General Motors’ Former CIO Is Among The Most Sought After Board Members
Ralph Szygenda was one of the first star CIOs in the US. He was the CIO of Texas Instruments from 1989 through 1993, the CIO of Bell Atlantic from 1993 through 1996, and then he took on perhaps the largest IT job in America as CIO of General Motors in 2000, and he would remain in that post through 2009. Szygenda’s was among the first CIOs to be asked to join the boards of major companies, starting 20 years ago. He has been on seven boards since. Szygenda has also been quite influential in terms of the number of major company CIOs who once worked for him. Given the size scale of operations that he led, and the long period in which he was a CIO, that is not surprising.
I was curious about what he got out of his board participation, what, in turn, the companies valued from his counsel, and what lessons he might impart on CIOs who would wish to follow in his footsteps.
(To listen to an unabridged audio version of this interview, please visit this link. This is the sixth article in the “Board Level CIO” series. To read the prior five articles, please visit this link. To be alerted when future articles in the series are released, please click the “Follow” link above.)
Peter High: Ralph, you were a CIO at a variety of companies during your career. You were among the first CIOs to be asked to join a board, having joined the Sodalia Corporation board in 1994 while you were the CIO of Bell Atlantic. What compelled you to join the board of Sodalia Corporation while you were the CIO of Bell Atlantic, and what compelled them to ask in the first place?
Ralph Szygenda: Sodalia was a telecommunication software company, and at that time, I was in the telecommunication business. So it was a nice fit, where clearly, you want to add value to a board that you’re going to, and as well, you want to learn from it. They gave me that opportunity; they wanted me to come and be part of it. It had an international flare, because it also was owned to some extent by Telecom Italia and Bell Atlantic. I think it was interesting; it was the time of deregulation of the telecommunication industry and so there was a lot of innovation happening, which made this opportunity particularly interesting.
High: You were also, famously, the CIO of General Motors for most of the 2000s. During that period, a number of board opportunities were presented to you. How did you choose which ones to join and which not to join?
Szygenda: It was interesting. Clearly, there were a number of boards that wanted me to join, but during my time at General Motors, the company had an overall rule that you could not be on a board of directors. So most of all the boards that I was asked to be on, I had to turn down, just because of that. Handleman Corporation, which was a logistic supply chain company, was an exception. There was a past president of General Motors that was on this Board of Directors of Handleman, and he thought that they needed somebody like me. He asked if they could approve or let me interview for a board position on that company. They thought I could add a lot to it. There was a board level discussion about it at GM, and luckily, they permitted me to go be on that one board, and I was the only member of the officers in the company on any Board of Directors.
Additional topics covered in the article include:
- What factors in a CIO lend themselves well to that individual being “board material?” Also, what benefits did you garner from joining boards?
- Were there aspects of your background prior to being a CIO that set you apart?
- It’s interesting through several of your answers, the degree to which you’ve been cognizant of and the degree to which you have worked with end customers of the businesses that you’ve been a part of. It sounds like you’ve never had that sort of disconnect where IT was less than the rest of the organization, but rather a true contributor to the value that the company brings. Is that right?
- As someone who has been a CIO, sold to them, and advised them, what do you think of the state of the role of CIO?
- What are some trends that particularly excites you as you look in your own personal crystal ball to the future?
- As I think about the list of things you just listed off all resonate. It exemplifies just how challenging the role of CIO is, to be contemplating each of those. There’s innovation and revenue opportunities on the one hand; there’s the need to balance cost-cutting and risk mitigation on the other. As you pointed out earlier, the role of CIO is only becoming more complex as a result.