59  Career impacting advice

12:45  Is everything truly changing faster?

14:33  On taking risk

17:02  The importance of developing tech skills

17:42  On seeking information

18:31  Strengthening skills

19:01  Minnesota High Tech Association and EDUCAUSE 

19:23 On balance, Piper Dakota and Harley Davidson Hummer

For more episodes of Driving Change and our other tech shows visit Lead by Change at http://www.leadbychange.com

Produced and Hosted by Jeff Martin CEO of Collective Genius

Thank you to Spyhouse Coffee Roasting Co. 

Brilliant Music by: The Heisman

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The Interview:

Jeff Martin: Is this a one way?

Loren Brown: No, it doesn’t look like it.

Jeff Martin: Yeah, sorry.

Loren Brown: It’s all right.

Jeff Martin: Why does everyone keep coming into our lane?

Welcome to Driving Change where we go for a ride with leading technology executives and dig deep into their beliefs, habits, routines, and influences.
Today, we take a ride with Loren Brown, CIO of Capella Education Company, to discuss a variety of topics from the role of the CIO, Passion, Taking Risks, Brazil, and flying airplanes.

Jeff Martin: You’re currently the CIO of Capella University.

Loren Brown: I am, yes actually Capella Education Company, which is the biggest line of business is Capella University.

Jeff Martin: Okay, so tell me about Capella Education and then Capella University.

Loren Brown: So Capella Education Company is the holding company and as I mentioned, the largest group is the university.
It’s wholly online. It provides online degree offerings to about 37,000 active enrollments. We were unique in our demographic. The average age of our learner is about 40. We’re dealing with mid-career professionals mainly getting graduate degrees. About 80 percent of our degrees are graduate, and these are individuals that are working adults that have fulltime jobs, that are trying to get to the next level in their profession.
Apart from that, we own a technology company called Sophia, which is kind of social learning capabilities. We own a UK entity called RDI, which provides distance learning to the UK audience as well as from the former Commonwealth countries, and we also have a group that provides high-end professional development to corporations.

Jeff Martin: That’s a lot under —

Loren Brown: It is.

Jeff Martin: Entity.

Loren Brown: It is.

Jeff Martin: A lot of different facets. Being in the role of the CIO, a lot of people have different definitions of what a CIO does. How do you define the role of the CIO?

Loren Brown: So I view my role as being a business leader, so by the way I have to deliver the IT agenda to the organization, but it’s important to really understand the key drivers hydraulics of our business. I don’t think I don’t feel like that. I don’t think I feel like like really [unintelligible 0:02:40] about that, and I’ve been fortunate that I have long runs in my career at different CIO roles, which is not the norm, as you probably know. I think the average tenure is about 30 months or something like that.

Jeff Martin: Yes, yeah.

Loren Brown: So with those long runs, I’m able to get a deep knowledge of the business and feel like I can contribute on just strategy and a number of other topics and the expectation is that we’ll offer and provide advice outside of our area of expertise, or areas like HR policies, financial governance. Now I also will say that in order to earn and keep that seat, my team needs to deliver, and if you don’t, your ability to operate at that level is a question.

Jeff Martin: So you early in your career, you had EDS, and then —

Loren Brown: Correct.

Jeff Martin: And then Carlson Travel –

Loren Brown: Carlson Wagonlit Travel.
Jeff Martin: Yeah, and now Capella and now you’re CIO over at Carlson as well.

Loren Brown: I was.

Jeff Martin: So how have you seen the role change and transform over time?
Loren Brown: Yeah, it’s changed from a couple of dimensions. The first is “Why are we [unintelligible 0:00:00] to this to this it’s just that the need to be a strong business leader. I think another way that has changed and it is we’re sitting in a hotbed of technology in your Prius, right, and technology sis pervasive. It’s ubiquitous, and the expectations with it have gone up, so and the technologies have spawned lots of new business models like Uber, for example, and so the technology is becoming a key strategic endeavor. It’s almost every business model.
I think the other dimension that’s really interesting is that I think there are some global aspect to every CIO shop at this point. So we used to live in a marketplace where most of the software and hardware was developed within the US boundaries, most of the labor pool came from within the US and most of the customers that we served were US citizens and that has completely changed, right?

Jeff Martin: Uh-huh.

Loren Brown: There’s a global dimension to that role and now that needs to be taken into account. With that comes the need to understand that part of how to perform in that capacity.

Jeff Martin: A lot of changes happened. Being a CIO and kind of going through these changes and evolving, there are some CIOs that are competent, and they’re good at what they do. They do a good job, and then there are CIOs that are I would consider great. What do you think makes the difference between a good CIO and a great CIO?

Loren Brown: So I think probably the key element is passion, right?

Jeff Martin: Yeah.

Loren Brown: And striving to operate at the highest level in your industry or vertical, so being better next year is not a good standard to set, right? You want to find out what does best in class look like, what does world class look like, what it will take to win in this marketplace, and then develop a set of priorities aligned with your business strategy and have a team, have the talent that connects you to that strategy. I think the most important in any CIO’s job is to have an awesome team and to retain them, to motivate them, and that’s no easy feat.

Jeff Martin: No, it’s not.

Loren Brown: It’s hard.

Jeff Martin: How do you find great talent and keep that talent?

Loren Brown: So I think that there is multiple ways to do that, but I think one is that when you’re working with knowledge workers, which is what we’re working with here, you need to neutralize the compensation, right?

Jeff Martin: Yeah.

Loren Brown: So you have to kind of pay your own market, but then I think giving them a long rope, enabling them, setting challenging objectives, but then getting them lots of latitude to operate within that will bring their talents to bear, motivates knowledge workers. Also I think it’s really important with knowledge workers and IT talent that they have context, right? You can’t just tell them to do something. You have to provide the rationale and make sure that that’s understood. I think that’s very helpful and then I think it’s also having an innovation agenda, right? We have one in my current job. We had one in my previous job, and in my previous role innovation really is critical to the business model. We were founded on innovation agenda to provide access to higher education. We view that we have to continue to be at the forefront of that, otherwise, if ever it went wrong with that degree from St. Thomas or the University of Minnesota, so somehow we have to innovate and I will differentiate the traditional competition or we don’t thrive.

Jeff Martin: Looking back in your career, a lot of people have a lot of certain points of time that they reflect back on or memorable to them, different mentors that they worked with or different times it was challenging, or different aha moments. Can you think of a time that was a real challenge to you and something that you’re trying to solve and kind of figured it out?

Loren Brown: Yeah, a couple of thoughts come to mind, so one is I’ve been really fortunate to work with some really excellent CEOs and learning a lot from their leadership style. I say one of the biggest challenges I’ve met in my career was in my previous role, the company was sold Carlson Travel Group, and it was formed through a merger with Wagonlit Travel. It was based out of Paris, so it was kind of odd pairing in the first place, right? A Minneapolis-based family business or private owned business with a publicly traded based in Paris, right?

Jeff Martin: Uh-huh.

Loren Brown: We collectively didn’t know how to make that work. There were different people with different agendas. We didn’t know how to behave [unintelligible 0:08:15] as an organization. We didn’t know how to create a high-performing team, and on the one side, it was –

Jeff Martin: A lot of different stuff going on.

Loren Brown: Absolutely. On one side, our organization 10-1 continue to operate the way it always did where it’s human nature.

Jeff Martin: Yeah, yeah.

Loren Brown: And have a very local presence and a very strong country market kind of perspective. That’s not what our major customers were asking us for. They were asking the GEs and the Accentures of the world. They wanted us to provide a global program that met their needs, so that took a lot of intestinal fortitude among the leadership staff to really drive and transform that change and I was a big part of that and he had to do that with my organization and that we made a lot of mistakes. I’d say this was mid 90s where there wasn’t really a good playbook on how to do this, so we were figuring out as we went and we got there and —

Jeff Martin: What were some of the mistakes that you made?

Loren Brown: I think the biggest mistake people make is not listening enough, so everybody has a perspective and needs to be understood and that needs to be valued. Then if we’re going to go for a different direction, again back to the context, you have to provide the rationale for that, but then you also need to have the executive team locking arms on that, right?

Jeff Martin: Uh-huh.

Loren Brown: We didn’t have for a period of time, which made it really hard and we got there eventually.

Jeff Martin: So not everybody was rowing in the same direction?

Loren Brown: Exactly, exactly.

Jeff Martin: Yeah. Going through that, how do you work differently now?

Loren Brown: I emphasize communication much more than I probably did in the past. What you find working with global teams is a lot of things that we would take for granted because they were all on people’s ability to comprehend and understand. You have to remember, too, a lot of times you can’t see the person, right?

Jeff Martin: Yeah.

Loren Brown: As you’re doing with your conference calls, so you don’t have the opportunity what you’re doing with your conference calls, so you don’t have the opportunity with nonverbal communication. Another thing is you get making sure the communications are clear, making sure that they’re consistent, making sure that you do that both verbally and written, then amplifying and repeating those messages and back to the listening. Listening – making sure that you take the time to listen and paraphrase, and actually understand when somebody says something, you actually understand the essence of what they’re saying.
I think the other thing I learned from that is valuing different cultures and different points of view, I think one of the problems with being a US citizen a lot of times we think we got it all figured out and we’re teaching the rest of the world how to do it our way. What you find the more you look is it’s a big complicated global marketplace. There are great ideas everywhere so how do you find those ideas, how do you reap those ideas, and how do you implement those ideas.

Jeff Martin: You listen.

Loren Brown: Absolutely. Listen and synthesize and execute.

Jeff Martin: Can you think back any advice from someone else that you worked with early in your career that some advice is just stuck with you and that you kind of look back?

Loren Brown: Yeah, I mentioned one already, right? So if you’re going to play the game, play to win, and you end up at the top of the game in the middle of the game, so that’s one I think one other thing that really stuck with me in a big way is the need to have really strong well-articulated business strategy. I’ve been with the organizations that didn’t have that and it’s really hard to them framework to make for organization decisions and determine what really matters, right?

Jeff Martin: Uh-huh.

Loren Brown: And so that’s like a way I look at a strategy is your playbook on how to win, right? The true test of a good strategy is if you can stop anybody in the elevator, and then asked him about the strategy and they can talk to you about the key tenets right about how we’re going to win. Then you have it’s really embedded and cascade within your organization.

Jeff Martin: Is that something that you guys document can you give out? I mean how do you really burn that message into —

Loren Brown: Yeah, so we go through or planning process and then really be at the strategy and consider this as a competitive landscape, and it comes up with key priorities, right, that are related to that and then we translate that into a set of tactical plans, which then after that becomes next year’s OP operating plan. We along the way communicate that. we solicit feedback from a lot of the key stakeholders. We do involve [unintelligible 0:12:31] town hall meetings and department meetings and I just want to keep reinforcing the key messages around that.

Jeff Martin: What is said though, you document it, two cascading messages?

Loren Brown: We do, then we execute like crazy.

Jeff Martin: Okay, okay. I think everything is changing faster, and faster.

Loren Brown: It is.

Jeff Martin: Right, and that’s the question I wanted to ask you is it or hasn’t it always felt?

Loren Brown: No, it won’t [unintelligible 0:12:54] it’s always been an agenda to change, yeah? If you want to be a CIO or even a technology group, if you don’t like change. It’s not a good place for you. But the games is definitely interesting, the complexity of games, I have increased overtime. I think we’ll continue for some period of time.

Jeff Martin: There’s no parking here. Now I’m going in the wrong direction/

Loren Brown: Sooner or later it was going to happen.

Jeff Martin: I’m in a parking lot.

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