CIBC Mellon CIO explains IS dept shakeup

When the historic Dunes Hotel was imploded in 1993 to make way for the ultra-modern Bellagio, it marked the beginning of a wave of demolition and reconstruction that transformed a tiring Las Vegas into what is now billed as “The Entertainment Capital of the World”.

Smart business people know that sometimes you have to blow stuff up – even good stuff – in order to step up to the next level. Helen Polatajko is one of those smart business people. That’s why, in the fall of 2007, she decided to blow up the IS department at financial services firm CIBC Mellon.

As CIO, Polatajko headed an IS structure that had remained unchanged since the company’s inception in 1997. And though things were working reasonably well, she felt that the bar could be raised – that IS could make “a major leap forward”. To do that, a shake-up would be needed. And that’s just what happened. Of the 120 people in IS, 110 were impacted by the reorganization. They either ended up with a new manager, they changed their job, or they landed on a different team.

“My thought going in was that I wanted a radical change; I didn’t just want to tweak things,” she said.  “The impetus behind it was the desire to find a way, using the same number of people we had, to become more cost-effective and more focussed on strategic alignment with our business units. I also wanted to give our existing team additional development opportunities internally.”

Realizing that she’d need help in this ambitious undertaking, Polatajko talked to various consulting firms, eventually settling on Deloitte as an implementation partner because the company had this type of competency in its sweet spot.

“Our organizational design methodology focuses on a couple of key principles. First, we bring tools and methods to help facilitate an outcome. We don’t come with recommendations; we bring information to allow executives to reach their own conclusions,” said Heather Stockton, Deloitte’s lead facilitator on the initiative and a partner in the firm’s Human Capital Consulting Group.

“Second, we focus on breaking down the work that needs to get done. What’s the optimal way to do that work, what’s the value that it drives, and what are the outcomes that you’re trying to achieve? By doing this, we find that when you put together an operating model, it’s much easier to optimize.”



Because things were working well and there was significant cost and time involved in the new direction, Polatajko had a selling job to do with senior management.

Part of the argument in favour of the reorg was that if things didn’t change, there would be a need to add staff. Projects were running late, and the changes would enable IS to accomplish more with the same number of people – a strong selling point in any economy.

To help get buy in, Polatajko went to all of her peers and explained what she was doing, and why. She also told them what they were going to get out of the reorg, and the impact it would have on each of them.

“We came up with a new mission statement during this time, which was to deliver exceptional technologies, solutions and services to exceed client expectations,” she said.

With management on board, the reorganization launched in September, 2007. It would take a full year for it to be implemented.

Considering the amount of resources involved, it was important that time was not wasted. “From day one I had my management team, which at that point was eight to ten people, working with the Deloitte team,” she said. “This wasn’t just a meet and greet; these were truly working sessions. We would spend two or three hours a day on this, sometimes two or three days a week, so the time commitment was huge.”

The initiative was driven down through the IS organization in a fashion that encouraged buy in. It wasn’t only the CIO or the management team dictating the process. Eventually, the supervisors became involved, bumping the number of people working on the reorganization to 25 to 35. Then people on the lower rungs of IS became involved, to the point where each individual was asked to participate and tell the team what his or her needs would be when moving to a new position.

“The buy-in was what was important to me. I didn’t want it to be a pushdown kind of environment,” said Polatajko. “That made a difference.”



Creating a new approach to IS had a lot to do with envisioning the possibilities, and very little to do with how things were done in the past.

“We asked ourselves what, in a perfect world, would be the services we’d like to offer our clients,” said Polatajko. “We literally started with a blank piece of paper, looking at functions and functional activities. We wrote down all the things we currently do, and we asked ourselves which ones do we want to continue to do, which ones do we want to stop, because there’s no value added, and which services do we want to add?”

In the end, the team came up with hundreds of functions that IS needed to provide, ranging from the project management level all the way to services around infrastructure technology. Every service was laid out by the team and then grouped in ways that made sense, because they were like functions and could provide some synergy.

One of the things Deloitte provided guidance on was grouping functions into pillars of responsibility. In the past, work was often handed back and forth between people in different parts of the IS organization; things bounced around and there was no single person or group responsible for the end-to-end solution. In the revamped model, work gets passed from one pillar to another – it never bounces back to the same person – so there’s a clear line of responsibility from end to end.

The new approach also overcomes a problem common in traditional IS shops. Every CIO knows the drill. You have a team of, say, UNIX administrators, and when a UNIX box breaks, it’s all hands on deck to fix it. That causes things to slide. People are taken off projects to work on the broken piece. This eventually leads to the need for projects to be realigned. Worse still, the people fixing the problem do it with a Band-Aid because they know they’re needed back on the project. Then the Band-Aid falls off and the cycle starts over again.

In CIBC Mellon’s revamped IS shop, this type of structure no longer exists. Instead of a team of UNIX administrators, to continue the example, there is one UNIX team that is service oriented and another that is solution oriented. The service-oriented team is not involved in solutions, so when something breaks, they have the time to put a permanent solution in place. Likewise, the solutions team focuses on projects, and there’s no slippage, because they don’t have any distractions.

“The realignment gives people the focus they need and the satisfaction of knowing that when they leave at the end of the day they’ve actually accomplished something tangible – they haven’t just been patching,” said Polatajko.



After working through all the issues around the creation of a new IS structure, the focus turned to the IS staff itself. A lot of assessment of people’s skills and leadership abilities had to be done, and this helped determine the new roles and responsibilities of team members.

“We didn’t assume that because you’d always been in this position then that’s the likely one for you. We made radical changes. We tried to give people growth opportunities and move them into other jobs,” said Polatajko. “But we didn’t just say: here’s your new job – learn it. We provided the right support, the right training.”

Naturally, this kind of transformation required a strong change-management effort. Fortunately, HR was already working closely with IS, and throughout the year-long initiative they, along with the communications team, made sure that people knew what was going on, why the change was happening, what would happen to them individually, and how the company was going to help them change from their current role to the new one.

Still, when the reorganization was announced it hit people hard.

“When I heard the news, I was shell-shocked at first,” said Zarir Patel, who moved from team leader in the quality assurance department to supervisor on the service desk. “I wondered why I was being moved out of my comfort zone. But gradually I accepted the fact and my emotions changed with time.”

Despite a complete lack of knowledge of the service desk, Patel said that the most difficult aspect of the change was simply accepting it. After a month or so of answering phones and fielding queries, he settled comfortably into his new role.

“I’d be remiss if I said that everybody jumped at this,” noted Polatajko. “Some had their trepidations. Change is difficult for some people, and part of the job is selling and explaining this. I literally went around to each team and spent time with them, selling them on why this is a good thing.”



Once the reorganization was announced, the massive job of bringing everyone up to speed on their new role began. No one was sent off for formalized training – it was all done by peer-to-peer, on-the-job coaching

Not only did this entail a lot of hard work and doubling up on jobs, it also called for meticulous planning in order to ensure that everything happened in a coordinated fashion.

“We came up with a high-level overview of what every job entails. For every job I now have a one-page document describing what the key activities and key competencies are,” said Polatajko. “Now, when we want to deliver a new service, instead of assigning it to someone because she has some extra cycles, we pull out our functional organization chart and see where the work fits logically into our organization.”

When the time arrived for the transition to come into effect, the physical move happened in a single day, like a department-wide game of musical chairs. Polatajko saw this as yet another way of emphasizing the importance of the undertaking.

On moving day, all IS staff were gathered for a meeting, and company CEO Tom MacMillan addressed them, emphasizing the importance of the change and how anxious he was for it to succeed.

“I can’t overemphasize how we wanted this to feel big,” said Polatajko. “And as much communication as we did before the cutover, it was important to realize that the same amount would need to be done after the fact. We couldn’t just stop dead and say we’re done.”

Hands-on communications with the teams became an important part of the process. Polatajko went to each team personally and asked: How are you doing? What did we miss? Feedback was encouraged and the message was reinforced that whatever wasn’t done perfectly could still be fixed.

The big risk, of course, was that many people would not adjust to their new jobs and would leave. But that has not been the case. It’s been a year since the change went into effect and there hasn’t been a single resignation.



Clients of IS were warned that there would be a dip in service after the cutover, as people adjusted to their new jobs. So it came as no surprise when service levels were impacted.

“We put metrics in place right away to determine how deep we were dipping below our previous levels. But the dip wasn’t as deep or as long as I expected. People really did rally around in getting us back up to par and starting to exceed expectations. It took us a few months to get there, but right now we’re above where we started,” said Polatajko.

The question remains, has the bar for IS been sufficiently raised to justify the massive undertaking? Polatajko believes it has.

“People are more focussed and we’re solving problems more decisively. We don’t have as many repeat problems, and job satisfaction is much higher,” she said. “We’re getting lots of good feedback, not only from the team but also from the clients.”

Relieving staff from the need to be “general tradesmen” has also brought a new level of maturity to the team, and improved retention.

Polatajko had a word of advice for others who may be contemplating a similar overhaul. “You can’t go into this with a pre-conceived notion of what the change will look like. You must have an open mind,” she said. “When I embarked on the reorganization, I said I’m open to wherever this takes me. It was a good way to do it and I’d do it that way again.”

Related Download
CanadianCIO Census 2016 Mapping Out the Innovation Agenda Sponsor: Cogeco Peer 1
CanadianCIO Census 2016 Mapping Out the Innovation Agenda
The CanadianCIO 2016 census will help you answer those questions and more. Based on detailed survey results from more than 100 senior technology leaders, the new report offers insights on issues ranging from stature and spend to challenges and the opportunities ahead.
Register Now