CIO Spotlight: Alwin Brunner, Heidrick & Struggles
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CIO Spotlight: Alwin Brunner, Heidrick & Struggles

Name: Alwin Brunner

Company: Heidrick & Struggles

Job title: Chief Information Officer

Date started current role: June 2009

Location: Chicago, IL

Alwin P. Brunner joined Heidrick & Struggles in 2009 as Senior Vice President and Chief Information Officer. Having worked and lived in the Netherlands, France and the U.S., he brings more than 17 years of broad business and IT experience in the professional services industry. Based in the Chicago office, he is a member of Heidrick & Struggles' senior leadership team.


What was your first job? My first job was in sales with a focus on high security products targeted at central banks, large industrial institutions and nuclear power plants, among others. Being in sales provides you with an education and experience that is hard to get elsewhere, and it helps if you like working with people, like I do.

Did you always want to work in IT? Not initially, but my time in sales ultimately led me on the path to do something different. A friend contacted me for help salvaging a large, client-facing project for a leading temp staffing company, which is how I got acquainted with tech. The project was an internal, company-wide initiative across the U.S. and Europe, and my success in overseeing the business unit budget, delivery and quality in the Netherlands led me to an opportunity in senior management within the staffing company.

What was your education? Do you hold any certifications? What are they? I hold a bachelor's degree in business administration from the Polytechnic University of Rotterdam in the Netherlands. In addition to that, I was fortunate enough to attend and participate in business strategy courses at Harvard Business School and Duke's Fuqua School of Business.

Explain your career path. Did you take any detours? If so, discuss. After making the switch from sales to IT, I started as a contractor based in the Netherlands and was asked to lead IT for the North Eastern Europe region for the staffing company. This company eventually merged to become the world's largest staffing company. I then joined the senior leadership team, reporting directly to the CIO, and oversaw technology strategy, planning and budget globally. I was eventually named Group CTO and, after several years, was transferred to New York as CIO for the Americas region to replicate the same strategies we deployed in Europe - building shared services and creating a global further reaching IT environment.

Regardless of your role, the search business is relationship based. My path to Hedrick & Struggles was no different. I came to know the firm and a key partner through our work on several search projects over the years. We continued to stay in touch and at some point I was a candidate, which led to a discussion about the firm's need for a CIO. It was the right opportunity and I feel proud to say that I've been the CIO of Heidrick & Struggles for 10 years.

What business or technology initiatives will be most significant in driving IT investments in your organisation in the coming year? At Heidrick & Struggles, we are focused on continuing to digitise our executive search and consulting businesses to evolve our premium client services with new products and data-driven insights. Data has become an important currency and by providing digital offerings, we are able to use data to offer our clients better insights as part of our service delivery. As such, we continue to invest in technology and our ecosystem to evolve our digital services, products and channels.

What are the CEO's top priorities for you in the coming year? How do you plan to support the business with IT? Our CEO's top priority is continuing to serve the leadership needs of our clients as trusted advisors, combining distinctive, diverse, data-driven and tech-enabled talent, leadership and culture solutions to help our clients make better hiring decisions.

In the coming year, we'll continue to introduce and enhance our data-driven, tech-enabled tools and platforms across our executive search and consulting businesses. We'll also continue to provide an expanded range of talent and human capital solutions as we prioritise raising the bar in serving our clients as trusted leadership advisors.

Does the conventional CIO role include responsibilities it should not hold? Should the role have additional responsibilities it does not currently include? First, I think the responsibilities for a CIO are dependent on the broader organisational structure and I find it hard to generalise.

Over the last 20 years, the role of the CIO has changed significantly. In the 80s and 90s, a CIO led an organisation which primarily created systems and applications, using hardware, software, data centres and large technology teams with a diverse set of IT skillsets. Over the last 5 years, almost all CIOs are now brokers of ‘business ready' offerings within their own organisations and they oversee the integration of different offerings, that technically work "out of the box" and in many cases only require configuration. That paradigm accelerates a CIO's understanding of how to position and create digital versions of their companies' offerings, and CIOs are well positioned to contribute to the design and creation of their company's own market facing ecosystem.

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? I'm deeply involved and engaged in our firm's digital transformation that is being driven by our CEO's vision to provide a data-driven and tech-enabled experience to our clients. Customer experience matters. We are becoming a diversified provider of top talent services and we are focused on our strategy to enhance our customer experience and growing our new businesses. We're able to pursue both objectives by a continuous focus on efficiencies coming from simplifying and digitising our businesses.

Describe the maturity of your digital business. For example, do you have KPIs to quantify the value of IT? We have started on our own digital transformation journey to become more data-driven and tech-enabled across our core search business. We have re-packaged our methodology in a way that allows for a simpler and digital way of delivering our services. For example, we are delivering data-driven insights and candidate assessments to our clients via Heidrick Connect, a seamless digital portal. To measure progress on our digital journey, our KPIs measure the ‘throughput' through the channel but also measure how the channel is being used. Both levels of measurement allow us to continue to evolve the breadth and depth of our offerings.

What does good culture fit look like in your organisation? How do you cultivate it? I have to put in a modest plug here - one of our firm's offerings is all about culture, how to measure, change and leverage it. And, yes, we have taken our own medicine.

Some people say, "Culture eats strategy for breakfast." I believe that culture has to be an integral part of your company's strategy. You can create and change a culture, but that is not always easy. In our firm and thus in our IT team, we have chosen to pursue a culture that rests on specific values: Win as One Firm, Grow with our Clients, Own the Results, Act with Integrity. Leading with these values has created a client-centric team that is highly engaged and displays accountability across the board. This model works best when leaders cast the shadow that reflects how they want others to behave.

What roles or skills are you finding (or anticipate to be) the most difficult to fill? In my experience, it's been challenging to find technologists with both cloud technology and security expertise, as well as the ability to be a good listener. It's a trifecta of skills that is often hard to come by. This creates more reasons to find opportunities to promote from within and offer learning and development experiences for our staff.

What's the best career advice you ever received? I have two. Listen to what the client wants - that's where it starts. And, observe and learn from others' successes and failures in delivering what the client wants. It sounds trivial, but in the current world where everything accelerates, this has proven to be a great way of looking at things for me.

Do you have a succession plan? If so, discuss the importance of and challenges with training up high-performing staff. It's critical to have a succession plan and we are committed to developing the expertise and leadership skills of emerging leaders across the IT team. The trainee and the team both benefit from the ‘baselining' effect that training provides - not only do trainees become more conscious leaders, but the consistency helps with alignment amongst the leadership team.

What advice would you give to aspiring IT leaders? I encourage aspiring leaders to continue to find ways to show strategic managment and smart ways to deliver what the client wants. This approach will generate credibility and respect with your colleagues as well as visibility and sponsorship from other parts of the organisation. I am a big fan of the "controlling your own destiny" paradigm.

Following this, my advice would be to really know your business, be pro-active, convince others of what you think is the right direction, seek to become a ‘go to' person for others who look for advice and input, act - and act responsibly, and don't always wait for permission.

What has been your greatest career achievement? It's rewarding to look back and think about the people I worked with and the idea that I may have helped others in their lives and careers. Seven people who, as part of their career, worked with me for an extended period of time have since been named CIO at various companies and have or had spent significant time in their CIO role. I feel grateful to have been part of their journey.

Looking back with 20:20 hindsight, what would you have done differently? Career-wise, I would have liked to keep revenue responsibility as part of my work - it is fun and rewarding to work directly with clients. It also gives great continuous perspective on client needs, which is a very important driver for any business.

What are you reading now? Goliath's Revenge: How Established Companies Turn the Tables on Digital Disruptors. A great book - insightful and practical.

Most people don't know that I… I am a descendant of multiple generations of swiss chocolate and patisserie chefs. For decades, my grandfather was the Chocolate Meister for a well-known Swiss chocolate brand. Of course, that is my favourite chocolate brand.

In my spare time, I like to…Spend time with my family. I also like to sail regattas competitively and play the electric guitar which sometimes results in me "leaning against the sound".

Ask me to do anything but… Tend to the garden. During my upbringing, I had to take care of family lawns, and I just remember how much work that was and how I would always rather be doing something else.

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