Speaking of Leadership – David DeLuna

David DeLuna has 25 years of full business and technology solution implementation experience. In his current role as director of account management at ProspX, he and his team serve as the primary point-of-contact for all customers and leads day-to-day account management and customer satisfaction. Prior to joining ProspX, David managed high visibility, highly complex strategic projects for Doculabs, a leader in strategic consulting and market research. Prior to that, David served as CIO at Allied Worldwide, a $2+ Billion leading global relocation, moving services and logistics company. In this capacity, he managed a $14 million budget and 90 professionals and was responsible for implementing a claims management system that saved the company $1 million annually. David has held management level positions at leading organizations such as BSG, Trident, PerSe Technologies and Moveline. David is a graduate of Miami University in Oxford, Ohio and holds a Bachelor of Science in Mass Communications.

I sat down with David recently to talk with him about his time as CIO at Allied Van Lines, technology, and leadership.

JS: Why don’t you start by telling the story of how you came to be CIO at Allied Van Lines.

DD: Sure. At the time I was a consultant, and being a consultant, you get assignments. And some assignments you get to choose, and some assignments you don’t get to choose. By that I mean, whether it’s your skill set or it just happens that no one else is available, the whim of the gods—however it works out in your resourcing organization—you don’t get to necessarily choose where you’re going to go.

So here I was, I didn’t have any experience in transportation or logistics and I felt a regretful self consciousness since I didn’t have that business expertise. But I quickly learned what they were looking for aligned very closely with a skill I did have, an ability to take technology and data that’s relatively stagnant and stale and turn it into something that’s  a little bit more relevant, to leverage what’s there a little bit better.

At that time in the late nineties consultants were doing a lot of work with companies and their first entrees into the internet, how to actually take advantage of the tools and techniques of the  internet environment for public use, for business to business communications, or even how to use some of that technology better internally.

Given all that, I started to become very excited about the opportunity at Allied because all we needed to do was to get data to the right people faster , enable them to make better informed decisions and we were going to be able to that with the most basic technologies of the internet. Then I looked at the leadership, the decision makers and I just didn’t expect to have such a strong leadership team in a company that I felt was a technology laggard. Now I certainly knew Allied was a strong brand, but I didn’t view them as a strong leadership company. I wasn’t expecting to find that level of leadership in a moving company, but I became very impressed with the leadership team and what they wanted to achieve.

So it was a very easy transition for me some months later, a couple of projects into the relationship, when they said, why don’t you think about coming aboard and what would we need to do to talk to your current employer to make that happen. Technically and business-wise this made sense, but most importantly I was getting an opportunity to work with a team of people that I felt I could really work with, both learning something from but also giving back to them what I knew I brought to the table.

JS: So what was that first CIO position like?

DD: Well the first position was actually quite tough because I was younger than every one of my direct reports by a number of years, if not decades. That was a challenge because they felt I was (a) an outsider and (b) just a kid—what could I possibly know about their experiences, particularly when I don’t know the business processes like they did.

On the plus side, I had experiences as a consultant there, so they also realized that I wasn’t just a young kid or that I wasn’t just somebody’s bad idea to hire (laughs). At the end of the day, I think they felt like, “OK, he’s bringing certain talents that we don’t have, he’s bringing a different style to the organization that we just couldn’t grow from within, and technological and business expertise that’s important for us as we move forward”. I may not have known logistics capabilities, but I brought other capabilities that were equally as important.

JS: That’s not at all an easy position to be in.

DD: It was definitely tough in that existing employees who had been there a long time were wondering what I could possibly know and how I could be a leader to people who were 10-20 years older than I was. But after a very short period of time they became OK with what they saw. And I think a lot of that had to do with my personal approach to leading teams. For me, this was certainly one of the things that allowed the team to see me as an individual and then allow everyone on the team to talk about themselves as an individual. It helped break down some of the “he’s in an office” attitudes because I didn’t have the ivory tower mentality of some management staff.

JS: It’s interesting to hear you say that, because you often hear people who’ve moved into an executive role say that they have to get less personal, to keep a certain distance between them and their team to make sure they have the authority to lead, which becomes almost a ritualized display of authority on the part of the leader that sacrifices personal connection in the name of command and control.

DD: Well I think there’s a couple of different levels of  that. Certainly you don’t have time to talk to everybody in your department to the extent that you’d like to. So you’ll have your own management team, maybe you’ve got 5 or 10 direct reports and you’ll be talking to them much more.

One of the other things that we were able to do there is have team meetings which were not just “team meetings” because it was the entire department. Very early on in my career there that meant approximately 80 people. That’s a lot of people that you’re trying to reach out to. With 80 people in a room, how can you possibly reach out to them all? Despite that, it was still important to talk about certain initiatives, certain objectives.

So I used an approach I learned from a pastor friend, and I remember very clearly the first few times we did it, that half the staff would look down when it got to this part of the agenda and the other half of the staff would be willing to speak. You just ask two simple question of three random individuals in each meeting: please tell us about what went right this week, what are you happy about this week? And the counter, what didn’t go right this week, what was disappointing to you? The answers could have been work related or personal, it didn’t really matter to me.

So you have a guy from the support desk answering questions about what went right for him or what went wrong from him and everybody now learns a little bit more about his job or maybe even his life, where among 80 people you normally just don’t have that understanding. Or an engineer who talks about some issue with requirements, and somebody on the requirements team hears that and thinks, “Boy I wish I had written that specification a little more clearly”. So you get some of the shared responsibilities with the personal interactions.

But also you get the “my grandmother died” or “I just found our key user on this project has breast cancer and I’ve been carrying this burden for two weeks until she was able to tell people.” So you get to learn about what’s interesting to the people on the team, what’s on their minds. And when they talk about successes, that’s great; but the challenging things that people are dealing with on a daily basis in their lives are just so eye-opening. Not that you’re trying to get them to expose their soul, but the conversations were revealing and it gives us a real sense of sympathy and empathy you wouldn’t get from a typical departmental meeting.

In the end, I think those aspects of relating individually across the whole group was a big threshold to cross, where they realized, ok this team is about people dealing with their job and their lives and not just people removing themselves from who they are.

JS: OK, I’ll take your lead and ask you, first, what went well for you at Allied? What was a particular success story that stands out in your mind?

DD: I think that really one of the very first projects we did there was one of our biggest successes. There were a lot of doubters who didn’t think that going to the internet technologies was going to work. There were some people that had been writing programs the same way for 20 years, and we had some systems that were in place for almost that long as well. The inertia was so strong, but the first time people saw that there can be good coming out of change, it was very inspiring for a lot of people.

We essentially took an existing mainframe system which had served the same purpose for 10, 15, 20 years, and we rethought the value of data and the process in a way that hadn’t thought of before; to rethink the value of some of the, I’ll call them triggers, that is, the operational aspects when information or people transition from a state to a state: like I’m waiting for work or now I have work, or this shipment is on schedule or it’s not on schedule.

And what was great for us was that it set us up with a foundation for the future for all architecture, all applications there and enabled people to make decisions with timely information.

So with that early project, we wanted to accomplish a quick win, a change which was immediately successful; but another effect was that all of a sudden users, who really had no opinion about the systems before, all of a sudden were saying, “this is valuable to me.” I think whether it’s a claims system or a dispatching system or a purchase order system…those can get pretty stale. And then all of a sudden if you’re able to show users some data from those systems that enables them to take actions in a different way, now you got them on board.

The internal team saw that there was value there, but even more importantly, users started to think about how they could engage with IT in a different way because they saw value in a system that they had dismissed as a necessary evil up until that point in time. And this came from a solution that we put in for next to nothing, I mean, it was almost insignificant in terms of IT and business investment. It was really just a fresh thought about how do you use something that already exists…and it was a huge success for the team and it was this huge success for IT.

JS: On the flip side, then what was something that didn’t go so well for you at Allied? Someplace where you felt like you fell down, but it was a significant learning experience?

DD: I think both there, and maybe in my professional experience generally, I’m a little bit too risk averse. I don’t take as many chances as I should. And as I look at people I admire in this business and in other businesses, they aggressively make a decision and deal with the consequences, positive or negative, from those.

Given that, I think that there were some things that I didn’t do at Allied because I was either waiting for management to give me approval or I simply felt this was a little bit too risky for us. In the end, I didn’t do them, when in fact I probably should have and could have, because I think there was a lot we accomplished early on but then we got a little stale in what we were doing. Eventually I allowed both myself and the inertia of the team to slow down maybe, and it didn’t help us in the long run. And actually it took a friend of mine that I brought to Allied behind me to reenergize and re-engage the team again with some aggressive moves that were risky but ultimately turned out to be positive.

JS: So how long were you at Allied?

About 5 years. One of my first days there I met with a business executive. He shakes my hand and says, “nice to have you coming aboard.” Then he opens up his desk drawer and puts the business cards of the last three CIOs on the table in front of us. And he says, “in the last five years there’s been three CIOs here, are you going to last any longer?” He thought I was going to be a revolving door CIO and would be out of there too.

We all know the longevity of CIOs is not real long, so I remember that story and think maybe that he helped me have the attitude of, “I better be aggressive in terms of what I’m going to get done, because I’m only going to be here 18 months!” So I look back on my five years and say I’m pretty proud of what we were able to accomplish and that I was able to last at least that long. Could it have been longer and could we have done more things? Sure. But I think it was time for both sides to move on and do other things.

In part two of the interview, David and I discuss his views on leadership and professional development.

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