CTO Dwayne Allen on delivering transcendent business impact
Dwayne Allen is an ORBIE-award winning technology executive primed for times like these. Equipped with experiences across a range of industries, a healthy dose of self-awareness, and a passion for learning and people, Allen is redefining the art of the possible as a strategic and innovative CTO. In his current role as senior vice president and CTO at Unisys, he has accountability not just for technology but also solution innovation, architecture and IP, and patents. True to his customer-first, business-focused leadership style, he is actively involved with customer interactions as well.
When we sat down for a recent episode of the Tech Whisperers podcast, Allen opened up about how his career journey, which has spanned seven big brand companies and four industries, has shaped the multidimensional leadership style he operates with today. Afterwards, we spent some more time talking about Allen’s philosophy of IT leadership, some of the key skills and qualities that have enabled his success, and his advice to IT managers, directors, and vice presidents who aspire to have what Allen calls “transcendent impact” and deliver greater value to the business. What follows is that conversation, edited for length and clarity.
Dan Roberts: What do you mean by the ‘transcendent impact’ of IT leadership? And how do we live up to it?
Dwayne Allen: If you look at the definition of transcendence, it means going beyond the limits of all possible experience and knowledge. The reason I emphasize it is that, of all the disciplines on a leadership team, IT sometimes has the richest insight across the workings of a company, but somehow it gets put in a box and doesn’t get out of it. If you’re in marketing, you can move over and run a business unit, or become CFO, or you could possibly become CEO. There are some recent examples of CIOs doing this — Greg Carmichael, who was CIO at Fifth Third when he hired me moved to COO and then CEO. Ted Colbert is another former CIO who became a CEO, and other CIOs are joining boards. In general, though, I think IT executives are still very underutilized in a holistic business mindset.
As I was thinking about my curious career journey, along with that of other colleagues in the industry, it made me think about the concept of transcendent impact. A key ingredient of success is the intersection of capability and opportunity. At Unisys I’m fortunate to have a CEO and COO that have created an environment where I can expand my reach and potential impact, so I’m more than just the typical CTO or CIO. I’ve gone on sales pitches to clients, get to play a role on the process for our execs to engage with client accounts, and I’m heavily engaged with our investment committee. Over time I have also begun to participate in some aspects of our strategy. It’s great to work for leaders that see me as a valuable partner so I can help in any way I can, which actually deepens my commitment to the company.
So sometimes, as IT executives, we have to aim higher, stepping outside of the IT or digital space, to demonstrate more value we can add and resisting the temptation to stay in a box. Again, the work environment and culture acts as an enabler to be able to express ‘I’m not just a CTO’ in order to get involved in sales and get involved in other aspects of learning, leadership, and growth, as well as strategy and marketing and ideas. Why limit yourself to just saying, ‘We need a network upgrade to move to the cloud,’ when you can also make other suggestions? We have to do a better job of telling our story.
Integral to your success as an executive is your ability to deliver what you describe as ‘value without boundaries or limits.’ Can you talk about how aspiring leaders can learn to achieve that?
I see it as multidimensional competence, but it starts with the core. You have to start with our IT expertise, because that’s why we were hired, so you must be good at what you do, and that includes staying current on what’s going on, from cloud to cyber to ChatGPT or whatever the relevant emerging trends are at the time. You must be familiar with your business and how IT can help them meet their strategic goals.
Next comes industry experience. I’ve been in four industries, but while I was at Microsoft, I served several more — healthcare and retail, for example. So that IT expertise gets bundled with a variety of industry experiences, which enables us to really get to understand different ways value can be delivered, because you are leveraging what you’ve learned in one industry as you move to the next. So when I moved from banking to manufacturing to learn the differences in terms of supply chain, inventory, sales, how they go to market, warranties and so forth, I felt a different type of growth.
The next layer is a bit of a strategic orientation. So, it’s not just my IT expertise and the industries I’ve been in, but also how that enables original thought and ideas. Sometimes others in the business won’t expect those ideas from the IT executive, but you now know enough to say, ‘Why don’t we consider doing this?’ Maybe you don’t initially get the credit, but you start to recognize, I’ve got more in this brain than just IT stuff. So, it’s developing the strategic orientation. Again, being in the right environment helps enable this, so I am fortunate to be at Unisys, especially with the energy of our new brand.
The final piece is business acumen, which is where you start speaking the language of the business. You start talking to them in their terms — and it throws them off at first because they will expect you to talk about technical features and performance, but as you start talking sales, profit margin, and customer retention, you are building a deeper connection.
Can you share an example?
One of my favorite stories is when I was at a large manufacturing company. I was the CIO of one of the segments — $6 billion in sales, five businesses, with 75 sites in 13 countries. I did a big ERP presentation at the segment president’s leadership meeting. I covered getting up to a common release version, benefits, costs, and timeline. In the end the president said, in front of everyone, ‘Dwayne, for that amount of money, I could build several manufacturing plants. This doesn’t seem like a good investment at all.’
While disappointing, this was an invaluable lesson. I was not speaking the language of the business; thus it failed. About a year later I came back — this time partnering with one of the business heads — with a manufacturing transformation presentation focusing on advanced supply chain, material management, inventory reduction, quality, etc. It won immediate support. It still required the same upgrade and costs, but now it made more sense because I was talking in business terms not technical terms.
When you do those things and start to realize the greater impact opportunity and better understand the art of the possible, you start to say, ‘Why aren’t we going to market this way?’ It all ties together. Each experience in your journey builds to the next one.
It seems like this also makes a difference in how you’re viewed as a business partner, which goes back to the opportunity IT has for transcendent impact. Can you dig a little deeper on that?
The core is that multidimensional competence. Once you’ve got that core, then there are no boundaries. Typically, that core goes one direction — technical — or sometimes two — technical and industry. It could be, this is great for solutions and industries because you could do more in that bucket and stay true to that. Over time, it could be, you’re good at this, you can develop talent, and you’re good at leveraging a strategic partnership to deliver any deliverable.
So those are two, and people tend to stop there. But guess what? We can also go into the business. As I said, I’m on sales calls. I can talk to someone about our cloud strategy and things of that nature. Even if you’re not in a business unit, you can be such a contributor that if there’s a strategy conversation, they’re going to make sure you’re in the meeting. You’re not ‘just IT.’
The collection of all of that presents a different value proposition. You could then be a candidate for a board of directors or to serve in some advisory capacity because now you’ve got everything covered. You’ve got solutions and industries, talent and partners, business and strategy, and boards and advisory. There are no limits — you transcend.
To get it all done, you have to galvanize people in a multidirectional way. It’s really having a 360-degree people orientation, isn’t it?
I call it the paradox of leadership. In my position right now, I’ve got to engender enough confidence with executive leadership that I can deliver on what they’re expecting of me. At the same time, I have to inspire a staff to deliver that. And you’re only successful with both. If I inspire my staff, but the leadership team doesn’t believe in me, that’s not going to work. And then, if I get the confidence of the business but my staff doesn’t deliver, that doesn’t work. So you’ve got to do both.
How would you sum it all up for an aspiring IT leader who is looking to follow in your footsteps?
Well first, it’s a journey. You’re getting a summary, but this road was paved with bumps, bruises, setbacks, and a few failures. The key is to not let that hold back the aspiration or vision. It will, at times, require some resilience and courage, but IT affords us such a unique vantage point across the company. You’ve got to embrace learning, stay keenly observant and be agile. We can leverage insights that no one else can see and integrate them into the business mindset. While IT is a profession we do, as a business leader and strategic thinker, it’s about what we are.
Speak the language of the business and focus on impacting the business. Ask for business responsibilities in addition to your IT discipline — and ask to lead or heavily contribute, not just participate. Show them the value we can add. It’s possibly so much greater than you and they even realize. Go for it!
For more insights and advice from Dwayne Allen on how to redefine your value proposition, tune in to the Tech Whisperers podcast.