Bruce Parker believes “running IT like a business” at United Airlines allowed him to take on multiple board positions and ultimately the role of CEO at a small package express cargo airline.
Bruce Parker has had a remarkable career for someone so humble and unassuming. I have not met many CIOs or CEOs (and he has been both) who are so comfortable in their skin and who have understood their strengths and exploited them while also analyzing gaps in their personal toolkits and filled them, as Parker has done.
Parker spent much of his time at two major airlines, American Airlines and United Airlines, as well as at Ryder. He was the CIO of the last two. While at United Airlines, he was asked by Sapient to join its board. So began a successful career as a member of multiple boards of directors. He finally ascended the corporate ladder beyond CIO to the CEO role of AirNet Systems, a small package express cargo airline.
Perhaps Parker’s greatest legacy has been the number of IT leaders he groomed. He not only left strong successors in place at Ryder and at United, but members of his team have become CIOs or CTOs at companies like ADP, Northern Trust Bank, A&P, Sabre, and Ecolab. Parker describes his path in our interview herein.
(The “Beyond CIO” series kicked off with this article, and the all past interviews in the series can be found here. If you are interested in future articles in the series with executives from companies like HP, Symantec, Schneider National, Fifth Third Bancorp, Ameristar Casinos, and Aetna, among others, please return to the Technovation column in the coming weeks.)
Peter High: Bruce, you were the CIO of Ryder and of United Airlines. You then went on to become a board member of companies, including Sapient. How did you make the transition from IT executive to board member, and what advice would you offer to other IT leaders looking to make the same jump?
Bruce Parker: When I began my career, I did not set off to become a CEO or a member of a board of directors, but I also did not want to limit myself to be just the internal IT person either. I wanted to be in management in a progressive business. Early on, one of the things I did was to get an MBA so that I would be more familiar with business disciplines and have the credibility that comes with that degree. I wanted to know as much about the P&L as I did about ones and zeros.
As a result, when I rose up the IT chain, I did so not just thinking about my role as an order taker or as just an internal service provider, but also as a business leader and change agent. This continued when I became a CIO. I wanted my staff to innovate and to think about and to create business value in what we were doing. I pushed and led my colleagues in other divisions to develop and articulate their strategic plans jointly with us so that we could more definitively provide that value and weave technology through investments that would bring those plans to life. I also pushed my colleagues inside and out of IT to develop success metrics so that we all knew how we defined success.
One other factor that is important to note is that you have to like people. CIOs have not been a social bunch historically. Many prefer to work and think alone. This has limited the careers of some really talented folks, in my mind. It is always important to remember that you are in this business with your peers, and that you are partners in joint success. They and the business need your leadership. I always made a point of getting to know my peers and superiors socially, which helped our interactions professionally and actually made business fun.
As for the topic of boards, there are many companies that serve and sell their services and products to the CIO community and to IT departments generally. They are hungry for insights into how the CIO thinks and works, and how he or she makes decisions. Of course, it is important that you not join boards just to do so; you should only do it if you believe in the company, its leaders, its ethics, and the products or services that they sell. Your involvement should also not be read as an agreement by anyone that you will necessarily use their products or services. As a CIO, one needs to be flexible and unbiased and as a board member, one needs to be independent.
Additional topics covered in the article include:
- What steps would you recommend for others who would aspire to join boards?
- What role did you fill in on the board that others who were not IT executives could not? Put a different way, what is the unique value of having a CIO on the board of a company in your mind?
- You went on to become the CEO of a leading small package express cargo airline called AirNet Systems. How did you draw on your experience as CIO in this new role?
- You obviously had prior airline experience, not only from your days at United, but also from earlier in your career at American Airlines. Moreover, AirNet had a technology and logistics component to the business. Is a lesson for CIOs who would hope to become CEOs one day that they should attempt to do so in industries where they have experience and at companies where technology is a big part of the value proposition?