Forbes The CIO’s First 100 Days Series: Jay Ferro

October 28, 2013
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CIO On A Mission At The American Cancer Society

by Peter High, published on


Jay Ferro joined the American Cancer Society with a very personal connection to the disease.  He lost his wife to cervical cancer in early 2007. She had, in many ways been his inspiration to become a CIO, as she was his cheerleader, and someone on whom he could lean as he pursued an MBA while working full-time. He established a foundation in her honor called Priscilla’s Promise. Despite his connection to the disease, he did not actively seek this opportunity. He had been a CIO twice over, once at a division of AIG, and later at AdCare Health Systems. When he was approached to join the team, he had many of the preconceptions (and as he later learned, they were truly misconceptions) about non-profit organizations and their ability to drive value efficiently.

In fact, as Ferro notes in my interview with him herein, he would be called upon to drive just such a transformation. American Cancer Society’ s IT department had been very diverse, and therefore very inefficient. In his first 100 days, a big part of the plan that he created was to develop more of a common IT model, exerting much more influence from the center, and in the process, rendering the operation more efficient, and enhancing its ability to create value for the American Cancer Society more broadly.

(To listen to an extended audio interview with Ferro, please visit this link. This is the ninth article in the CIO’s First 100 Days series. To read the prior eight articles with the CIOs of companies like Intel, Time Warner, Caterpillar, and J.Crew, please click on this link. To read future articles in the series featuring the CIOs of Johnson & Johnson, SpaceX, Viacom, Amtrak, and AmerisourceBergen, please click the “Follow” link above.)

Peter High: Jay, you joined the American Cancer Society early last year.  Your prior experience was in the private sector.  What have you found to be the differences between the for-profit and non-profit worlds when it comes to managing IT?
Jay Ferro: I was very surprised to find that a large non-profit actually has more in common with a large corporation than it has differences.  That said – there were two interesting distinctions that were apparent right away:

  • Passion:  While not exclusive to a non-profit, passion for the firm’s mission can be a powerful ally in accomplishing common goals.  In the American Cancer Society’s case – eradicating cancer as a world health problem and literally saving lives – is something that infuses everything we do.  It’s very much a lens that we use to determine value in the initiatives that we take on.  How do we do the best for the most, given that resources are precious and finite?
  • Business Process & Culture:  There are certainly many examples of good business process in non-profits and bad business process in for-profits, however on the balance I think non-profits are a bit behind on the maturity curve.  In some cases that might be because of outdated organizational constructs that prohibited optimization, or perhaps just cultures that are far more consensus-driven than they perhaps need to be in an era that requires far more speed and agility.  Because of our former multi-divisional structure, American Cancer Society was not positioned to move rapidly – decisions were slowed because of multiple touches (everyone gets a “say”).  Today – as one global American Cancer Society – we’re freed from those constraints, but the move to quicker decision-making takes significant change management and education.  A CIO leading this kind of change must have credibility and enough organizational gravitas to be successful without it seeming like a power grab.   Once the benefits of more efficient business processes begin to materialize, the benefits prove to be compelling enough to drive additional change through the organization.

Additional topics covered in the article include:

  • How did you prepare for the role, and whose counsel did you seek?
  • Once you started your job, how did you prepare, and what were your early priorities?
  • How solid was the “as-is” of the IT department mapped out when you joined?  Were there organization charts, skill inventories, infrastructure roadmaps, enterprise architecture, governance practices documented, IT strategy documents, and the like?
  • How much was there to be leveraged versus that which you needed to create anew?
  • What metrics did you put in place to gauge the progress of your team in those early stages, and are they still the metrics you use?
  • If you were to start over, what would you do differently?
  • What are your priorities for the foreseeable future?

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