Most people post news of a job change on a professional network, like LinkedIn. Catherine Luelo had her new position announced by the Prime Minister of Canada.
Five months into her role as Canada’s Chief Information Officer, Luelo swaps stories with ITWC’s CIO Jim Love, as his guest on Leadership in the Digital Enterprise, an ITWC podcast series dedicated to providing insights and resources to executives and entrepreneurs focused on meeting the challenges of a digital world. She also reflects on the critical importance of technology and shares some of the milestones in a career that features a variety of executive positions, including a recent role as Senior VP and CIO for Air Canada.
In her position as Canada’s CIO, Luelo sits within Canada’s Treasury Board, which sets the policy and strategy for technology. She describes her role as technology leadership, combined with community building. One of her main tasks is prioritizing what needs to get done in a complex, multidimensional organization. “The vastness of the industries within government is probably one of the things that has been both most interesting and most challenging,” she says.
The Difference Between Private Sector and Government
On the question of what is the biggest difference between the private sector and government, Luelo gives the surprising answer that one is for profit and one is not, but otherwise everything else is the same. “You’ve got really, really hard-working people who are coming to work every day to do their best for the thing that is their mission,” she says. “Think about what government employees have been through supporting and making sure Canadians get the services they’ve needed during an incredibly difficult time in our history.”
Luelo’s defining moments begins with raising two children as a single mother and goes on to include anecdotes that highlight values instilled by her parents. She speaks, with her son’s permission, of his struggles as a motivator for her advocacy for mental health and service as a member of the board for the Center for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) Foundation. “If you’re grounded in the things that matter to you, you don’t get lost in some of the things you can get lost in,” she says.
In response to a question from Love about how the digital age has changed leadership, Luelo describes the changing responsibilities of the CIO. “CIOs are the translation layer between the business teams and the technology groups to bring those two together to do what really matters,” she says.
Preparing for the Challenges Ahead
The sudden pivot to work-from-home (WFH) in March 2020 was a testing ground for Luelo as she and her Air Canada team moved to remote work. Although she has seen the effectiveness of WFH, she has also seen the need for human connection. Her prediction is that there will be a substantial digital leadership challenge in sorting out the right approach to the modern workplace.
An important aspect of that challenge, according to Love, is the cultural side of digital transformation. “Culture is at the core of everything in my opinion,” agrees Luelo, “so you need to have a good strategy. You need to have good plans. You need to have good tech. If you have a culture that is not refreshed and grounded and purposefully built, you can lose your way very quickly.”
Coming Together for a Good Cause
As a board member for Creative Destruction Labs, Luelo worked with other senior executives from across the country to establish a rapid antigen screening program for the workplace. They never met in person, yet they accomplished something of critical importance. “That to me is an exceptional example of where you use the medium, you use the tools, and you build something – and you do it because of a culture of wanting to do good.”
As for her greatest challenges, Luelo speaks freely how devastating it was for her when WestJet’s reservation website went offline for 24 hours. The silver lining was that she learned valuable lessons about the importance of failing. Now, when interviewing executives, she looks for people who can own up to an initiative that didn’t go well. “Life is not without risks and our work is not without risks,” she says. “If you are really about innovation, you have to create a space where people can actually have some failures.”
Luelo also made a compelling plea for technology workers to consider a stint with government. For aspiring leaders in the tech sector, she says there is no perfect recipe for successful leadership, but offers a key piece of advice. “Be bold. Don’t shy away from those seemingly impossible assignments and don’t be afraid to ask somebody you respect for advice.”
Tune in to Catherine Luelo’s guest spot on Leadership in the Digital Enterprise