E Pluribus Unum: Who Gets to Be the One?

By Tim Sullivan  |  Posted 2003-11-01 Email Print this article Print

It's hard to keep a staff motivated while cutting 1,600 jobs. The secret, says SunTrust Banks' CIO, is making the stakes personal.

When I first became a Chief Information Officer, at First Interstate Bancorp, we'd gone through quite a bit of tumult, acquiring a number of banks, including several with hefty real-estate loans. When the crash of that market came, in the early '90s, there wasn't anything we could do technologically to address the situation. We went from trying to buy other banks to suddenly asking if we'd still be around ourselves.

You'd expect that that would have curtailed everything we were able to do technologically, but it didn't. In fact, it opened the door for us to do more. One response to that situation is to lower all investments. Another is to invest more, because that will help you operate better. Oftentimes, that's the mindset that leads you out of a bad situation. We made a decision to get rid of separate fiefdoms and make thirteen separate banks operate as a single unit with common processes. We picked new systems across the board and implemented them.

Each bank had had its own financial systems and processes. Converting them all required a massive restructuring of the whole company. I wasn't CIO at the start of the process; I came in toward the very end. But over the course of five years we converted every bank onto a single set of ledger, lending, real estate and operational systems. In the process, we consolidated our technology staff from roughly 2,500 to about 900. It can be hard to keep up morale; but you keep your best talent involved and let them know they are personally in charge of creating a common system across 1,300 branches.

It was a whirlwind. Then, less than 12 months later, we were bought by Wells Fargo in a hostile takeover.

Wells didn't really want what we had become; it simply wanted our market share and it wanted to apply its business model to that. So what happens to the infrastructure that you've built? More often than not, the systems all get replaced. People are another matter entirely.

I later spent six years at Kaiser, where we also had to centralize nearly a dozen separate organizations. Healthcare has an order of magnitude more information to deal with than financial services, and it's an order of magnitude more complex. That means the ship turns a little slower. Kaiser had 4000-plus technology people and a fifty-year history of everybody running independently. That's a lot of hearts and minds to win over. Each region had its own independent technology group, its own data center, etc. If they were already compatible, it was probably just coincidence. It takes more than luck to combine systems properly, and something else entirely to deal with people.

Before I started in technology, I studied to be a priest for more than five years. There was a lot of leadership training, a lot of counseling training—calls for transcending individual goals and deciding instead to pursue the needs of the greater good. Those principles also make for a better company: People have to be willing to pitch in to do something that transcends their own individual needs. There should be (for lack of a better phrase) a "higher purpose." The more you get that kind of energy going, the better your company will be.

As you go through any consolidation-and-conversion process, you have to ensure you're winnowing in a healthy way. The people part is fairly daunting. You need to have picked the right people in the first place. You need to understand them and motivate them and reward them. You have to build an esprit de corps with the people who are actually doing the work. That's always critical, but especially as you consolidate. You can't just sweep everybody away and start over. You need to determine the players that will buy in to where you want to go. You first figure out who should be part of the team right away. Then you work with those who haven't bought in yet, but are not against the plan, either. Finally, you find that roughly a third of the people aren't going to get it, ever; they'd simply be better off somewhere else. And, eventually, they end up somewhere else.


Submit a Comment

Loading Comments...
Manage your Newsletters: Login   Register My Newsletters