Amy Doherty was a four year veteran and right hand woman of the CIO of AARP when she was tapped to become interim-CIO in March of 2015. Her predecessor, Terry Bradwell, was elevated to a newly created role of Chief Enterprise Strategy & Innovation Officer of the membership organization for people age 50 and over that operates as a non-profit advocate for its members and is one of the most powerful lobbying groups in the United States. Following a highly regarded leader who would remain at the firm meant that there was not a mandate for tremendous change, but nevertheless, Doherty got to work at creating her own vision and leadership style.
She has focused continuing the evolution of IT into a value creator and innovator within AARP. She has creatively built bonds and lines of communications with her team through regular meetings with everyone on the team to better understand how things are progressing. Year over year delivery of projects is up ninety-six percent , and there have been thirty-four percent fewer outages. As Doherty notes in this interview, it is the cultural work that has been the secret weapon in her arsenal by driving engagement, accountability, and fun in the department. AARP leadership was sufficiently impressed by the progress to remove the “interim” title in October.
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Peter High: I thought we would begin with your tenure as Chief Information Officer at AARP. You began as interim CIO in March of 2015, and in October removed the interim title. You are now the incumbent of the role. Could you talk about that period when your rose to the role on an interim basis and then took it over permanently? What were some of the things you did during that period?
Amy Doherty: I think the most immediate action I needed to take was to settle the staff. They have a great affection for Terry [Bradwell], and a lot of loyalty. He is an engaging leader, and they needed to see me as personable, approachable, and invigorating in the way that he is. They were big shoes to fill. I needed to take some action immediately, so I amped up my personal engagement with the staff, and then I went on a tour with our business leaders talking about what my focus would be. Which was to be not the external AARP market and constituency, as Terry was taking that one, but I wanted to focus my effort on how I could make an AARP employee as effective as they could be, by providing the right technology, frameworks, etc. That was warmly welcomed.
I listened a lot, and I learned a lot about what expectations were of the role, and where they wanted the focus for now. I believe that served me well. I was able to make a few tweaks in the overall execution strategy to focus on the fundamentals and get things like workforce productivity on track. There was a focused and concerted effort to make sure that it stayed on track.
High: You were in an unusual situation. Many Chief Information Officers come in to replace somebody – even somebody who was asked to leave – and there is a mandate for change as a result of that. You not only followed somebody who was loved, but also followed somebody who moved onto a different role within the organization. As you were putting your fingerprints on a new IT plan, how much of it was continuity of what was already going on versus some new things?
Doherty: There was a lot of continuity, but a tweaking of the focus. Terry was a transformational leader at the time that he moved into the CIO role, and I was here when that happened, so I helped him craft some of the strategy that he put in place, which was helpful for me, because I believed in it. That was when we designed our cultural attributes. We set forth a two year IT transformation roadmap, where we wanted to re-write all the processes in IT so that we could achieve things like greater agility, heightened execution, better security, etc. He also hired new leadership, and I was honored to be asked to serve on that team as well, so there was continuity there as well.
When I moved into the position, I was already living, eating, and breathing all of that strategy, and I was committed to it. I increased the staff engagement, keeping them calm through the interim period, creating some followership for myself – if I was to be named as the permanent CIO, making sure that we were focusing on the fundamentals to allow the IT department to become more of a value provider for the organization. I do not want us to move into a back-office type of function, which is a possibility for any department or CIO if they are not paying attention. If you do not have that baseline, and e-mail and phones are not working, nobody is going to listen to you and your pitch about how you can provide more value to the association.
High: You mentioned your thoughts about culture and people development. Can you talk a bit about your approach to culture?
Doherty: We launched a deliberate IT cultural attributes program. It would include rolling out some specific attributes, and I have some of those here on a mousepad. It was a way that we wanted our staff to keep these attributes at the ready so they could understand how they could practice these behaviors. We chose eight attributes: empowerment, accountability, collaboration, caring, innovation, open and honest communication, respect, and fun. Together, they bring a little bit of magic to our department.
The way that we define innovation is that we are artists. We are creative and open. If you think of engineers, I do not think that they would think of themselves as artists, but they are creating something. They are not just coding. They are creating something that is going to be unique. You can be influenced by others in the way that artists can be influenced by others. We are trying to break down the “must be built here” mentality. As you reach out to look at commercial applications, we want to do buy instead of build. How can you be creative in that process? We found it to be satisfying to the engineer mindset that they got to do something new, creative, and innovative, even if it was buying an off-the-shelf application.
Fun speaks to itself. We talk about caring, and we define that as having each of us be more than our job. We try to recognize that we are coming to work as whole people, with all that entails. It could be that we have something going on at home, work, or our personal life, so how can we be empathetic and still work to bring out the best in each other. We have had people who have great talent come to this organization because we have that as a value. They have an interesting backstory, and they felt supported here, in a way that they felt they could do their best work, unlike in their previous company. It is not about giving people a pass, but it is about recognizing that we are human beings, not automatons coming in and trying to get through the day.
For me, that translates into having everybody receive a personal birthday card that I sign, except for those who do not celebrate birthdays. If somebody is sick, or if somebody has a close family member pass, they get a note from me. If they do something, or have some sort of big achievement, I send a note to their home so they open it in front of their family and see that AARP appreciates me and appreciates the family for supporting me at work, because sometimes that means that you are not doing something with your family because you are trying to meet a deadline. We try to be personal, and that is part of the culture. What that means in real terms is that people are more engaged and they understand that their contributions mean something. When work becomes meaningful, engagement goes up, and it is a virtuous cycle.
We also amped up recognition. We have little cards that say “You have been spotted” that every employee can give to a member of the team to say that they spotted them being respectful, or being open and honest in communication. We have a Yammer group for cultural attributes. People praise people there, or post their own accomplishments that people can like. It is a social reinforcement of the work that we are doing and how much we count on one another. We have formal awards, and performance bonuses. We also have a CIO Award that we run quarterly, and with a final annual award. There are a lot of attempts to recognize folks for the work they do and what they bring.
High: I know that another thing you have been cognizant of is keeping your finger on the pulse of the organization as a whole. You have regular lunches with a random group of people within your organization. Can you talk about the genesis of that idea and the value you derive from those conversations?
Doherty: They are tremendously helpful. I have always done that in my career – try to gather a few people and see what is going on. I am insatiably curious about everything and everyone. I find that people are fascinating. It is a little more formal now, in that we have a spreadsheet where I track who I have met with and who I might need to meet with. My goal is to get to every single employee in the association within a calendar year. I learn so much in those meetings, whether it is breakfast, coffee, lunch, or whatever. We get out of the building, so we put away the hierarchy, and the corporate trappings, and just meet as people. I learn how they are connected from our strategy, how they are connected from their understanding of the business, how they feel their work is connected to the overall goals of the association, and it has been telling, for me, to understand where the pockets of opportunity are.
Every now and then, I will get a great conversation going around ideas, but it is mostly learning what they do not know, and what they need to know. I am hoping that as we continue our transformation, and one of the functions we are working on this year is business relationship management, and the transfer of business knowledge back into IT, and plug the holes of misunderstanding or disconnection that we can elevate the conversation to what people would do differently. It is a bit of a journey there. They are satisfying to me, personally and professionally, to hear what everyone has to say. I also have a few folks at different levels of the organization that I meet with on a regular basis – folks that I have found to be particularly perceptive about what their peers or the business thinks – and I block time on my calendar to meet with them regularly. One of them is once per week. We talk about what did not get through correctly, what the chatter is, and what I need to be communicating more. That is a great source of information to me, as to where I need to lean in on one point or another.
High: You mentioned innovation as something you are hoping to encourage in your team. How do you think about innovation? Is there a portion of your team that is cordoned off to develop new innovative ideas? How do you think about stimulating the kinds of conversations that lead to ideas that are innovative?1
Doherty: The organization is also defining what we mean by innovation. Obviously, IT needs to dovetail into how the overall association looks at innovation. Certainly, in Terry Bradwell’s new role, as Chief Innovation Officer, we are learning how IT needs to support and be a delivery arm for some of the work that he will do. Innovation can be small or large, so there is innovation that is tactically focused, and some that is strategically focused. I think people get this idea that it has to be something big, new and disruptive, but incremental improvement can be innovative in its own way as well, especially as we focus on the fundamentals. Those are the most interesting to me right now, and where we are trying to focus the team. We are taking cues from Terry’s organization on how we can support innovation from a broader perspective out to the greater AARP community. We had a goal on the ITS dashboard around innovation that we wanted to put in a certain number of pilots and innovative ideas from pilots into production within the calendar year.
High: Another big priority for many of your peers is security. What is your approach to security?
Doherty: About two years ago, we had a compliance mindset for security. As long as we meet these compliance standards, we were good. We recognized that was not quite doing enough. The relationship that we have with AARP members is a sacred trust. They trust us in a way that they may not trust other organizations to have a high bar around privacy and security. So, if they give us their data, we need to be responsible with it, because they are going to hold us to a higher standard. We advocate on some of these positions and hope to influence other organizations to be as careful and thoughtful about how they think about security.
We decided to move from a compliance based mindset to what we call a constituency based mindset. We overhauled our security program. We have a two year road map to more assertively look at what our security risk posture is and then plug the holes wherever we see them. It has been fun to talk to the organization about how this is an extension of our mission, which is a cool and unique tool that we have in IT. It is not often that we can put our mission out as a carrot and say this is why you want to be careful about the technology we give you. Ultimately, we protect the data of someone that we serve. This is part of our mission, so it is exciting to be able to describe security and give someone that kind of perspective on how they can live the mission every day, just by being careful about how they use their technology.
We have done a lot of education. We do phishing exercises to see if people will take the bait. If you take the bait we are going to run you through an additional education process. We have PCI compliance. We just passed the latest version, and we are excited about that. It is a concerted and thoughtful effort around security with the frame of our constituents in mind.
High: You are clearly an example of a woman who has risen through the IT ranks in a field where many lament the paucity of women in technology. What is your perspective on this? What are the things that you are doing to try to raise the profile and opportunity of women in technology?
Doherty: That is a question that I speak on with some frequency and that I advocate for fiercely. I joke with some of my friends that it used to be that you would go to a conference and the line for the women’s room is long. When you are at an IT conference, you just walk right in. It is an indicator of how few of us there are. I was recently at the Gartner conference in Florida and I had three CIO-only lunches in tables of twelve. On the first day, I was the only woman. The next day, I had one woman. The next day, I was the only woman. There are not that many of us.
I think about why that is, and I have read a lot of research on why that is, and I sometimes convene a few executive IT leaders on panels at conferences to talk through that, and it is striking to me how many of us either delayed motherhood, did not have children at all, or have a spouse with a career that can take all the hits. You are making a dedication to your career, and somebody else is managing the house. That is kind of sad that we seem to have made these choices. I try to make sure that, on my own team, I am doing everything I can to make sure that they do not have to make those tough choices.
I also try to encourage women in college. I still do volunteer work for my college sorority, so I get access to women in college. I talk to them about the fact that you can be a Marketing major and still have a career in IT. We need all kinds of perspectives in IT, so do not put that aside. Do not think that you have to write press releases. You can be doing communication in IT, if that is your passion. Take the hardest classes you can take. This is the only opportunity where you can fail all over the place. This is learning ground. That is what college is all about. Take a few classes in technology so that you have that background, and that perspective, to put whatever your passion is and put a tech spin on it. I think about where the future is going, and I worry about folks who do not have some kind of tech background, and what kind of career they are going to have. What kinds of jobs are going to be sunset as technology takes over those things?
I also encourage folks within my network to consider what women bring to the table as a whole person, meaning what kind of responsibilities they have at home that may not be the same as what the male on their team is bringing to the table. I convene other women leaders for lunch. We call that Rising Colleague Lunch. I tell them to bring the smartest women on their team and expose them to our networks, so that they have other women who they can talk to and get mentorship from. I cannot mentor everyone in my department, nor should I. They need to be talking to other women in the department about how other women in other companies manage through all kinds of situations that we come across that are unique to women in technology.
High: As you look out a few years, in terms of rising trends, which ones are particularly interesting to you?
Doherty: In the future of AARP as an organization, defining a user experience that is cohesive. Underpinning that will be technology, so we know we are going to have a large role in that. Certainly as our CEO starts to talk about disrupting aging, and what that can mean for America, technology might move in behind to support it. Some of the work that Terry is doing in innovation with health, education, medicine, and the ability to age in place can all be positively influenced by technology. That is exciting.
The idea that we will be wearing our devices, instead of carrying them around, and how we can ensure that we have an interface that works for everyone. We do not want someone’s possibilities to be defined by their age. How do we make sure that a wearable device, or any way that we interface with technology can work for everyone, regardless of age, handicap, or any other potentially limiting perspectives? That is exciting to me, and how can we, as AARP, influence the market. When I think about driver-less and autonomous cars, what that can mean for isolation, what that can mean to helping solve hunger and food distribution issues, what that can mean for healthcare, and how technology can enable the world to continue to collapse in its restrictions is exciting. That is something that gets me jazzed up. b