Business Leader First, Technologist Second

At Merck, where he’s been leading IT for twenty-one years, Clark Golestani operates under a unique “three-horizons” model that ensures IT is focused on both short- and long-term innovation. Here, he highlights the principles that guide his ability to lead his team and the organization.

Business leader first, technologist second

Prior to working at Merck, I was fortunate to work at Oracle.  There, I not only came to understand technology at all depths, I also learned the importance of building strong client relationships based on business knowledge. So many people want to compartmentalize IT, but to really get an IT organization operating well, you need to think more broadly. I encourage people to think through that entire spectrum, from how you operate IT all the way to how you create innovation to drive the business forward. And think about the model under which you do that. Sometimes you want to operate IT in a consolidated model, but the business structure doesn’t lend itself to that. The key is to understand the business, then ensure the IT model that’s implemented aligns to and flexes with the business model. If not, you end up with an IT model that’s an inhibitor rather than an enabler.

Adopt a three-pronged model.

To help drive real value for the company, you have to adopt a model that allows you and the organization to focus on both operations and innovation with a degree of energy and clarity.

At Merck, that involved an adaptation of the McKinsey business model we call the three-horizons model. Part of IT focuses on optimization over the next eighteen months—that is, taking costs out and driving performance up. Another part of IT focuses on how we partner with our business colleagues to implement programs that are either driving products or creating increased go-to-market capability, and thereby increasing revenue. A third part of IT focuses mostly on how we get disrupted. IT needs to play a role in that, ensuring it has an eye toward the future—knowing where disruption may come from and either avoiding it if it’s negative or capitalizing on it if it’s positive.

“Remember the ‘I’ in ‘IT.’  Information is becoming the new currency for business, and IT can play a huge role in that.”

Become leading edge experts.

Early in my career at Merck, I was afforded the opportunity to understand the business architecture of product research and development, which is really the lifeblood of a pharmaceutical company. I spent a number of years learning the science and the processes that drive product realization, and that knowledge has served me well in this industry. I’ve relied upon it time and time again.

Any CIO today has to have a depth of understanding of security in order to protect a company’s assets; given all the data breaches that are occurring, cybersecurity is an important topic for every company board. I was also given the opportunity to understand information protection from a technical perspective. This was in the early days, pre-web browsers, when encryption was just beginning. Because the technology was cutting edge, I was forced to understand its mechanisms. We implemented our own public key infrastructure—one of the first ever implemented by a corporation. Having run a security program for the corporation for a couple years really indoctrinated me with a level of technical knowledge around cybersecurity that I’ve relied on extensively. It gave us such a depth of expertise we otherwise wouldn’t have had.

Communicate change.

When looking at information security for the company, I did so very broadly, not just from a technology perspective, but in the way we manage and secure information. One aspect was how you train employees to classify all information. Explaining what it means to mark information confidential, proprietary, or sensitive—that’s a broad communications program. There are a lot of techniques. It gave me a real appreciation for what it meant to drive behavioral change across an organization. We implemented broad education programs about how one manages information that’s confidential. At the time, we were 40,000 employees across the globe, and overseeing such an endeavor gave me a sense of what it means to do change management in an organization.

Recognize the power of analytics.

It is also important to remember the ‘I’ in ‘IT.’  Information is becoming the new currency for business, and IT can play a huge role in that. At Merck, I believe IT plays a role at three levels. The first is to create a data lake for the company’s master data. The second is to deliver the technology and models to help our colleagues use that data effectively. And the last is to catalyze the business to drive us to ask bigger questions that lead to powerful insights. Every new insight we have is a chance to help save and improve more lives around the world.