Anil Cheriyan may be the “former” CIO of SunTrust but that doesn’t mean he’s sitting still. In fact, as the chairman of the TBM Council and the managing partner for Phase IV Ventures, he’s made the leap to advisor and consultant look easy. Here he shares some of the advice he’s hoping to give back to the IT community he’s cultivated over the years.
Anil, congratulations on your recent retirement from the CIO role at SunTrust. Would you spend a few minutes reflecting on where you’ve been in your career and share a few highlights that stand out for you?
My career has really gone through four major phases:
- Phase I was a management consulting role with PwC, where I was a partner and led client transformations.
- Phase II was with IBM after they bought PwC Consulting. Here, the breadth of what I knew about technology expanded significantly, both from within IBM as well as within client environments, primarily in the financial services industry.
- Phase III was as CIO at SunTrust, where I led the Technology, Data, and Operations teams for the bank and gained huge insights into running a mission-critical operating role with exposure to the management team, board, investors, industry players, and regulators.
- Now I’m entering my fourth phase, reflected in the name of my company, Phase IV Ventures. I provide advisory and consulting services to fellow CIOs, growth stage start-ups, and services/software firms wanting to improve their top line.
Throughout my career, I’ve been fortunate to work with highly intelligent, competent individuals, building a great network and learning so much along the way. As an advisor, I’m hoping to give back to this network and community.
What was your vision for your career when you first started out?
Early in my US career, I had the option of consulting or working for IT in several investment banks. I chose management consulting because it felt exciting. It was a chance to work with boards, CEOs, and management teams, dealing with big, strategic issues that provided a variety of experiences, and it required me to be on the top of my game at all times. I did this for over 30 years, until one of my clients, SunTrust, asked me to be their CIO.
I took the CIO role at SunTrust because I liked the culture and knew the management team. I felt it was the most exciting time to be in technology in the banking industry.
Let’s talk about that. What are some of the major market forces at work today in the financial industry and what is the impact on IT?
Clearly, there are significant market forces at work right now with the massive amount of digital transformation that's going on. Customers are expecting their interactions to be much more digital, and that's not just affecting your website or mobile device experience, but it's also affecting the full value chain you manage as a provider of services to those customers.
What does that mean? In the banking industry, not only do you need the digital front end to provide a desired customer experience but you also need a whole front-to-back revamp, straight through processing platforms. You can't just change the screen on a mobile phone to make it feel more digital and do everything manually in the background, right? So the move to digital is having a full end-to-end, front-to-back impact.
In addition to that, a supply chain view is forming that includes digital ecosystems that enable business managers to not only deal directly with customers but also with partners in the digital ecosystem who are enabling customers.
An example in the banking industry is this: if you want to buy a house, you don’t go to your banking app. You go to Zillow or Trulia or something like that. Or, if you want to buy a TV, you go to Best Buy and so on. You can go directly to their applications because they provide a direct digital experience.
For a bank to be relevant in that environment, we have to have the right API structures or the right connectivity to those digital intermediaries to be really present in that digital ecosystem. That way, we're there when the customer is looking for a loan to buy the house or credit or another payment option to buy the TV, etc.
From an IT standpoint, what do the terms "value chain" and "supply chain" mean?
Think of it this way: the value chain is the widget that you're providing while the supply chain is the factory you’re using to make the widget.
Whenever you provide something to a customer, you're providing something of value. So, for example, you say, "I'm going to help the customer buy a house by providing them a mortgage." The value chain runs all the way from the application process, through the assessments, the underwriting, the approval, the booking of the loan, and the servicing of the loan.
In contrast, the supply chain is defined by how you go about delivering those services. How do you get the information in each of those stages to flow through your systems from a front-to-back standpoint? From the application department to an underwriting department, through an approval or an assessor to an appraisal group. Those are all parts of the supply chain that support the value chain.
The difference is that the supply chain can be used for other things, too, not just for this end value or result.
How has IT evolved to enable this value chain?
There are six critical things IT needs to embrace to enable the value chain today:
- Agility/speed. Because the pace at which clients are demanding digital service is extremely fast. And because you've got lots of players now, competitors and new entrants, also wanting to meet this demand.
- Integration of capabilities. You need to have the architecture in place to allow for the integration of capabilities internally and externally. This means an open API architecture, which most organizations, given their legacy platforms, just don't have.
- Modular architecture. Creation of a modular architecture will help you to accommodate all of the business rules and old antiquated systems you are responsible for while adding new innovations. The shift is to a much more modular, plug-and-play kind of architecture to allow for new capabilities to be delivered.
- Cloud. Companies can't afford to keep on building all of these capabilities in their in-house environments because they need to be more agile. So whether it's infrastructure-as-a-service, software-as-a-service, or platform-as-a-service, companies are now transforming their IT to become much more cloud-based.
- Data and analytics. There is a whole lot of data out there. The data that we're now collecting about our customers to fulfill their needs allows companies to really understand where they're coming from, where they’ve been, where they’ve shopped, and so on. Data and analytics is really key to enable that full service understanding. And not only that, data is also becoming part of the product. For example, providing clients a spend analysis on their path to savings is now just as valuable as providing them with a savings account.
- Robotic process automation. The last piece of this enablement puzzle is the use of data and analytics to really streamline all of technology. Robotics process automations are beginning to simplify more routine processes by automating them in contact centers and lending centers, and client onboarding processes in banks.
IT has dealt with wave upon wave of change. How do CIOs know they're focusing on the right things? And how do they embrace innovation without creating “new” legacy systems that will be obsolete 10 years down the road?
That's critical. People don't have infinite budgets. First, most CIOs don't have the money to do all of this all at the same time, nor do they have the time and talent. Secondly, they don't want to create finite, legacy structures they’ll be leaving behind for their successors to deal with.
The role of CIO is really to be the Sherpa, the corporate guide, the one who really understands the endgame and the art of the possible, but who also defines the path to getting there. Everyone gets excited about social media, analytics, cloud, and robotics. You get excited business leaders coming back to the IT team to say, "Hey, I just saw this thing in this airline magazine. Let’s go do this thing in robotics. And why aren't we already doing it?"
You can't really get there by throwing money at it, chasing after every new, shiny object. You've got to have a roadmap. Where does the business really need to go to achieve its objectives, whether that's topline growth, efficiency, market penetration, new market development, or so on? The business strategy drives the roadmap and the relative importance of all of these things.
That's where an effective CIO comes in. The CIO has to be able to articulate the vision in business terms and then provide a cogent roadmap to enable this transformation to take place. He/she needs to be able to represent it on the management team or in front of the board in a way that's understandable. This takes a lot of business knowledge to put all the pieces in place.
It's also not about building it all internally. It's about partnerships as well. Things are built in-house less and less these days. Instead, they are much more integrated and built from a partnership standpoint.
This represents a pretty big shift, right? In the past, CIO weren't necessarily creating strategic roadmaps for the business. They were receiving the strategic roadmap from the business and then figuring out how to execute it.
Very much so. But if there's one person who really understands at the end of the day how all the pieces fit together, it's the CIO. Because the CIO has been dealing with this day in and day out across a variety of segments and across all the different operations of the businesses units.
In financial services, Operations is really about the movement of information. In a lot of places, ops and technology are intertwined. In other industries, maybe it’s the supply chain leaders or the CIOs who can really pull all those things together because they see the endgame across all the business segments.
What advice do you have for CIOs stuck in that older, more traditional role? What do they need to do first to lay the groundwork for a successful innovation program?
I think the first piece is getting aligned with the business in order to gain credibility. Because if you don't have that, you just don't have the support to accomplish things. Ask yourself, is everyone in our organization fully aware of the impact of their actions on the business? Whether they're an infrastructure leader, a database leader, an applications developer, or so on, they need to make sure that they really understand their impact. Without that, the CIO has no real foundation for having these conversations.
If you've traditionally been the one who's asked to go fix the printers or fix the network, and that's how you've been considered, you've got to get yourself a seat at the executive table to really have a more strategic conversation.
What are the tools or “tricks” you've used to build a better relationship with the business?
Many CIOs tend to sit in the backroom and wait for the requirements, as it were. And what I found at SunTrust is that visiting branches, getting on customer calls, making trips with business leaders, and listening to issues within the sales, product development, and supply chain organizations were key. If you hear the voice of the customer and you understand their issues, you become much more credible when you say you want to do "X", because you're couching it in terms the business understands.
Here’s an idea: go apologize to customers for tech issues, just to hear their pain and the impact you’re having on them.
What is the role of cost transparency in all of this innovation strategy and relationship building?
I think most IT shops and finance organizations still think about IT in a very traditional sense of hardware, software, networks, people. And every now and then, they talk about projects and capitalization. When it comes to having a dialogue with the business to say, "I'm spending X dollars on hardware," they have no idea what you're talking about.
The business wants to understand what they’re investing in call centers, branches, ATM networks, or lending platforms. What is the cost per mortgage for them to do "X"? So transparency is not just about clarifying old structures. It's about helping them understand the impacts of consumption from a business standpoint and from a much more a vertical perspective.
Once you do this, you can have really good, productive dialogues with the business. Inevitably, they’ll say, "I didn't realize I was spending that much money on that particular process," or, "Why am I spending all that money in an area that isn’t profitable?"
That dialogue will help you translate and reduce your operational costs, and therefore give you more money to go and invest in what you really need to do, which is digital transformation and the real capabilities that the business needs.
Who has inspired you most in your career, and why?
Several leaders in the industry have stretched me beyond my comfort zone and as a result, helped me grow as an individual. Without naming the guilty, let me highlight their leadership traits and what I learned from them:
- A senior partner at PwC taught me to push myself to think critically in every problem and become precise in my thinking. I felt I could never meet his expectations, especially when creating a final deliverable to the client. He literally tore up several of my attempts in front of me!
- A CIO client for a very large international firm, leading one of the biggest, information-driven transformations the company had ever undertaken, taught me that you have to be strategic in your thinking. If you can speak the language of business, you can drive change across the entire organization.
- A CEO who had a very authentic and humble style taught me to expand my thinking beyond my function and purview. He insisted on putting the client first and his team above him. This authenticity and humility went a long way toward building the trust of clients and employees.
Tell us something interesting about yourself that isn’t on your resume.
I love riding my Harley Road King on the weekends, and I try and play the saxophone whenever I can.
(OK, I really wasn’t expecting that but hey readers, here’s the proof!)