Building a new IT culture

When Jean Holley walked into USG Corp. in 1998, it was a little like The Land That Time Forgot. As the first CIO in the 100-year history of the Chicago-based building materials company, she had to deal with a 1970s IT infrastructure, a mainframe-oriented technology staff and a limiting service-oriented relationship with the business units. At USG, IT was viewed as an administrative function at best and as an obstacle to progress at worst.

Holley, the company’s first female officer and an outside hire in an organization that nearly always promoted from within, was given a mandate by Chairman and CEO William C. Foote to “shake things up.” Three years later, it’s evident she’s done just that.

“We really had a need to bring in someone to elevate the profile of the IT function and to make it more strategically relevant,” says Ed Bosowski, senior vice-president for marketing and corporate strategy and Holley’s boss.

When Holley arrived from Houston-based Waste Management Inc., where she had served as IT director, she found a culture that was resistant to change. “If you started to work here, you could pretty much retire or die here,” says Tom Maurice, manager of IT for standards and technology and a 22-year USG veteran. “People would say, ‘We’ve done it this way for 20 years, and that’s how we do it.'”

Holley wanted to transform the image of IT among corporate brass as well as on the plant floor. “For our senior executives, all the technical stuff is kind of icky,” says Mary Higley, an IT director who was in charge of Y2K preparation when Holley arrived.

But one of her biggest challenges was to erase years of mistrust between the businesses units and IT. “IT used to be difficult to work with,” says Tracy Edwards, director of internal audit. “There were a lot of roadblocks and red tape and not a lot of cooperation.”

As a result, end users in the 1980s began implementing their own technologies, and “rogue” IT organizations began to evolve within the business units, recalls John Reale, who was then part of such a group in the firm’s sales and marketing department. These kinds of IT rebel factions were common among many companies in the early days of the PC, but while most IT organizations eventually reabsorbed the renegades by evolving to PC-based systems, USG never did.


Holley inherited about 100 corporate IT employees who had worked under IT director Bill Duran. But in addition, there were unknown numbers of rogue IT workers and network managers in the 50 plants, which operated independently of corporate IT. Before Holley arrived, there were virtually no standards in place outside the mainframe environment.

The staff she inherited was led by seven male managers, all with computer science backgrounds and 10 to 25 years with the company. “You look at that and wonder how many fresh ideas or different opinions you have,” Holley says. “We had a lot of great people that were all the same.”

She started by revamping her management team. Duran, a 28-year USG veteran, was joined as IT director by Michelle Cassin, whom Holley had known at Waste Management and valued for her customer-centric perspective. Cassin took over computer services, help desk and support.

Lisa Vrablik, also from Waste Management, was drafted for her enterprise applications savvy. Higley, with 20 years of experience in USG finance, auditing, strategy and Y2K, was tapped as chief strategist. Reale, with sales, customer service, plant operations and rogue IT expertise, was brought over to take on customer-based applications. “This is a very different team from three years ago, when they all looked like Bill,” Holley says.

Holley made communications Rule 1, Vrablik says. “So often, people are quiet at a meeting and then they go have conversations over the water cooler and you find out what they really think, and then you have another meeting. We don’t do that in IT. We don’t hold back at all,” she says.

For example, at one of Reale’s first meetings with the group, he made the mistake of saying, “I’ll discuss it with Jean later.” Holley recalls that Cassin responded, “Oh, no, John, we don’t have a meeting after a meeting. Bring it up now!”

Holley also takes the whole team to conferences or visits to major vendors to gain outside perspectives. “She forces us to go out and work with people in other companies,” says Duran. “When you’ve been focusing on cost for so many years, that’s a hard turn, but I find it very refreshing.”

One of Holley’s goals was to empower the team to act independently. She realized she had succeeded when the directors began meeting without her. “They invite me for my [input], and then they kick me out,” she says.

Holley also revamped the IT rank and file from a hodgepodge of 80 job descriptions to three career tracks – form technicians, managers and business analysts – a new concept at USG.

Perhaps the most surprising thing she did was allowing the IT renegades to continue to report to the business units. “Especially in a manufacturing environment, managers would hate you if you yanked out their IT people,” she explains. Instead, she got to know the business unit leaders and brought their people into her communications loop with no strings attached. “You get to know these people, you share your plans, you learn about theirs, and suddenly they’re saying, ‘When can I come work for you?’ ” she says.

Still, it took time for Holley and her team to build trust. For example, Reale, who helped build the sales force automation group outside of IT, helped bring it back into the fold this year. “Jean has eliminated that us-vs.-them approach,” he says.

New Foundations

In USG’s manufacturing division, which is hobbled by outdated mainframe systems, Holley and Dom Danessa, vice-president of manufacturing, have been laying the groundwork for a new infrastructure and achieving incremental improvements by standardizing processes. But the slow pace of change is difficult for both of them. “We’re strapped with this old system, and how do you break out of it when you’ve still got to take orders every day?” Danessa says. “You’ve got to have a plan and patience.”

To establish the CIO position among her executive peers, Holley formed an IT steering committee, which includes the heads of the three main USG businesses. Then she began selling her vision. “IT had always looked at things tactically,” she explains. “I have a 10-year outlook with a five-year rolling window and a one-year set of initiatives to get us there. Understanding that and getting on the same page was probably the biggest challenge.”

Getting the steering committee to fund major improvements has been a slow process. “There’s a little bit of, ‘Be here five years, Jean, and then ask for the big bucks,’ ” she says. “I wanted to go much faster, but I have patience pills in my desk, and I take a lot of them.”

Holley demands that the steering committee set the IT agenda. “Every time there’s a big project, she makes sure there’s a senior executive sponsor, and if no one will raise his hand, then she’s not going to do it,” says Vrablik.

Holley has established IT metrics around customers, employees and financials, and she’s building on IT’s successes. Last summer, she staged a “show and tell” for the steering committee to demonstrate some of the small victories she’s achieved – intranet job postings, on-line training and customer self-service initiatives – and to get buy-in for more. She recently got the go-ahead to implement Oracle financials, a big step toward revamping the company’s mainframe systems.

Now, Holley is a recognized leader, says Bosowski. “She has made great progress in making IT a key part of corporate strategy,” he says. “She’s also very positive, energetic and enthusiastic.” In fact, her energy is legendary.

“It’s like she has a 48-hour day.” says human resources director Chris Rosenthal. “I’m still trying to figure out how to do the Holley shuffle.”