CIO Spotlight: Jim Chilton, Cengage Learning

What advice would you give to aspiring IT leaders? "Success is the best revenge!"

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Describe the maturity of your digital business. For example, do you have KPIs to quantify the value of IT? Transforming a 100-year old publisher to a digital-first education company has been no easy task and an ongoing process. We measure the impact of IT in terms of how we are able to adapt to meet the needs of our student and educator customers and ensure a valuable learning experience. Additionally, we also look to measure how well we are able to empower our employees with the understanding and tools needed make this happen. Since its launch in August 2018, Cengage Unlimited has gained 2.2 million subscribers – a platform which our technology team played a huge part in creating. The team re-engineered business systems, infrastructure and cloud services critical to accommodate 3X capacity required for the product launch. These processes in place, made it easy to “flip the switch” on allowing free access to Cengage Unlimited for all college student in April in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, an offer in which 290,000 students took advantage. This enabled 305K online course experiences (representing a roughly 70% increase from the same time the prior year). The company also helped instructors quickly set up 44,000 courses online (representing a roughly 33% increase from the same time the prior year).

The transformation to a digital first company has not been a simple process, but for Cengage, COVID-19 has accelerated the need to digitally transform the business. Our drive to digital business is not only reflected in user data of our platforms, but in our ability to move our 5,000+ global employees to remote work as a result of the pandemic. Because of technology already in place and the hard-work of our technology team, including collaborative tech such as Slack, Zoom and VPN for seamless remote networking, we were able to create a near seamlessness experience for employees’ transition from office locations to fully-remote working spaces.

What does good culture fit look like in your organisation? How do you cultivate it? Cengage has a strong culture of collaboration and cooperation, and our way of working is supported by our Ethos (Put Learning First, Embrace the Unknown, Set the Bar Higher, Do More Together and Be Candid).

My team is made up of a diverse cross-section of knowledge workers including engineers, architects, computer technicians, security analysts, project managers and business analysts spread across the United States and India. This broad spectrum of talent brings unique challenges that we address by empowering and enabling our leaders. We are an authentic organisation that is built on transparency and communications throughout the company but even more so within the technology organisation.

I strongly believe in empowering my team to lead. We must all learn by doing, even though in some cases that means failing. I empower my teams to not fear failure, but rather learn to “fail fast,” identify how to move on, and try again. I encourage transparency and continual collaboration through annual town halls, weekly leadership meetings, individual 1:1’s, and group ‘Let’s Chat’ sessions when I meet with small groups of our team even during this current time of working remotely. 

Recognition, collaboration and support are key components of my leadership style. For example, at our annual townhall meetings, we always lead with the new starters on the team and welcome them to this family. We then recognise outstanding teams who worked together and deliver incredible results. When appropriate we also recognise individual contributions that stand out, while many may be work related, we believe it’s  important to honor character or community involvement. We strive to create a team that feels like a community – they support each other during tough times such as natural disasters, personal losses, and most recently the COVID health crisis.

What roles or skills are you finding (or anticipate to be) the most difficult to fill? Hiring and developing talent is the most important thing you do as a leader. Today’s workforce needs are evolving rapidly, with some proclaiming a skills crisis. As the popular quote goes, “talent is equally distributed, opportunity is not.”

In GTS it’s important that our workforce be tightly coupled with the business. Sometimes this is a difficult profile to find, specifically in the areas of business technology solutions. We’ve addressed that need by establishing the role of technology solution partners (TSPs) who work closely with the internal business teams to rapidly produce results and drive innovation. This role, technology consulting, works closely with their customer to focus on the ‘What’, ‘Why’ and ‘When’ of the business need before working with our Engineering/Architecture teams on the ‘How.’

In an effort to be an organisation that provides opportunity and growth we have chosen to partner with Apprenti, to help us develop a pipeline of diverse rich candidates for our entry-level but high demand and hard to fill positions, in cyber-security, software development and IT analyst.  I want us to grow our organisation with new talent while leveraging our current leaders to help develop and create the teams we want and need which we have addressed by working with Apprenti. The Apprenti program which provides a proven, reliable pipeline for underrepresented groups such as people of color, women and veterans to gain training and placement within the tech industry is an important element of our hiring process at Cengage. Apprenticeships allow students to learn by doing which is invaluable for a broad range of learners. Our GTS team has brought in eight apprentices, two during COVID-19 and are planning for more next year.

Mentoring and succession planning are also important at Cengage and under my leadership we consistently evaluate and align our team with new opportunities. We coach through stretch goals. For example, when looking into filling a leadership role in our security program, we chose to promote an individual despite his lack of specific experience. Using his other skills and talents, like project management, he is now leading our security vulnerability program to help secure our products leveraging the ethical hacker community. This provided a new, previously unknown career path as a result of the trust my team had in his abilities.

What's the best career advice you ever received? Two pieces of career advice come to mind, that I try to live daily. These are:

  • Don’t forget what got you here. Make sure you become the mentor you had. I have had great mentors along my journey and one of them during a deep debate about me considering an opportunity in the business, asked ‘who are you mentoring?’ I was stuck, I was helping people and giving advice to my current leadership team but was I actually mentoring.  I realised, I wasn’t, and I should have been.  I understand now that only once I can give career altering advice to someone that I can fully receive it.
  • When in difficult situations be fair and consistent and when you can’t be fair be consistent. This advice came from another leader who I respect and learned so much from. She shared this with me during a difficult company integration.  We were working towards aligning job roles, duties, titles, globally and we needed and wanted the teams to continue, however this would require adjustments in title, duties, compensation, and was necessary to move forward. She taught me that there will be some difficult times that will impact employees and customers, when you are truly stuck, apply this rule to the situation it will never let you down. 

Do you have a succession plan? If so, discuss the importance of and challenges with training up high-performing staff. I do have a succession plan, but parts of it are not at the level I need yet. For me this is a part of the process as is all of the CIO journey. Right now, just like before, I have this incredible talented team, and talented leaders with varied level of skills, experience, interest and emotional intelligence. As each leader works on their respective targets, my objective is to have several people ready for additional duties. One of my proudest accomplishments is when I see where leaders from earlier teams are today and I look forward to sharing the same at Cengage.  

What advice would you give to aspiring IT leaders? Success is the best revenge! The CIO job is riddled with challenges, people who criticise safely from the side lines. Despite this, you must stay clear in your mission, focused in on your process, delivering on your promises and being open, consistent and honest when you cannot. The more you put your head down and ignore the FUD that surrounds those in this job, the more you will be able to use these successes as examples of why and how you and your team deliver results and outcomes to support the business. Make sure you thank your team, and tell the company of your accomplishments, especially once they are safely delivered and recognised as delivered by your customer. Too many CIO’s deliver over and over again without ever telling the company.  

What has been your greatest career achievement? I have had great opportunities at several companies, as a CIO and in other leadership positions, as an advisor to startups and a mentor to many incredible people. I am super-proud about working with Apprenti and witnessing the progress it is making in Massachusetts. I am also very proud of my opportunity to work with the amazing team who created SeniorLink, a company truly making a difference by providing services and technology to people to care for their aging loved ones. As part of the advisory team, I helped guide the technology architecture needed to support the caregivers and their loved ones.  

At the end of the day, the leaders and results generated during these difficult times and throughout my career, are collectively my proudest accomplishments. My recent 2020 Boston Enterprise CIO of the Year ORBIE Award really gave me a moment to reflect on my career. The recognition was amazing but the messages from past and present leaders I have worked with and who I was fortunate enough to lead and seeing where they are now, was the greatest accomplishment.

Looking back with 20:20 hindsight, what would you have done differently? I would have taken some more professional risk. In the past, I have always developed prowess and delivered results and teams that are capable of many things. I would have taken this approach to the company wide level – and still can. As the CIO we must learn about every area of the business we support, understand the industry we serve, what the customer needs/wants and all the internal workings that provide these things. With this unique knowledge, CIOs are better prepared to help in company-wide scenarios. As mentioned previously I have been fortunate to step outside the CIO roles a few times and learned so much more about the business. I am inspired by Steve Squeri, Chairman and CEO of American Express, who I was able to meet and learn from during a unique event in New York last year. He was their CIO before becoming CEO.  Steve is an inspiration for many CIOs who can learn from his experiences transforming the business by leveraging technology for which he had an intimate and detailed understanding.

What are you reading now? I am an avid Audible listener with a broad range of books I listen to, but my favorites tend to be in the business realm. When some people hear the classification of “business books” they may be turned off, but I love stories on strategy, business leadership and business culture. I am currently enjoying: Seeing Around Corners: How to Spot Inflection Points in Business. Playing to Win: How Strategy Really Works. The Outsiders: Eight Unconventional CEO’s.

Most people don't know that I… love donuts. My first job in high school was at a donut shop, working the night into morning shift before school. I started there as a janitor and worked my way up until I was the baker - creating and flipping the donuts myself!

In my spare time, I like to…enjoy time with family and friend, stay active, play beach volleyball and help start-up companies.

Ask me to do anything but… eat escargot or spend the weekend doing nothing.

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