Texas A&M University System’s CIO talks about his affinity for overhauls and his aversion to entering situations without need for them
Mark Stone is a transformer. He has little interest in leading an organization that is already a shining example of efficiency. Put him in a position of leadership in an organization that is underperforming, and he lights up with passion and purpose.
“I do well in organizations that need an overhaul, not just a tune-up,” Stone said. “Don’t ask me to go to a well-run organization. I would be bored. If you are open to a fresh start, I’m your guy.”
Stone currently serves as Chief Information Officer (CIO) at Texas A&M University System. The A&M System is one of the country’s largest in higher education, with a statewide network of 11 universities, seven state agencies and a comprehensive health science center. The system serves 120,000-plus students and reaches 22 million people through service each year. It boasts a faculty and staff of 28,000, with a physical presence in 250 of the state’s 254 counties. In 2011, externally funded research expenditures exceeded $780 million to help drive the state’s economy.
The 21st Century CIO
Stone credits his diverse experience for giving him the tools he would come to need as a CIO. The role of the CIO, he said, has changed greatly in recent years, and an understanding of business operations, finance and technology are key to succeeding in the position.
“I moved from consulting technology, to finance, to distribution, to finance, back to technology. The 21st century CIO needs diverse experience,” he noted.
Referring to his previous work as a Certified Public Accountant (CPA) and in the financial sector, Stone added, “It’s fair to say that the background I had outside of IT, without knowing it, at the time prepared me to be a 21st century CIO.”
This diverse experience has led Stone to have an incredible track record of reducing expenses and increasing efficiency at companies like Safety-Kleen and Zale. He served as the Senior Vice President (SVP) and CIO of Safety-Kleen Systems Inc. Prior that, he spent 14 years with Zale Corp., where he worked in IT, Planning, Database Marketing and Distribution before moving into the role of SVP and CIO. In addition to being a CPA, Stone is an ordained minister with a Master’s of Divinity from Westminster Theological Seminary.
According to Stone, each of his roles at Safety-Kleen, Zale and now Texas A&M has been transformational. “I was brought in to fix that which was broken,” he said. “To bring efficiency out of inefficiency.”
Small Wins Matter
During Stone’s tenure at Texas A&M, he has learned the importance of redefining success. “Higher public education is characterized by three words: Small wins matter,” Stone said. He explained that the private sector is measured by “big moves,” whereas small wins are of utmost value in public education because when a change is implemented, it lasts.
“It’s a permanent change here when you have a small win,” Stone said. “The horizon is longer. What I thought I could do in 12 months is going to take 36. What I thought would take six months is going to take 18. Success looks different, but it’s still a permanent move in the right direction.”
Stone’s strategy in transforming organizations is centered around four key practices: determining who the power brokers are, deciphering what the rules are, building partnerships and alliances, and leveraging the super majority.
He seeks to connect with constituents by “feet on the ground, scouting, reconnaissance, meeting people formally and informally, dropping in first thing in the morning, meeting for lunch, and sweat equity.” In getting to know his people individually, Stone finds what he calls “sages—wise people who know all the skeletons in the closet, where all the bones are buried. They’ve been in the organization for 15 to 25 years, no matter the position or degree. These are the people who counsel you.”
He also institutes change by leveraging the super majority. This occurs by letting the members voice their opinions and choosing to agree with them on preferences that directly affect them, such as hardware and software.
“I’m not going to pick a particular vendor. I may have preferences or biases, but in institutions of higher education, because it’s collaborative, if I get 75 percent of the members to agree on anything, my opinion is theirs,” Stone said.
Through this process of developing the super majority, he explained, a leader can succeed in “creating a collaborative environment, building up a set of victories and getting more buy-in as the victories roll in.”
Ultimately, Stone has a guiding philosophy of servant leadership in his work, bringing organizations to a healthy, thriving state. “There are five character qualities that I want to be held accountable for and see in my staff: humility, accountability, integrity, stewardship and excellence,” he said.” I want to be measured against how well I do those.”♦
Some of Stone’s hallmark leadership practices stem from lessons learned through studying well-known historical figures Abraham Lincoln, Winston Churchill and Theodore Roosevelt.
Stone’s “feet-on-the-ground” approach to leading an organization originated from reading books like “In Search of Excellence”and “Lincoln on Leadership.”
“From Lincoln,” Stone said, “I learned management by walking around.”
From Churchill, Stone learned that certain leaders rise to positions of prominence in seasons.
“Churchill floundered for most of his career. After many years, he rises to become noted as one of the great leaders of all time. For that season, he was what was needed to lead that nation and parts of the West through a dark time, only to be voted out as Prime Minister less than six months after the end of the war,” Stone said. “I’m very good at doing certain things. Why should I pursue the things I don’t do well?”
From Roosevelt, Stone came to realize the value of becoming a charismatic leader. “Charismatic leaders get people excited and motivated to follow,” Stone acknowledged. “They also happen to be great public speakers.”