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On this week’s CXO of the Future podcast, I interview Art Hu, SVP & CIO for Lenovo Group, where he heads up the global Business Transformation/Information Technology (BT/IT) organization and works tirelessly to drive continuous transformation for Lenovo as the company transforms from devices+ to a global solutions company.
Art joined back in 2009 as director of business transformation in the IT organization, where he oversaw IT strategy, security, enterprise architecture, and global business transformation. He was responsible for several large-scale IT projects critical to the Lenovo Personal Computer & Smart Device and Data Center groups, including major integration efforts after company acquisitions. Prior to this, Art was an associate principal with McKinsey & Company focused on strategy and technology management, as well as delivering transformation impact across global organizations. He holds both Bachelor of Science and Master of Science degrees in computer science from Stanford University.
Art has always been an engineer by training, with a strong affinity for gadgets and technology. Being a CIO wasn’t something he aspired to at first, but was rather something he grew into organically. After graduating, Art spent eight years at McKinsey working in the US as well as in Asia. Lenovo was one of his clients and he transitioned there during a critical juncture in 2009, later becoming Global CIO four years ago.
“Once I joined Lenovo, I had the good fortune to rotate through a variety of roles, but I started out working on Business Transformation, which is really thinking about our processes, what needs to change, how do we manage change at a global scale, etc.? And over time, I rotated through or picked up additional responsibilities around cybersecurity, around compliance, around strategy, around infrastructure and operations, so that by the time that there was an opportunity and the CIO role had opened up, I happened to have all that experience already…just by having had the opportunity of looking at things from different perspectives. So that was really helpful.
“What drew me into Lenovo from my consulting career was really the opportunity for impact. There had been a leadership change and there was a lot of transformation to be done. Lenovo is an incredibly interesting company in and of itself, but it’s also on the world stage as well, because it has a particular brand and way of globalizing (that I personally believe in) around inclusive leadership. A lot of companies do business in hundreds of countries around the world and consider themselves ‘global’ operationally. But Lenovo takes that a step further and is really global on a leadership level. The ingredients for a successful global leader are inclusivity, serendipity, and integration.
“When you look at our executive committee and our country leaders, we source talent and empower people who know the markets to run with things. It’s not a top-down command and control from the headquarters. So that, coupled with China more globally joining the economic system, and being given the ability to have a seat at the table to influence that transition at Lenovo, were the key elements that drew me.
“It actually wasn’t ‘I want to be CIO one day.’ Back then it was: ‘There are a lot of interesting things here.’ And Lenovo was at this nexus of business change, global change, and company change, that I found tremendously compelling. It’s not to say that it was the only path, but saying yes to interesting opportunities would be my learning there.”
Thoughts about Leadership
Art shares that one of the biggest keys to leadership is being able to integrate different perspectives–and that it’s tremendously helpful, as an executive thinks about the strategic vision and context they want to set, that they’re also thoughtful about how they lead through the change.
“We’ve all experienced scenarios where there’s a very large gap between the strategy, as envisioned, versus the execution that ends up landing. I think leadership is about being able to do each of those individual parts, while also thinking through how you put them together. How can you bridge the gap between strategy and execution? Plus, there’s the perspective of having been in different parts of the organization which creates a sort of empathy to help push the thinking to say, well, what could be blockers? How do we get different parts of the organization on board?”
Leadership is also about identifying and grooming the next generation of leaders. Those who stand out in Art’s mind as either ready, or rapidly becoming ready, exhibit a few things that separate them from the pack.
They are bridge builders who are able to be the connective tissue in the organization between technology and the business. Those people are easy to identify. People will actually come to me and say, ‘Boy, this person is tremendous to work with. They speak up. They have a solid understanding of the business. They always deliver.’
They are strong in the technology that they need to be well versed in: Both in terms of what it means, and also, in terms of how they communicate. They need to have both of those skills: the ability to wear two hats, and the ability to decide when you need to wear which of the two
“As for leadership, as I go forward in my career, the pandemic taught me the importance of navigating uncertainty. There has not really been a pandemic on this scale in living memory for just about everyone. We had to learn to keep things productive. How do we retain our connections as a team? For teams that haven’t seen each other for a long time, this notion of social capital really does get spent down. I read an interesting report that said the strong ties, the people that you work with day to day, don’t change so much because whether it’s on Zoom, or it’s in person, or on a call, there’s a pretty well-defined framework for interaction. But it’s the weaker ties and the expanded ties that suffer. I’ve noticed I haven’t made as many new connections with people that I don’t normally run across.
“And if you look at innovation, and you look about where new ideas come from, it’s often the spark resulting from a serendipitous encounter. Maybe there was an incident, someone said something that clicked with another seemingly unrelated thread that you might have been working on at that time, and that’s how it all got started. The key ingredient for IT innovation: Serendipity. You want to continue to source ideas from multiple places outside of your daily work. One of the things that I’ve tried to pencil into my schedule is to just do more engagement around the organization, whether that’s roundtables or 1:1s. Staying connected and ensuring that there’s a good flow is a specific tactic that I think is very helpful around keeping new connections seeded.”
Art recognizes that there’s a need for diversity, and believes that it’s important to set a context where some diversity is encouraged. Within companies, especially at scale globally, there is a natural tendency to drive for efficiency–and that typically takes the form of centralization and standardization. If an org has shared services, then there’s often just the one way of doing things that will lead to more efficiency. And while companies do want to have year over year efficiency improvements, things shouldn’t get so tight that teams can’t still be creative, because a lot of things that are interesting tend to happen at the margins. And if a company takes away any zone for experimentation, then they’re cutting themselves off from a potentially valuable source of innovation.
“Recognize that you have to architect for innovation, rather than demand a process. Because whenever I’ve tried to say, ‘Innovate here right now’, it’s never worked. You can’t mandate innovation directly in terms of a time and place. It’s really about creating some of the preconditions where you encourage applied curiosity at the margins and then you can actually figure out some of the things that are interesting because they’re gaining traction.
“I’ve tried to set up processes to liberate teams to have that discussion. One of the things that I require of my teams during a strategic planning cycle is to talk about the lifecycle of technology that’s in use around the company. What’s emerging? What’s mainstream and deployed at scale? And what looks like it’s getting ready for retirement? When we talk about things that are retiring, it’s a very natural bridge into what’s emerging, or an emerging need. That’s where people are much more open. If we’re going to make a change anyway, how do we expand our horizons to have that discussion?
“But when people are working at the margins of: ‘Hey, we’re trying something new. We’re going to either unlock a new market or we’re going to enable a new route; we’re going to engage in a different way,’ they are more in ‘exploration mode’ because they understand that they’re embarking on a journey to do some reengineering. Their mindset becomes much more open to the idea that they’re learning something new, no one’s perfect and the team will work out the kinks along the way. That’s how you build in risk tolerance so that it’s not a critical failure when they inevitably do happen around areas of higher uncertainty.”
The Shiny New Object vs. The Functional Object
What separates the curiosity of the latest gadget or software from the functional object is whether or not it has an objective function. The shiny new object needs to drive some efficiency to help tackle an operational objective.
For example, at a given company it might take three hours to get a claim through the system today. In the future, perhaps, the goal is for that to be touchless, in real-time, for partners. If that’s the goal, then the objective function is very clear and can become the forcing mechanism to make sure the company moves from a kind of general playfulness and curiosity, to applied curiosity in that direction.
Working with Startups: A Global IT Leader’s Perspective
Art gives advice to startups in four pieces:
- Timing is Key – If you have something that you believe is going to meet a need better, but there’s something already looks or feels like it in the marketplace, try to find the on-ramp for these discussions when teams are receptive. If you can hit them when they are thinking about making a transition, such as sunsetting a technology or changing vendors, you’re already halfway there. Try to identify what the triggers are in the marketplace that may be causing a large number of potential users to undertake this kind of change
- How do you communicate that your solution is going to be much more than incrementally better? If it’s five percent better, teams will not be very excited, in fact, they’d rather stay with something that they’re familiar with. Why would I work with a startup or someone who’s much less known if it’s just incrementally better? The point is, how do you articulate why you think it will be materially better–50 percent better–an order of magnitude better–than what it is they do today. Teams get excited when they can quickly grasp what it is about some new technology that opens up possibilities they hadn’t considered before
- How do you de-risk your offering for a large enterprise technology organization? Because if you say, well, you know, it’ll take six months and we have to do all these things…people tend to tune out. So, if there’s something that’s quick and easy, where you’re able to test and demonstrate a kind of tangible impact, that’s going to be a pretty solid hook to get organizations excited.
- Keep in mind, sometimes an organization isn’t ready, especially if it’s a different paradigm and you can’t find a champion. Maybe it’s just not the right time or the right fit with that company.
On Art’s side, he’s putting into place both activity and outcome metrics. Have him and his teams identified a meaningful number of quality interactions and potential technologies? What is the outcome for each team? This can be reviewed quarterly, because not everything will be a hit. But if a company is consistently bringing to the table with the product engineering team, eventually there will be a hit. So it’s okay to say “Hey, I’m taking a pass on this idea. But if we’re three quarters into the year and the team has brought you ten ideas and you never take a swing, then there should probably be a discussion because the outcomes aren’t there.” If people are committed to this idea, then there are bound to be some hits.
- Clear communication is important. You never can do enough, no matter how much time you spend on it. You can always be more articulate and spend more time to make sure the message is truly understood. And the appeal to narrative makes people much more receptive to what you’re trying to accomplish and why. Because once they understand the why, then you have a whole new ball park to play in and an ability to influence people.
- Integration is also key. Teams really need to look across traditional boundaries, whether that’s data, or functions, or business groups. Going forward, the more you can find those unexpected but meaningful connections and integration, the more value and interesting conversations you’ll have. This will allow you to continue on your journey of continuous learning.
Arthur Hu is Senior Vice President and Chief Information Officer for Lenovo Group. Named to this position in April 2017, he leads the global Business Transformation/Information Technology (BT/IT) organization which provides information services, manages critical systems to support the company’s worldwide operations as well as drives continued transformation for Lenovo.
Mr. Hu joined Lenovo in 2009 as director of business transformation in the IT organization, where he oversaw IT strategy, security, enterprise architecture, and global business transformation. Mr. Hu was responsible for several large-scale IT projects critical to the Lenovo Personal Computer & Smart Device and Data Center groups, including major integration efforts after company acquisitions. Prior to joining Lenovo, Mr. Hu was an associate principal with McKinsey & Company focused on strategy and technology management to deliver transformation impact in global organizations. He holds Bachelor of Science and Master of Science degrees in computer science from Stanford University.
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