Passion for tech, business and people propels CIO ORBIE winner
Editor’s note: This article first appeared in The Kansas City Business Journal, special section KansasCityCIO of the Year ORBIE Awards. Published with permission from KansasCityCIO and the InspireCIO Leadership Network.
Alan Lowden followed an anything-but-typical path to becoming CIO of a global company. From actuary to consultant to entrepreneur, the psychology major worked in a variety of roles for several companies before assuming the top technology leadership position at H&R Block. He now directs all aspects of technology at six global development sites and 10,000 retail offices for one the most recognized brands in the financial services industry.
“It was definitely a winding path,” Lowden said. “I started my career as an actuary because I was good at math. But I learned that being good at something isn’t enough. I had to find a career that fed my curiosity and helped me develop deeper passion for my work. My passion turned out to be building teams and leveraging technology to power business strategy.”
During his 5-year tenure as CIO, Lowden has led the technology transformation of H&R Block, driving modern architecture, cloud computing, emerging technologies, and new ways to work through DevOps and pipeline automation. “People haven’t historically thought about H&R Block as a technology company, but technology and data are central to our growth strategy,” he said. “We’ve been digitally transforming every aspect of our business, which makes Block a pretty exciting place to be.”
Lowden shared his views on leadership and lessons he has learned along the way.
What’s your main purpose as a CIO?
My primary purpose is to create a culture of innovation, which requires building nimble, high-performing teams that act boldly, crave tough problems, demand high standards and value winning.
It starts by setting strategy, defining key performance measures, and then empowering people and teams to develop and implement new products and services. This requires the right combination of leaders who empower others to run autonomous teams and bold individuals who accept the challenge to drive outcomes. If you’re missing either side of that combination, you’re not going to achieve the results you need.
How do you do foster a culture of boldness?
It’s easier said than done. There is a lot of talk in innovation circles about the importance of failing fast and failing forward. But most people don’t naturally embrace failure.
The key is having enough people who are willing to act boldly and put themselves out there. Some see this as individual risk, so it’s important for the leadership team to recognize when people take calculated risks and to support them when those attempts fail.
People learn from every failure. This is a muscle we need to continue to build in more people. At Block, we’ve seen some great progress over the past few years, and I believe it’s going to exponentially improve as more people realize the benefits in speed to market and customer experience by iterating quickly and taking bold actions.
What advice do you have for people who are new to the industry or for those who aspire to be a CIO?
There was a point that I pivoted from being heads down and very focused on my direct job to looking up and actively working to serve my community. My community involvement pushed me to grow in ways I hadn’t imagined. As an example, I got involved with KC Rising, where I co-chaired the Innovation and Entrepreneurship Committee.
A topic as broad as innovation and entrepreneurship allowed us to tackle virtually any challenge. We chose to focus on improving supplier diversity as something tangible where we could drive meaningful change for the betterment of our whole community.
We assembled a diverse, dedicated team of professionals and advocates from across our community to develop a playbook and a program to help corporations and historically disadvantaged entrepreneurs work together. We approached the CEOs of Kansas City companies to accept a challenge to dramatically expand the amount they spend with diverse suppliers. For H&R Block, that translated into committing to tripling our spending on diverse suppliers to $44 million by 2025.
Block is just one of many companies that accepted the challenge. In turn, we are challenging other company CEOs across the metro to make similar pledges, which will help many diverse entrepreneurs thrive. Our collective efforts can make a big difference in our community.
My community involvement has also helped broaden my perspective in ways that have made me think differently about how to improve customer experiences, and it has made me a better leader. I would definitely recommend that aspiring leaders get involved in their communities early in their careers.
How can CIOs help make their companies more inclusive to women, people of color and other underrepresented communities in IT and the C-suite?
Inclusivity and belonging are hugely important, not just for the betterment of our society, but for the health of every company. Diverse and inclusive workforces lead to a better understanding your customers, which leads to better products and service offerings.
The first step is to declare the importance of diversity, inclusivity and belonging. It starts at the top, and we treat it as a core value. But the declaration alone won’t drive change.
At Block, we tackled this challenge by enlisting the help of a diverse set of volunteers to serve on cross-functional teams who identified where we get it right and where we need to improve. These teams, along with other leaders, helped bake structural changes into many aspects of our processes to help institutionalize improved diversity and inclusivity.
There is a wide range of processes to target, such as where we source talent, how we evaluate and interview candidates
, how we procure supplies and services, and many others.
For example, continuing with the supplier diversity example, if there isn’t a big enough pool of diverse suppliers for a particular RFP, we have created new processes to do more outreach so additional diverse suppliers compete for the RFP.
Similarly, on the employee side, we strive for a more diverse and inclusive employee base. We created targeted programs to broaden our candidate pool, and we build awareness of our inclusivity goals to drive adoption. We take similar approaches in talent management to provide advancement opportunities for diverse leaders.
When do you feel like you’ve been effective as a leader?
When I see change scaled. Transformation is about scaling changes across an organization and seeing the results drive positive business outcomes.
The journey is never over. But it is richly rewarding to see others who are empowering their teams, acting boldly, running quickly and seeing their teams doing the same. I love to see the aggregate impact of these teams all working in concert, embracing behaviors that you know are necessary to drive change, and then seeing the network effect further accelerate progress across other teams and individuals.
What’s next in IT for Kansas City?
Kansas City continues to transform into a bigger tech hub. COVID may have helped reveal Kansas City as a hidden gem as more companies on the coasts have seen success in hiring remote workers from the Kansas City region.
I’m really excited about our future and the work that many KC organizations are doing to attract more tech talent and companies to the area.
Alan Lowden is chief information officer at H&R Block and responsible for all aspects of technology, information security, and support across six global development sites and 11,000 global retail offices. Lowden has more than 20 years of leadership experience in product development, software engineering, mobile development and cloud-based solutions across multiple industries. Before joining H&R Block, he was vice president of enterprise government for Lexmark Enterprise Software, started a management and technology consulting firm and held strategic roles at Accenture.
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