As the SVP of IT and HR, Shellen Quish provides leadership over two functions that not all business leaders would see as logical pairings.
by Peter High, published on Forbes.com
Information Technology and Human Resources are corporate divisions that have been quite different historically. When Ameristar Casinos CIO Sheleen Quish was asked to take over Human Resources as well, it might have seemed to be a strange combination, but always an autodidact, she threw herself into her new role, and uncovered many similarities between these traditionally disparate departments. In the process, she transformed each to be more proactive, more consultative, and more cognizant of its contribution to the overall value to the company. As it turns out, Quish has long looked to have a broad set of responsibilities, and has constantly sought opportunities to broaden the value she could offer to each company for which she has worked. In the process, she has become a model CIO-plus.
(This is the fifth in the CIO-plus series. To read the prior four interviews with the CIO-pluses from Waste Management, McKesson, Merck, and Red Robin Gourmet Burgers, please click this link.)
Sheleen, having started your career in business roles of various kinds, how did you find yourself in IT leadership roles?
After working for several years in marketing for Blue Cross Blue Shield of Kentucky, I had the opportunity to transition into operations which gave me a new understanding of the company’s day to day challenges and our customers’ frustrations. I was immediately motivated to look for ways to drive improvements, lower costs and reduce the layers of management. Since I lacked operations experience, my approach was to go to the people who did the work and ask them for advice on how to make things better. Eight out of ten of the problems brought to my attention were rooted in how systems or processes worked. We tackled a number of these process failures together with very effective results. What I learned through this experience was how critical IT was to the internal operations of the organization. I also discovered that the IT department was the least motivated to work with the business; furthermore, this department was the most poorly managed, which meant its team members had negative attitudes, poor morale and were not working to their fullest potential.
My solution was to go to the CEO and offer to manage IT along with the other operational departments. The CFO in charge of IT happily relinquished IT to focus on other projects. First I hired a successful CIO from another industry. As an Executive Vice President, I was now managing Human Resources, Facilities, Claims Processing, Customer Service, Billing, Medicare Operations and IT. All departments were working together, making things happen and making them happen quickly. We became known as a high performance, agile and low-cost operation. The reputation I earned in Kentucky, led to my recruitment to CIO of Blue Cross Blue Shield of Illinois, an organization four times larger. They saw that I could align IT with operations, which 20 years ago was a new concept. Beginning my first role in IT as the CIO seemed like career suicide, but I just did it. I stuck to the same driving principles that made me successful: build relationships and deliver good project management so that things get done and internal customers’ expectations are met or exceeded. The trick is having an outstanding cadre of team members who are committed to that same goal.
Additional topics covered in the article include:
- Although IT departments may still be dominated by men; the contrast was even starker when you first joined. Who did you look to as role models?
- IT departments have historically been order-taking support organizations. You have taken over multiple departments that could be described in this way. What changes have you enacted to render IT more proactive, consultative, and strategic to the business?
- HR has historically been perceived to be the photo negative of IT: non-technical, more diverse in terms of educational backgrounds, and a department where women executives have been the norm to a greater extent. What was the logic of having the IT executive take over HR at Ameristar Casinos?
- What is it about your background that made you a logical person to have both of these roles, and what lessons do those factors offer to others who might follow in your footsteps?
- Could you envision an HR executive who would take on the CIO as their second executive role, which was the reverse of your order?