Elias Oxendine’s Lifelong Journey to Global IT Success

From his childhood space dreams to his time as a marketer, Brown-Forman's global director of IT security takes inspiration from every stop along the way

Elias Oxendine had just separated from the navy. He was speaking with a recruiter at a career fair when he heard an alarming statistic: eighty percent of military personnel with more than ten years of service will fail at their first civilian job. Oxendine gulped; he had served eleven. Why would these disciplined, organized, loyal servicepeople suddenly fail to function in an office setting? A lot of it has to do with leadership style, he learned.

“You’ve got to shake the military leadership style,” the recruiter said. “There’s nothing wrong with it; it served you well. But in corporate America, it doesn’t work.”

Now the global director of IT security for Brown-Forman—a producer and marketer of wines and spirits—Oxendine gets it. It wasn’t long ago that he was that statistic, frantically navigating the world of marketing and corporate leadership with a swing and a miss.

In the military, Oxendine explains, you lead with your insignia, rank, or title. Orders typically aren’t questioned. They are simply followed, whether or not the decision was a popular one. In the workplace, he quickly learned that influence, engagement, and collaboration were more important leadership qualities than pay grade. An iron fist rarely instills confidence and loyalty to a commander in the cube farm.

Oxendine was commissioned in the navy from May 1993 to September 2004, operating in intelligence and IT and serving on two aircraft carriers. As the Pacific Fleet Intelligence Systems Officer in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, he directed a $10 million intelligence systems installation project for fourteen aircraft carriers and amphibious ships.

A techie since grade school, Oxendine grew up wanting to be an astronaut. His father was in the Air Force, which made aircrafts a regular part of Oxendine’s childhood. He always loved technology, math, and science, which led him to study physics as an undergraduate. While receiving a master’s degree in IT management from the Naval Postgraduate School, Oxendine became involved with artificial intelligence and expert systems. For his thesis, he proposed the deployment of knowledge repositories and expert systems to speed up the transition process between aircraft carrier battle groups in the Persian Gulf. He saw that, given the hostile nature of this environment in the 1990s, the lag in acclimation for the arriving battle group posed a serious operational risk. When one group left and another came on, Oxendine’s system would enable the new group to learn about the operational intelligence of the departing carrier more quickly, which minimized assimilation time for the new battle team.

Oxendine left the military in 2004 to dedicate more time to his young family. His first stint in the corporate world was a marketing position at Kraft Foods in Chicago. “I went from naval intelligence, keeping secrets, to selling processed cheese sauce,” he says.

It was tough. With a background in tech and a general preference for structure and order, the nebulous field of marketing didn’t suit his personality. His team members were used to working in a collaborative setting. “I was still leading with my insignia,” he says.

Oxendine learned with time that the workplace doesn’t operate with the intense structure and hierarchy of a unit aboard an aircraft carrier. He had to be influential to get support from his team. With such a staggering amount of change—from military to civilian life and from IT to marketing—he had failed to course-correct.

“There is something about being on deployment with a group of people for an extended period of time that will force a bond like you wouldn’t believe.”

When he left Kraft, Oxendine made a promise to himself: he would dedicate his time to reading and studying what makes a good leader in the office. Authors like John C. Maxwell, Peter Drucker, and Stephen Covey taught him how to be collaborative and inclusive to gain respect and trust. Then, he was hired at GE Appliances to lead several IT teams.

Nine years later, when he was interviewing for a position at Brown-Forman, the CIO asked him how he so drastically changed his leadership style. Did he hire a life coach? Oxendine gave him a quizzical look. “No, I didn’t hire a life coach,” he says. “It was a painful lesson and experience that I did not want to repeat; I knew I had to change.” He’s since enrolled in a program at Brown-Forman that advocates servant leadership. This method shifts the power from the leader to the team members, focusing on their growth and professional development.

Brown-Forman employs four thousand people of forty-five different nationalities on every continent. Headquartered in Louisville, Kentucky, the marketing giant comprises over thirty brands, including Jack Daniels, Woodford Reserve, and Sonoma-Cutrer. In 2016, the publicly traded company’s sales surpassed $3 billion. In his role at the company, Oxendine is responsible for assessing cybersecurity capabilities and quantifying risk. “It’s not a question of if you’re going to get breached,” he said. “It’s a question of when and how adequately prepared you are to respond to it.”

Since being hired in 2015, Oxendine is constantly working to improve the maturity of Brown-Forman’s security program. Part of that is a campaign to educate employees on the importance of cybersecurity and tactics to protect their information. First and foremost, Oxendine warns of the danger of phishing emails. He teaches employees what to look for to identify a suspicious phishing email.

“Security is everyone’s responsibility,” he says. “I think there’s still an old-school mentality of, ‘That’s IT’s problem.’ That’s just not the case. When you look at the ways hackers gain access to our environment, they’re not approaching the IT security professionals.”

Since 2004, Oxendine has found his stride in the corporate world. The civilian leadership style fits better with his social personality. He loves the consistency of civilian life that allows him and his family to put down roots. But there are things that he misses, like the camaraderie of the military. Sure, there are teams at work that have spent countless hours together on projects and have a meaningful bond. “But there is something about being on deployment with a group of people for an extended period of time that will force a bond like you wouldn’t believe,” Oxendine says.

Cybersecurity is not just a technology or risk issue. It’s a strategic business imperative. To thrive, you need the ability to adapt. That means embedding cybersecurity resilience everywhere—at every level of your organization. It’s the intersection of business strategy, risk management, digital evolution, real-time operations, technology innovation and predictive analytics that allows you to prioritize the right decisions, faster!

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