How Helen Cousins Became CIO And Board Member Of Lincoln Trust
Helen Cousins represents the quintessential curious networker that a chief information officer ought to be. Until recently, she was the Executive Vice President and CIO of Lincoln Trust Company. She was also a board member of the company. Prior to that, she was CIO both of Dex Media and of Cendant Corporation. She was also in the 2012 class of CIO magazine’s prestigious CIO Hall of Fame. You would think then that she was destined to be a CIO from the outset of her career. Far from it.
After Cousins graduated from high school, she became the receptionist for a bank. Realizing she could do those duties pretty easily, her curiosity led her to other departments of the company, slowly learning how each department fit with others. She began filling in for people if they were away on a temporary basis. She eventually received a bachelor’s degree and then an MBA, but it was this curiosity to understand businesses that began when she was the most junior person at a bank that has served her well as she has risen. Upon becoming CIO, she realized that an ability to network through the organization, and to find common needs or opportunities articulated in multiple parts of the organization, tying them together before the leaders who articulated them realized they could be that set her apart as an extraordinary leader. She is a rare CIO to become a board member of her own company, but that was the role she played at Lincoln Trust. Although Cousins has many skills that are innate, and therefore tough to teach, she nevertheless imparts a great many insights in my interview with her for IT executives who wish to follow in her footsteps.
(To listen to my unabridged interview with Helen Cousins in podcast form, please visit this link. This is the third in the Board-Level CIO’s series. To read the first two, please follow this link. To read future interviews in this series with the CIOs of companies like Cardinal Health, Texas Instruments, and Capital One, please click the “Follow” link above.)
Peter High: Helen, you have a non-traditional path: You don’t have an engineering degree, you didn’t grow up in the IT department and you didn’t have a lot of female IT leaders to look up to. Can you tell us a bit about your path to the CIO role?
Helen Cousins: I do have a pretty non-traditional path. My first job was right out of high school as a receptionist for a small international branch of a domestic bank. I always volunteered to learn what other departments were doing. We were very small – only about 30 people – so there was always somebody I could fill in for. I really learned how all of the departments interact together, how important it is as a task flows from one department to another department and to look at the end-to-end process.
As I started moving up, I decided to get my BS in Accounting & Economics and an MBA in computer science. I got involved in IT as a Project Manager for a System Implementation in one of the largest global banks because of my knowledge of the different areas in banking. Once that was successfully implemented, I found myself getting more responsibility until eventually I was running all the development for the bank within the US as the only female VP before leaving. My career in IT was really cast from there and I have since held three CIO positions: Corporate CIO of a large New York holding company, then a large yellow page company in Denver and lastly, Lincoln Trust.
Additional topics covered in the article include:
- Historically, many people have risen from programmer all the way to the top chair in IT. I imagine coming with a broader perspective on the financial services industry and how the business actually operates gave you a more well-rounded perspective on that role?
- When you began your current role of CIO of Lincoln Trust, the IT department had a contentious relationship with the rest of the organization. Can you share some of the processes or methods that you used in order to turn IT’s reputation around in the business?
- I know you are passionate about and cognizant of the fact that IT leaders and IT teams tend not to be very good marketers of their accomplishments. You believe successes should be celebrated/marketed across the organization so the reputation heads in the right direction. Can you talk a bit about your methods?
- CIOs who are on boards of their own company or outside boards are still a rare, although growing, phenomenon. Can you reflect on your journey to becoming a board member and some of the things you lend your company as an IT Executive that rounds out the perspectives of the board?
- Do you have any thoughts, especially now that you are counseling other CIOs, as to what sorts of things CIOs might do in order to increase their chances of becoming board level CIOs?
- It strikes me the degree to which you have a clear and deep understanding of business operations and marketing basics and can translate that to terms both IT and the rest of the organization will understand. Perhaps, a reason why other IT executives tend not to rise to board level is that they speak a different language, have a different skill set or simply don’t understand what it is like to run a P&L and translate those things from an IT lens back to that of the business. Is that a fair assessment?
- In light of the divestiture of many sides of Lincoln Trust, you advise other CIOs. Obviously the nature of those conversations are confidential, but now that you have a great network of IT leaders, are getting into the knitting of specific plans and strategies and assisting and consulting to CIOs, what perspectives do you have about the evolution of the role, where it stands now and where it is going?
- Are there any technology or business trends that you find particularly exciting and remaining abreast of in terms of their adoption into companies or even pushing for their adoption yourself?