Workday CIO says IT teams should get political

Madeline Bennett Profile picture for user Madeline Bennett August 10, 2017
We catch up with Workday’s first IT chief, Diana McKenzie, to hear her advice for progressing in tech. The key being to focus on the product.

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Workday hired its first CIO 18 months ago, and Diana McKenzie has been making it her mission to ensure her IT team works as closely as possible with business leaders, rather than just focusing on the technology.

Although the issue of the divide between IT and the rest of the business has long been discussed, it is still a challenge for many organisations. McKenzie believes that while companies might now better understand the concept of a transformational CIO and the need for a digital strategy, many organisations are still struggling with this in practice.

As information technology professionals or CIOs, it’s critically important that we understand our products exceedingly well. The leaders in the business we need to influence, they wake up and spend their entire day and go to bed every night thinking about the product and the growth of the company.

Often times, technology people tend to spend more of their time thinking about technology and process. The first point that I like to reinforce with my team is that if you don’t understand the product, you’re going to have a hard time developing a relationship with a business partner and being able to contribute in a strategic way around their leadership table.

What makes a great IT professional, according to McKenzie, is someone who spends time listening properly to others in the business to really understand their challenges, and also someone who can think about the politics in the organisation and develop relationships with the leaders, or at least those influencing the leaders. She adds:

A lot of my peers invest in IT leadership development for their teams, to help their teams develop the skillset to be able to interact with business partners in a softer, more interpersonal way. It’s more common out there than not.

McKenzie says she is fortunate that her current team have forged some strong relationships with their internal business partners, and are actively engaged in helping Workday’s CFO and CHRO [chief human resources officer] design their strategic roadmaps. They also engage actively with product engineering to make sure the Workday technology being developed for customers are products that the firm can use to run its own business.

The next step is to broaden this approach to other functions across the company where there isn’t an equivalent Workday product to create these relationships. McKenzie is currently focused on helping the marketing, sales and services functions to more quickly and easily get their hands on the important data and information they need to boost performance.

We’re a tech company, so in the large part they’ve been able to get by and do a lot of what they needed themselves.

But we’ve scaled to a point now where we just need more robust platforms and more discipline around how we manage some of our SaaS platforms, so we’re focused more on how do we take advantage of the data in the platforms than we are about managing those platforms. We’re spending a lot of time and energy maturing our ability to be able to get them the information they need to do their roles.

The answer to this problem is due in the Autumn, with the release of Workday’s Prism analytics platform. The result of last year’s acquisition of Platfora, Prism will let firms develop a virtual data warehouse blending Workday and non-Workday data. McKenzie says this will give all users across the different business functions the ability to take advantage of the data stored in Workday and other SaaS-based products like Salesforce, and equip teams with the information they need to do their jobs.

Diversity and decision making

McKenzie, who has worked in the technology industry for 30 years, is currently responsible for Workday’s security and global IT organisation, encompassing 300 IT staff and internal deployment of Workday products. Prior to joining the firm, she was senior vice president and CIO at biotech firm Amgen, and also held a variety of IT leadership roles at pharmaceutical giant Eli Lilly. So why the move from the science to IT sector after all this time? Not shorter bathroom queues, apparently. She quips:

One of the reasons I’m at Workday is because when our senior management team takes a break, during a senior management team meeting, there’s a line in the women’s restroom. That was one of the elements that attracted me to this company.

Workday has a “very active belonging programme” and various events that promote diversity, which are open to everyone wanting to be involved. The firm has also just launched a group mentoring programme: any female at VP level or above has taken on four younger women at the organisation, who will get together every other month to discuss a particular topic. McKenzie argues that diversity should be vital for every organisation:

Better diversity just means you make better decisions as an organisation. If we think about who our customers are and who they reflect, so many of the leaders we interact with are women.

If we think about what’s important in how we present and develop our product, and the future of work space with our product - if you have any group of people that only share one subset of a perspective, our product is never going to meet the full breadth of needs that are out there that are presented by a much more diverse customer base.

McKenzie attributes Workday’s focus on diversity and the high numbers of female executives to the firm’s CEO Aneel Bhusri, who she says is focused as much on staying connected to the 6,000-plus employees in the organisation he co-founded, as he is to customer happiness and growing the business.

One of the techniques Bhusri favours to ensure a continuing focus on diversity is to bring up scorecards in senior management meetings, which can drill down to the make-up and performance of individual managers and their teams. McKenzie explains:

Last April, he noted a trend that none of us liked – that we’ve created so many managers, but are we really doing a good job training them?

We took over 1,000 managers off-site for two full days and invested in making sure they understand how we wanted them to manage and lead the teams, and to do that within Workday’s culture. To preserve that special thing that makes people want to come and work here.

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