Going Beyond The Sharpest Tool in the Shed

Giana Milazzo Executive Features, Technology Leave a Comment

Former Chief Information Officer for Ace Hardware, Karen Fedyszyn, discusses how she mapped vision and innovation in a global IT toolbox

Teradata_Forefront30x100_F2-1Maps are our center—our locus—for understanding the world. We connect, build, and exist within them. As former Chief Information Officer and Vice President of Ace Hardware, Karen Fedyszyn’s leadership style is rooted in the importance of mapping, utilizing a grid, building a team, and taking concerted risks—valuable components in the ever-growing technology industry. With an educational background in ergonomics and human engineering, Karen has been using her unique perspective to orchestrate her personal and professional vision internally and in her exciting experiences across the globe.

Harvesting Talent: HBSC Roots

Prior to Ace, Karen was utilizing a toolbox of a different kind, building her own personal leadership hardware in her former roles with IBM, Monsanto, Household Finance and HSBC.

At Household Finance, Karen learned about the power of unique work cultures and leadership styles. In 2000, Karen was thrown headfirst into the gauntlet when the company decided to do a pilot investment in e-commerce. Working with 36 others in downtown Chicago, the separate team had two years to invest half as much as the competition and turn a profit or all were at risk to lose their jobs. With guts, innovation, and risk-taking, the team celebrated a profit at 20 months. This hybrid innovation model that the e-commerce team proved successful led to new opportunities for Karen as HSBC acquired Household. With two year rotations acquainting her with every business vertical including private, retail, commercial, insurance, credit cards, and mortgages, Karen learned to support every single part of the business. “The rotations [were] fabulous for me,” she says. “I can suffer from growing bored easily. Learning and being challenged all the time is very important to me.”

Her success in the “testing ground” earned her a spot in the company’s Top Talent program in 2008—a two-year development for the top 25 future leaders in the IT organization globally. “We had each already proven that we could be dropped into any subject or business role or technology situation and make good things happen, but they wanted to prepare us for CIO positions, help us refine our ability to create strategy and vision,” she explains.

In the Top Talent Program, Karen was challenged to lead infrastructure and data center IT operations. Though this was an area not previously in her background, Karen’s international successes leading a pilot program in South Africa speaks volumes about her adaptive leadership. HSBC piloted microlending to Kwazulu-Natal, helping students from local universities as well as small business entrepreneurs learn to market their products and convince companies to fund them—the team aiding everything from business pitches to financials in order to set up small loans. “We did all of these really neat assignments around the world to further hone our skills and get different experiences (in the Top Talent Programme). South Africa stood out for me as this amazing thing. We lived in huts for a week so we understood the environment we were in and how people lived on a daily basis.”

At HSBC, Karen also learned to take after then-CIO Andrew Armishaw, a leader who gave her significant insight on risk and the importance of mapping out teams. “What I really learned from him was that once you got to a certain level, you were no longer a subject matter expert – it had nothing to do with what you knew, it was how about leadership.  You surrounded yourself with really smart people and harnessed their talents to deliver,” she explained.

“I learned how to find key people by looking for balance and complimentary skills. I use a grid when I’m putting together a team – I look at soft skills, hard skills, and I plug the gaps. I like people with different experiences and different mindsets. I also look for soft skills like collaboration. The mix makes the team robust.”

In her 14 years working with Household Finance and HSBC, Karen blossomed from student to teacher with her early experiences in the company’s Top Talent program that prepared her for her subsequent senior management role at Ace.


Karen with the HSBC Top Talent team while working in KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa.

Executing a Vision at Ace

Since entering her role as CIO in May of 2014, Karen has retooled the IT department to better support the growing 90-year company that recently acquired two new leading wholesalers and expanded their business verticals. Her reorganization has spanned from reorganizing talent, to creating a Shared Services Group, to moving quality and testing to the forefront, to decommissioning legacy technologies.

“I didn’t go in with the idea of the reorganization, but as time went on, it became very apparent that there were disciplines in IT that were not getting the time and attention that they needed, so I started working with my leaders and socializing (the idea) with them,” she explains.

With many duplicate technologies and vendors leveraged with little reuse, Karen saw the opportunity to improve their quality and deliver solutions to simplify technology components by putting in IT Shared Services. The services include a combination of quality assurance, change management, deployment management, enterprise architecture, mobility and innovation groups—what she considers the core underpinnings of everything you need in IT whether you are in business systems or in infrastructure.

Under Karen’s leadership, quality has become a central part of Ace’s projects—during testing and production, she urges her team to ask questions like “Are the manual workarounds arduous or something we can work with? Is it sustainable? Does it scale?” all of which help to assure quality solutions and avoid problems postproduction. “Seeing quality assurance and testing as an option is wrong; I felt it should be part of everything we do,” she reasons. To improve the production quality, Karen has also spearheaded the implementation of regression testing automation that will be used bi-weekly to ensure her team can rapidly deliver new functionality without impacting the  core business capabilities.

With ACE operating in 63 countries and also providing goods to independently owned hardware stores across the nation, these solutions are key in order to successfully deliver to all those markets. “Putting that quality first moves the needle for us in growing in those international markets and also wholesale companies that we own,” she explains. “The quality piece is what keeps the solutions at the top of their game so that technology is never an issue that would prevent us from being able to put the right goods in the right place or have the right interface to those retailers that are purchasing from us.”

Karen also saw the waxy build-up of multiple technologies at Ace as an opportunity to decommission certain areas and find effective cost solutions. “When I walked in, there were four different platforms that were used for EDI, there were three master product catalogs that we were maintaining, one used by internet environment, one for another, etc. All I saw were dollar signs of all the waste that was happening.” She began to work with her team to identify the environments that no longer needed to be nurtured and began to ask important questions about cost efficiencies, the life span of these technologies, and where the various operating platforms were headed in the future.

As a foundational part of her leadership style—Karen again utilized the idea of maps in order to organize this goal. “We did a master mapping and there were pieces that boiled to the top. We considered them red technologies. We started stacking them and looking at the operating cost to right size it. We looked for other technologies and solutions to migrate the work and we mapped those analytics out and put together a proposal to start going after those ideas.” Her team was able to move $3 million of operating expenses and redeploy it for other innovations in the company; their next goal is to go after $15 million of operating expenses, moving away from the once saturated-technology environments and into new efficient solutions.

Karen in KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa sitting on a Crocodile holding it still while scientists take it's vitals and measure it.

Karen in KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa sitting on a Crocodile holding it still while scientists take it’s vitals and measure it.

Challenging the Team to Reach the Vision

From HSBC to Ace, a cornerstone of Karen’s leadership continues to remain focused on setting and sustaining a vision, and enabling members of her team to get there. She entrusts her team with the responsibilities, giving them the latitude to succeed, but also holding them accountable. Karen stresses the need to keep a routine open dialogue, even when the conversations might get tough. “I always joke that I start my day with the thing I want to do the least. That one conversation where you think ‘Ugh I don’t want to do this today’…start the day with it and from there, everything just flows. It’s no longer hanging out there.”

The IT reorganization that Karen led at Ace was certainly not a one-woman job. With the ideas and vision in mind, she recruited other leaders to share their voice and help envision the future of Ace—what tools, people, and resources the company needed in order to reach that vision. Part of this process included opening up new, exciting opportunities for employees. In one meeting, she invited individuals to have conversations with their managers if they wanted to work on something different. “If they felt bored, felt like they weren’t learning, I wanted to shift those people around,” she explains. One person working with data and big analytics on the web was able to move to a new Sharepoint environment working on content management, for example. These reworkings are just one part of Karen’s style to keep the work environment a capable, challenging, stimulating place.

“When you learn something in college it doesn’t mean you are going to do this for the rest of your life. As you go through your career, every role that you take you continue to apply that ability to learn and grow and adapt. Just because you’ve done COBOL for 10 years doesn’t mean that  COBOL is your life. It means you are logical, methodical, and have (the focus for) project delivery. That applies across all IT.”

Though the majority has embraced these exciting changes at Ace, Karen’s developments have certainly been met with challenges with getting some people on board. However, Karen sees these losses as opportunities for all. Karen fondly recalls the message of a speaker who once explained that the Japanese word for crisis directly translates into English as “unexpected opportunity”—this is a philosophy she has used throughout her career.

“When somebody wants to take a new role it’s an opportunity to try something new, someone new. If someone leaves it also gives him or her an opportunity. I embrace change, I don’t fear change. I use that mantra of ‘unexpected opportunity’ to focus on the potential of an organization as opposed to a crisis.”

In evaluating these potential opportunities, Karen also remembers an important lesson from Andrew Armishaw—“Early on he had told me to keep very focused on long term goals, always balance risk with tradeoffs, to accept setbacks, regroup and don’t let a team lose its energy and commitment as you are trying to triage a situation. Always make sure you bring everyone along for the ride.”

In her masterly mapping of vision and innovation at Ace, Karen is grounded by this resounding advice when guiding her team. “That last one was very specific to me,” she explains, “I have a lot of energy, I move fast, and he would always ask, ‘Is everybody with you? Make sure you have everybody with you.’” ♦


“Challenging the Margins of IT:  Advice for Women Looking to Break the Glass-Ceiling”

Despite significant advances over the past several decades minimizing the gender gap in the workforce, recent studies show the CIO role is still lagging behind as one of the more underrepresented roles for women. With low percentages and representation in the field in general, CIO Karen Fedyszyn offers us new ways of approaching this issue based on her experience in the cutting-edge technology industry.

  1. Be mindful of the way you approach business. “You need to be mindful of your goals and your skills. I knew I wanted to run my own IT show – in order to do that, I knew I needed experience in project management, large scale program management, business systems, programming, risk, operations and infrastructure. I made sure I built (and mastered) all those pieces of my puzzle as I was looking to deliver against what I wanted to do.”
  2. Find Differentiators that set you apart. “Taking on international experience was a massive differentiator for me. I did 6 months in Mexico, a year in London, but it wasn’t until I did two and a half years in China that my eyes opened to the extreme differences in cultures. When you are interviewing for a job, there are many people who have the same capabilities and background that you do. What I focus on is what stands me apart. So what stands me apart? I have experienced other cultures and been successful in a culture like China and those markets, I’m multilingual. I’m not necessarily a programmer but I’m a technologist. I work in it every day, but I went to school for ergonomics. Having a different mindset and a different philosophy can also be that thing that sets you apart.”
  3. Don’t settle for something that isn’t the right fit. “Do not be afraid to put yourself out there. You aren’t going to be a match for every company you talk to. Don’t be afraid to walk away from an opportunity if it doesn’t feel right for you as an individual. There are no hurt feelings. You can’t let it impact your motivation or drive; you need to be definitive in the desires you have.”

Comments, thoughts, feedback?