CIO Spotlight: Paul Johnson, Poly

Do you have a succession plan? “Absolutely. Ensuring that IT staff is growing in their careers while ensuring there’s an active plan to future proof leadership of the organisation is a key responsibility of the IT leader.”

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Name: Paul Johnson

Company: Poly

Job title: CIO and Head of Global Real Estate

Date started current role: January 2016

Location: Santa Cruz, CA

Paul Johnson serves as Vice President and Chief Information Officer for Poly (the new company that’s been formed as a result of the merger between Plantronics and Polycom). Johnson joined Poly as a member of the Marketing team in 2001 to lead the company’s emerging online marketing strategy and corporate website development initiatives. After successfully leading the build-out of new technology platforms across several digital marketing channels, he returned to a role in IT.

What was your first job? I was hired as a consultant at PricewaterhouseCoopers, which is where I built the foundation of my technical skills, working on large-scale systems implementations in the oil and gas industry. Key learnings that I took from this job were the importance of customer engagement skills, working with a sense of urgency and accountability, and being proactive in order to meet customer demands.

Did you always want to work in IT? Yes. At the time I was leaving college it was clear that the IT sector was really taking off. I knew that my strong abilities in managing all types of technology coupled with my new Finance degree would position me well to make an impact… and I was right.

What was your education? Do you hold any certifications? What are they? I have a Bachelor’s Degree from California State University, Chico with a double major in Finance and Information Technology Management. All IT professionals need to keep their skills sharp and I’m no exception having become certified in several project and technology management disciplines over the years. My next courses will be focused on the enterprise approach to the implementation of blockchain.

Explain your career path. Did you take any detours? If so, discuss. A few years into my career with Pricewaterhouse Coopers (PwC) I took time off to become a volunteer in the U.S. Peace Corps in Lesotho in Southern Africa. Joining the Peace Corps was an aspiration that I had held on to for many years and did not want to pass up. The Managing Partner at PwC was very supportive of my pursuit of this opportunity and I appreciated his help to make it a reality.

I lived in a small hut with no running water or electricity while teaching small business and entrepreneur workshops with the Lesotho ministry of agriculture. My two years serving the people of Lesotho taught me powerful lessons about the strength of the human spirit and the importance of taking the time to truly understand the background and context of people and situations before taking action. Those lessons (and so many more) remain quite applicable to my career to this day.

What business or technology initiatives will be most significant in driving IT investments in your organisation in the coming year? Companies around the world are in various stages of an unprecedented journey to get a post-COVID new normal. This is creating the mandate for IT leaders to make new platform decisions that will enable their workforce and customer ecosystems to thrive in the years to come. Poly’s customers are looking for help to enable a strong sense of collaboration and connection amongst their employees whose work patterns have undergone significant changes these past months.

Our ability to design, manufacture and sell headsets and video endpoints to our customers at scale via modern, customer-centric purchasing channels is driving our IT organisation to deliver in new ways. We’re doubling down on our global eCommerce capabilities making sure we’re maintaining the flexible integrations needed to drive traditional revenue streams while also paving the way for our emerging recurring subscription business models.

Furthermore, a large part of what differentiates the Poly customer experience is tied to our Poly Lens software platform. This platform enables a hyper intuitive experience for our customers as they leverage our products across all of their communication and collaboration devices. Poly is excited to deliver these experiences for our customers and the Poly IT team is proud to be in the center of making it happen. 

What are the CEO's top priorities for you in the coming year? How do you plan to support the business with IT? Digital transformation is on the agenda for progressive minded companies and Poly is no exception. Poly is in the process of rationalising many of our processes and systems across supply chain, manufacturing, quote to cash and sales enablement. It couldn’t be a more exciting time to be in IT as we help our businesses modernise and position for the next decade. Our CEO is passionate about growing our current markets while developing in adjacent areas that our customers are asking for in the areas of AI, RPA and the Internet of Things. He’s trusting that the back office and customer facing platforms are keeping up with the high velocity pace that drives our business.   

Does the conventional CIO role include responsibilities it should not hold? Should the role have additional responsibilities it does not currently include? The role of the CIO is becoming ever more strategic with a primary focus on business performance. As technology platforms have matured and stabilised in recent years, CIOs have naturally shifted focus from operational excellence to positioning themselves as drivers of strategic change. Strategy, communication skills and relationship building are all key skills for the modern CIO to master.

Many CIOs are also being tasked with management of the physical workplace. At Poly, we’ve combined the Real Estate and Workplace Operation functions under the CIO role with fantastic results. Bringing together the teams that support both the physical and digital experience has enabled us to draw on those complementary skill sets and deliver employee initiatives in a more holistic way. 

 Are you leading a digital transformation? If so, does it emphasise customer experience and revenue growth or operational efficiency? If both, how do you balance the two? Yes. Poly is undergoing an active Digital Transformation program with customer experience positioned at the center. Putting the customer experience first is a non-negotiable guiding principle of our program. We’ll always focus to ensure our customers can buy the products they want via purchasing terms and mechanisms that make sense to them.

It’s the role of IT to understand the intent of the process and impact on the customer, and then design systems that bridge to ensure we can maintain operational efficiencies. This can be a tough equation to balance at times, but our leadership team has the experience to make the tough tradeoffs where necessary to ensure our customer’s needs are being met.   

Describe the maturity of your digital business. For example, do you have KPIs to quantify the value of IT? Our IT department runs on KPIs managing service levels, system uptime, network performance, cost and schedule metrics, and more. Modern platforms and the Internet of Things have created tremendous opportunities for CIOs to measure their service capabilities and customer sentiment in new ways. Progressive CIOs realise that this is an opportunity to tell the IT value story differently. The executive team and board of directors expect (and need!) these data driven insights and IT is uniquely positioned to deliver them. 

What does good culture fit look like in your organisation? How do you cultivate it? Culture is built when it’s consistently modelled by the leaders of the organisation. I’m proud of the Poly IT leadership team who lead with high standards that model a proactive approach, high levels of people engagement, and strong personal accountability. Operating with high standards of proactivity, engagement, and accountability is the Poly IT way. We may miss a deadline or fall short of a goal from time to time, but those standards are intended to be the foundation upon which the organisation is built and measured.

What roles or skills are you finding (or anticipate to be) the most difficult to fill? An experienced data scientist with the combination of technical skills and business acumen is worth their weight in gold. Many CIOs are having success in taking high potential analysts and developers and training them with the skills needed to become data science practitioner. This is such an exciting time for those interested in the concepts related to modern enterprise data management, and the sky’s the limit for those who want to apply themselves in this area.  

What's the best career advice you ever received? I’ve been very fortunate to have mentors who have taken an interest in me as my career evolved. While I’ve received a lot of great advice over the years there’s one concept that remains at the front of my mind to this day. During times of uncertainty there are two types of people: Those that slow down, and those that speed up. Speeding up and taking a leadership role during times of uncertainty, conflict, or ambiguity is a must for the CIO role. A leader’s ability to help teams move past challenging times and personally model this type of proactive approach puts the team on a track towards building a culture of high velocity engagement and delivery. These competencies are at the root of what’s being asked of the modern CIO.  

Do you have a succession plan? If so, discuss the importance of and challenges with training up high-performing staff. Absolutely. Ensuring that IT staff is growing in their careers while ensuring there’s an active plan to future proof leadership of the organisation is a key responsibility of the IT leader. Creating new opportunities for high potential talent is the only way to keep these high value employees engaged and avoid stagnation in the capabilities of the group. Remaining vigilant to the activities of these high performers is critical. These are the people that are often at the center of delivery for the highest value initiatives in your organisation and pulling them out of roles where they provide such a high degree of value and stability to take on fresh new challenges may feel risky.

However, committing to building a repeated pattern of change and skill renewal within the organisation will pay off in the end as high potential employees increasingly see their roles expand while having new opportunities to mentor those who are rising behind them.

What advice would you give to aspiring IT leaders? My advice for future IT leaders is to first ensure you’ve built a solid foundation in the IT practices and methodologies used to manage enterprise wide technology platforms. There are certain non-negotiable concepts related to stakeholder management, prioritisation of delivery, testing methodologies, release management, and cyber security that cannot be skipped in an aspiring IT leader’s career.

Once the foundation is built young leaders should get trained and position themselves for roles in IT Program Management. High performing Program Managers leverage their technical foundations while gaining unique perspective and knowledge about the end to end business processes that run the enterprise. IT Program Managers are also compelled to acquire the people leadership skills needed to align cross functional leaders on program goals and drive the team through the ups and downs of the delivery cycle. Aspiring leaders who build the technical foundation and then aggressively position themselves to lead increasingly large and complex enterprise initiatives will always find themselves with interesting options to grow their careers.

What has been your greatest career achievement? In 2018 I was asked by my CEO to take on an expanded role as the executive lead overseeing all aspects of integration planning and execution for the $2B Plantronics/Polycom merger. It was a very exciting time as these two iconic companies came together quickly to form this new juggernaut of a company in the enterprise collaboration space, and I was honored to be asked to take a leadership role to make it happen. Through an incredible amount of hard work and commitment the team delivered a successful program that exceeded cost reduction targets while delivering the consolidation of all major systems and processes within 10 months of the transaction close. I’m proud of the accomplishments of the cross functional business and IT teams who were central to driving this exceptional outcome.    

Looking back with 20:20 hindsight, what would you have done differently? I don’t have many regrets as I look back on a career where I’ve been afforded opportunities to work with outstanding leaders and IT professionals while on a cycle of continuous learning and professional growth.

However, one item that’s still outstanding in my career is to do a tour of duty abroad. I’ve always appreciated the unique challenges that come with managing a large global team and I know that there’s value to any global CIO to experience what it’s like to work outside of the corporate headquarters. Understanding the unique perspectives of employees and customers who operate in remote theaters would undoubtedly provide me a new appreciation for the unique challenges those teams face.   

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