Mar 4, 2022
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Abbott CIO Sabina Ewing on becoming an IT talent magnet

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Sabina Ewing is Global CIO and Vice President of Business & Technology Services (BTS) at Abbott. With more than 20 years of technology experience and an exceptional record of business partnership with senior executives, Ewing is known for being passionate about IT’s role as a strategic partner and enabler of top-line and bottom-line results. 

A consummate learner and teacher, Ewing leads with a focus on the human side of the technology equation, which isn’t surprising when you consider she took a year off early in her career to teach fifth grade at a public school in the South Bronx. When we sat down for a chat during CIO’s Future of Work Summit, Ewing shared her perspectives on The Great Resignation, how the pandemic has changed the way we work, and what it takes to be a talent magnet. She also opened up her leadership playbook to share some of the things CIOs should be thinking about in terms of technology’s role in 21st century business. What follows are highlights from that conversation. (Watch the full interview embedded below.)

Dan Roberts: You talk about how the pandemic shocked the system like a “digital defibrillator.” What do you mean by that?

Sabina Ewing: I call it a digital defibrillator because the pandemic really accelerated people on their journey of digital transformation. Where you were in your digital transformation pre-pandemic is indicative of how much of a shock it was to your system. And that’s not just at the organizational level; it’s also at the industry level. So, I see the role of technology being accelerated substantially, almost supercharged, by the pandemic. And it really requires us to be forward thinking, to look for new ways of how we’re going to work and get things done.

No one’s figured it out. We’re all trying to solve it at the same time. And we’re going to have to learn quickly through the process of how we’re going to enable that digital transformation in the enterprise. So, with the digital defibrillator, when the pandemic hit, it was about, do you have a digital strategy? Did you think about remote work, anytime, anyplace, any device? Now you’re going to have to learn how to make that work. And now you’re going to have to think about how you serve your customers. How are you going to do that in the digital realm? In the virtual realm? 

That shock to the system is also impacting organizational culture. What are you most concerned about in terms of culture and this new world of work?

Naturally, you’re going to be considering flexibility and what the hybrid work environment looks like, but I’m particularly concerned with what collaboration looks like because that’s a key piece of innovation and how organizations have been successful. So, I think we’re really going to have to think about how you enable the innovation that drives your business forward. Because the technologies haven’t necessarily evolved to enable the same type of collaboration that we’ve experienced in our in-person work, but at the same time we know we have to do it differently.

You also have to think about how you stay true to your values as a company. One of the things I’m really proud of about Abbott and our leadership, starting from our CEO down, is we said, this is what we are and what we all want to stay true to. And that includes our mission, our purpose, and our emphasis on collaboration and innovation. 

At the same time, it’s about really being thoughtful about what it means to be an Abbott colleague. What does that experience look like? How are we going to get our work done? There’s no silver bullet, but having that center about who you are and how you’re going to drive innovation and what culture and experience you want for your colleagues and employees is really important.

Every CIO is concerned about talent right now. The Great Resignation, a tight labor market, and remote work, among other things, have created an employee’s market right now. Can you talk a bit about your perspective on talent retention?

It is an employee market in terms of the war for talent, but irrespective of that, as a leader, you want to make sure that you’re thinking about the folks who drive and execute on the strategy, the folks who make it happen in the organization. It’s really important to be able to say, here’s what the value proposition is for them. 

But also, it’s very much a function of, as long as I have you, what does that experience look like for you?  I’ll likely have you two, five, or ten years, but no matter how long it is, it’s going to be really important that we think about what that looks like. I put people at the foundation of what we’re going to do in terms of the type of environment we create. My whole noble goal is that we create the best place for people to work.

What is your advice for CIOs and technology leaders who are managing a lot of people and trying to retain them, or even for those technologists considering a move?

Regardless of whether you have a person for two, or five, or even 35 years, you need to make it an experience where they’ve connected to the brand. And it’s not just about compensation. The compensation package is important, but people are looking for satisfying, high-impact work where they can develop their careers. When you do that, you’re creating an environment where people are more likely to stay. And if they decide to leave because they think the grass is greener on the other side, but then realize it’s not, they may be more likely to want to come back.

What are some of the things you’re doing to make the employee experience unique?

First, I’d say to every person who’s in technology, it’s really important to help the organization enable anytime, anyplace working. It’s easier said than done, but that’s part of allowing for the flexibility folks need in terms of how you create a different experience. 

The second piece is looking at the whole person and not just simply thinking about nine to five. When I started in my career at Arthur Andersen, we had what we call the partner hours — as long as the partners are there, you are going to be working. That era is ending. 

The way I’m approaching it is outcomes-based, meaning, there are set outcomes that we have in the work that we’re doing, so how are you then able to execute and deliver, versus me thinking about traditional constructs of how your work is done. 

The other piece is a new culture committee I started within my organization. It’s not run by me or one of my direct reports. It’s run by a group of colleagues from around the world in order for them to talk about the things that matter, the things that will make it a diverse and inclusive environment, and one that is thoughtful of their personal needs and satisfaction. 

What does it mean to you to be a talent magnet?

I mentioned that technology is the business in every domain, and we are in a liminal phase where technologists can help really uplift the acumen of an enterprise. As a function of that, you want to know what type of company you’re going to work for. People want not only to know about the brand relative to the product, which is extraordinarily important, but also what other people have to say about working at Abbott. 

So, how do I create an experience that, irrespective of how long I have you, I am helping you to unleash your full potential? That part of it is a differentiator and a magnet. What are the skills and capabilities that are needed going forward—not only how do we acquire new talent, but how do I build it so that people know we’re investing in them and positioning them to transition into new areas so they feel that satisfaction of learning and growth. When I think of talent brand, it’s not only attract; it’s also develop and retain.

Leading the business means bringing your technical expertise to lift the acumen of the entire organization. That, to me, is a massive differentiator between 20th century IT and 21st century technologists. And that’s why talent is the first pillar in our strategy. 

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