Federal Reserve System CIO on Finding Mastery Through Purpose Federal Reserve System CIO on Finding Mastery Through Purpose
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March 30, 2021

Federal Reserve System CIO on Finding Mastery Through Purpose

Q&A with Ghada Ijam

To shine as a leader requires more than skill — it requires self-disruption, a resilient mindset, and investing time, lots of it. These themes underlie the incredible achievements and inspiring story of Federal Reserve System (Fed) CIO Ghada Ijam. And most of all, her success has come from taking the purpose path.

Her North Star has led the way through times of hardship and uncertainty, from immigrating to the United States during unrest in her home country of Kuwait to becoming one of the best and brightest women in tech to being appointed as the Fed’s chief information officer on the cusp of the coronavirus pandemic.

As a woman in a predominately male field, Ijam is a trailblazer — though her path to the Fed was anything but direct. She served in a number of leadership positions over the years, including CIO at Amtrak and IT leadership roles with Freddie Mac and Intel. Once she reached the Fed, she quickly moved from the head of enterprise PMO to chief operating officer to her current position as CIO. These roles have combined to create a 30-year career at the meeting point of technology and business strategy.

Acertitude Managing Partner and Technology Practice Leader Rick DeRose sat down with Ijam for a conversation about using purpose to navigate and create change that matters. This exchange also dives into the topics of the future of technology, diverse and inclusive leadership, and agility in the time of COVID-19.

Mastering adversity

DeRose: Which experiences shaped your why?

Ijam: A mentor once told me that building a career is like rock climbing; you do not get to the top through a straight line. This deeply resonated with me as I started my professional journey.

Growing up, I aspired to become a tech executive in corporate America. This North Star remained critical as life threw hardships my way. When war battered my home country, causing my family to immigrate to the United States, I found strength and resilience by keeping my purpose in focus. This experience also taught me the importance of empathy at work. Often, we do not know when our colleagues and neighbors might be struggling or facing life’s challenges. Compassion is key and has served me throughout my career.

Self-empathy is also crucial. When my child received a life-altering diagnosis, for instance, I had to learn how to be flexible, adaptable, and self-forgiving. While leading through the pandemic for the past year, we’ve all had to extend more grace to ourselves and others. I’ve found that as human beings, we can’t make it through difficulties without being kind to ourselves and giving ourselves room to grow.

Throughout my career, I took inventory of what I learned after every difficulty and success, drawing on those lessons whenever I faced new problems and opportunities. Taking advantage of challenges became my calling card in business. If there was a risky assignment, I accepted it. I knew I would learn from the experience and be recognized for solving a problem.

That focus on delivery of outcomes and adaptability empowers me to work in a variety of roles, teams, and organizations. Every team you are part of is going to bring new questions and problems to solve. This allows you to exercise the muscles of a life-long learner, as well as the ability to quickly develop relationships and networks in new environments.

As you summit your own mountain, stay true to your sense of purpose — even when the route ahead seems unclear or obstacles come your way. I have found the greatest success when every choice and transition I made was aligned with my North Star.

Navigating change

DeRose: The technology field is changing rapidly. How can leaders navigate change while following their North Star?

Ijam: A North Star is a guiding light and a goal. Defining your North Star is especially important for CIOs and other tech leaders because the line between IT and other functions is almost nonexistent today. Having a North Star guides me as CIO at the Fed by helping each function and the organization as a whole stay true to our broader purpose, values, and objectives at a time when the technology landscape is rife with change and disruption.

The tech industry is ever changing — even Moore’s law cannot keep up. Tech spending is predicted to shift almost entirely toward cloud solutions over the next four years, and the rate of data collection is quickening exponentially. Having a North Star helps tech leaders make sense of these disruptions so they can stay relevant and nurture the success of their organizations through technology.

I need my guiding light not only to realize our organization’s mission, but also to achieve my personal goals. My purpose as a leader is to help teams and organizations go from good to great and to help young people starting their careers believe in themselves and achieve more than they thought they were capable of. No matter your goals, purpose can help you bring out the best in others and yourself.

Highlighting diversity

DeRose: Critical conversations around diversity and inclusion are happening in many businesses. How can leaders turn this from a moment into a lasting movement?

Ijam: Identifying my driving force — to become an executive in corporate America and a leader in the technology field — was only possible with role models who looked like me. I was initially inspired to be a CIO when the first woman CIO was appointed at Intel in 1998. Seeing someone who looked like me achieve that goal was monumental. It gave me a vision in which I could see myself so I could be vocal about where I wanted to go.

Investing in women in prominent business and technology leadership positions is a priority at the Fed, and I believe this diversity and inclusion mindset should have precedence in all organizations. When hiring with an eye toward diverse backgrounds, it’s beneficial to create a career pipeline with a pool of talent that’s different from your existing team members. You can also cultivate mentorship and career development programs to foster learning and identify high-potential leaders in your organization.

No matter what position you’re hiring for, look for someone who can work with a diverse group of thought leaders. This is especially critical in IT because they will have to interact with multiple business lines to succeed. In addition, high emotional intelligence is a vital competency. To create an inclusive team that performs effectively, everyone should have the skills to relate to and form relationships with people from different experiences and with diverse thought processes.

None of this will be possible without inclusive leadership styles and cultures. To that end, I believe that training programs and resource networks that represent the diversity you have within the organization are key. This inclusive environment will breed new kinds of leadership and, in turn, give other young people role models to look up to and learn from.

Pivoting fast

DeRose: The coronavirus pandemic continues to alter how business runs. What advice can you give leaders so they don’t lose sight of their driving purpose?

Ijam: Our North Stars have been tested extraordinarily amid the COVID-19 pandemic. I have learned what being a leader in crisis means this year, and a sense of purpose has never been so vital.

Agility is paramount. In business, we tend to get fixated on our plans. They become our road map, and if we get diverted or blocked, our vision shatters a little bit. (But remember that rock-climbing analogy.)

I started as CIO of the Fed in January 2020, right before the pandemic. As you might imagine, my 100-day plan quickly disintegrated. Instead of homing in on my original goals, I shifted my leadership style to command-and-control crisis management mode. We’ve had to learn and evolve so fast; at the same time, it’s important for me as a leader to be the calm in the storm.

The Fed is a mission-critical capability for the economy, so I’ve had to ensure our team delivers. There’s an extreme sense of urgency, as well as a need to anticipate what is coming next and deliver within days rather than months. Acting quickly but with conviction is imperative if you want to lead others in a way that motivates, rather than confuses.

Without best practices for how to handle the COVID-19 crisis, we have had to learn as we go. Keeping communication lines open and fluid allows my IT team to share what capabilities are available to the organization as we work remotely. Business relies on IT more than ever before, so communicating with transparency and articulating in nontechnical terms what IT teams are delivering to support the business operation is vital.

While the pandemic has forced leaders to adjust their goals and paths forward, a fixed North Star remains an integral guide to achieving better outcomes. Purposeful leaders breed greater success because they shine a bright light for those around them.

Defining brilliance with Ijam
Purpose is… the why.
Leadership is… service.
Brilliant leaders are… engaged, committed, and willing to challenge the status quo to achieve better outcomes.
Success is… contagious. It breeds more success.
I perform at my best when… I’m very passionate about the end state.