Above the Glass: Scaling Resilience for Effective Leadership

Written by Alaina Percival

In this edition of Above the Glass Alaina Percival, CEO, and Co-founder of WWCode, interviewed Laura Miller, CIO of Macy’s, about her life’s experience in technology, the importance of resiliency, and what it means to take on a leadership role.

Can you tell us briefly about who you are?

I’m the CIO at Macy’s, one of the great iconic brands of our country, and very proud to be in this role.

Can you just tell us a little bit about your professional journey and how you got to where you are today?

My professional journey started out when I was very young. My dad was in technology. He was probably in the forefront of it, starting out in the early 60s with big computer rooms at MetLife. I was the oldest of three and a little bit of an age spread between me and the next one. My dad worked pretty much every Saturday and so when the other two came along mom said you need to take your daughter on Saturdays.

I ended up, at about five years old, starting to go to work with dad. What do you do with a five-year-old? You try to keep them busy. He put me in front of all sorts of technology and tried to give me actual work to do. I remember being in front of a keypunch, it was how we got the code into a computer back in the old days. He’d write it all out for me and I’d sit there and type it in. I’m sure there were more typing errors than there were coding errors. That was really the start of it.

Through college, I worked on and off for my father and the companies he worked for and was exposed to technology in ways that most people don’t get in their lives. In high school I started coding. I was doing a contract for the federal government. It was a really innovative, new concept that they were doing with laser printers and merging text on laser printers, going away from impact printers. It was a Department of Education survey and my father was part of this contract and he said I need your help. I started coding and it was the best experience.

In college I said I’m going to become a Computer Science major. I went to the University of Maryland and it’s an extremely competitive program. I was probably in year two taking calculus for the second time and realized that I am not a Computer Science major. I love the capabilities of technology and I love to see how they can improve business. What I realized is that I needed to have a business lens with that technology world. I changed my major to Information Systems Management and focused on accounting, econ, and statistics while I was doing all the technical classes.

Fortunately, I got to take a business calculus class and not an engineering calculus class. That’s how I ended up with that degree and realized that I’m not that pure engineer, but really a blend of business and technology. Throughout my career, I was very purposeful in making sure that I had different roles in the different technology silos, whether it is infrastructure, application development, or systems administration. I did all of those different roles in my early career so that I could then be a leader of those people later in my career. I’ve done a lot of different industries, everything from the federal government, local government, manufacturing, and a lot of financial services, and now at Macy’s, and am thrilled to be here.

Can you talk about either your own experience or advice that you have given to individual contributors who are looking to rise?

Sure, and there’s nothing wrong with being an individual contributor. I rely on many of them in terms of being great advisors and subject matter experts. I think that there are two paths you can go up in technology. You can go up a leadership path or you can go up that individual contributor path.

I think it’s a little harder to rise in the individual contributor path and there are fewer opportunities at higher levels. I think that either path will give you a great career. Let’s talk about moving from technology to leadership.

First, I think that a lot of people, in their individual contributor roles, don’t realize that they are leaders already. Many of you already are influencing people. You’re influencing people to think about using a different process, using a different technology. You’re talking to them about different architectures. You’re thinking about innovation and talking to people about this new idea. You’re getting them excited about it. That’s all leadership. Those are leadership skills that traverse very nicely into leading people in an official manner versus an unofficial manner. If you’re aware of that then that first role you go into, although a little scary because now you’re responsible for people’s production and output and their careers and their growth and development, it’s not very different from what you do every day.

When you get to my level, it’s just scale. It’s scale, thinking strategically, thinking more about the people and the talent and the development of my people than it is even about the hardcore technology. I think if you have a passion for helping people and leading people and setting strategy and direction for technology, it’s such a great opportunity for you to even grow beyond what you can do and influence as an individual contributor.

As Chief Information Officer, what skill set have you found most invaluable in this role and getting there also?

I don’t know if you call it a skill set or not. I think the higher up you go in an organization, the most important attribute that you need is resiliency. There are so many speed bumps in a career, in an organization, and in just day-to-day life. Whether you’re an individual contributor or a leader, we all have speed bumps every day. It’s your resiliency and your ability to work through those that I think are the most important for your ultimate success and happiness. I didn’t always have that resiliency and that patience.

I’m a type-A personality. I’m about getting things done quickly and with that doesn’t come a lot of patience. With a lack of patience, there’s not a lot of resiliency. It’s taken me time to understand what it takes to change organizations and change massive amounts of processes within an organization. When you have that understanding and you know a path forward, it helps you build your resiliency. You have an appreciation for what it takes to get it done. When you are losing your patience over it, you can regroup, replan, and figure out how to move forward.

You’ve had an extraordinary opportunity over the past year and a half to really develop that resiliency and I’m speaking specifically to the impact of COVID-19 and really everything that’s happening in the world right now. So many brands and organizations are finding themselves needing to completely reinvent their business model or, at a minimum, the way they’re doing business. Can you share some of that evolution that you face as a CIO?

You’ve got a personal aspect with this and a corporate aspect. This has certainly tested all of our resiliency in the last year and a half. The good news is, we’ve shown that we’re a pretty strong nation. The human soul is very strong and we’re going to get to the other side of this. In my role specifically, Macy’s was already evolving. We have an incredible strategy that we call Polaris. It rides on a digital transformation.

Everything that Macy’s was doing, even before Covid, was about our digital transformation. We have grown our e-commerce, our digital sales, to 34%. We’re going to continue to grow that business. I think COVID helped us accelerate but it wasn’t like these weren’t already in the plan. We have more to come in this space but it’s all part of the natural evolution of retail in general.

One of Women Who Codes’ goals is to see women represented at all levels of leadership and that includes in boardrooms. You sit on boards and so you keenly represent that vision. Can you give us some insights into how you navigated taking on these roles?

When I was at IHG I had a goal of retiring and I was going to be on boards. That would keep me active and interested and keep my mind going. I went on the journey of looking for my first board position. There’s a lot of prep work you have to do. You think you’re ready because you’ve met with the board, you presented to your board, you do strategy sessions for the board. What you don’t realize is what it’s like on the other side.

I was fortunate that the chairman of the board at IHG, Patrick Cescau, was willing to mentor and coach me. He spent an entire hour of his day with me telling me the things that I needed to research and understand before I sat on a board. A lot of it is really thinking about your role as an advisor and someone who’s looking out for the risk of the company, for the shareholders versus what we do in our roles as leaders within the company. You need to look out for risk and do they have the right strategy? You need to make sure they’re financially sound and doing the right financial things. You also need to make sure they’ve got the right talent and that they’ve got succession plans in place for leaders for the future. It was a very different lens. You need to think about leading from a different direction.

The real question is how do you get on a board? It doesn’t happen overnight. The most important thing is your network and you need to have people at those levels that are well networked that you’re networked with to get those opportunities. The first board I actually had the opportunity to join was LGI homes. I actually got that opportunity because I had interviewed for another board position and the two CEOs spoke to each other. Make sure you’re building the right network to create those opportunities

What kind of support do you still need today and also how can communities like Women Who Code still support you?

The first thing I can do is work with Women Who Code for our recruiting, making sure we’ve got great talent coming into the organization. Let’s start with support. I think that as women, especially those of us who have been in the business and in technology, which is a very male-dominated field, we try to be pretty tough.

We try to do a lot of this on our own. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve been the only female in a room. You don’t see the guys talking to each other about who’s getting the groceries tonight, who’s cooking dinner, all that kind of stuff. There wasn’t a lot of support when I was going through my career. I had support with girlfriends outside of work.

It was probably about ten years ago, I might even have the time frame off when I read Sheryl Sandberg’s book. The lean-in aspect of it for me was never an issue. I’m always going to take a seat at the table. I’m going to talk at the table. When she talked about her support system, that was when I went, you know what that’s the thing I need to really improve. I was not leaning in with the people that were around me for that level of support.

My husband is an incredible supporter and does almost anything I’d ask him to do but, I wasn’t asking him to do enough. When we had that conversation and talked about where he could help me, he was more than willing to help. That created so much space for me and my career to be able to take on the bigger challenges. Also, find those people that you trust within your organization that can be those support people and mentors. Be careful in who you pick, it needs to be someone you can trust. It’s really important that when you set up that relationship that you have that conversation that you’re not looking to be graded but, for a sounding board. Then, there are so many opportunities with your peer group.

At the same time, it’s also one of the most challenging relationships to manage. You’re all trying to grow and develop for the next role but, that’s where you really get the best feedback, the most honest feedback, and the most support. That’s what we need as women, more than anything else, to be able to grow our careers. Lots of different opportunities but, the first place starts with you asking for it

Why is it exciting to work at Macy’s? What is the culture like?

I was so pleasantly surprised when I joined Macy’s. The company is amazing and it starts at the top. We’ve got a phenomenal leader, Jeff Gennett, our CEO, who has been there his entire career. We have a great DNI program that we eat, live, and breathe and try to make sure that our organization represents that of our customer base. We pride ourselves on collaboration.

We also strongly believe in growing and developing our people. We’ve got a plethora of digital transformation opportunities going on and the number of leaders we need in those spaces and the number of technical people we need to make this happen is just phenomenal. We’re moving stuff to the cloud, we’re doing data analytics, data science, machine learning, and all this really fun technology to make it happen.

The other thing that’s wonderful about Macy’s is how much we give back to the community. We give back about $24 million a year in charitable contributions. We’ve got great opportunities, really cool work, a great collaborative environment, a great inclusivity program, development, and growth opportunities, and it’s just a good company

Imagine you’re speaking to almost 300,000 diverse technical women. What is one pro tip that you could pass on that might help them in their careers?

To really not take yourself too seriously along the way. Life’s too short and you need to make sure you’re doing the things that you love doing and doing them with your authentic self. If you’re doing something you love you’re going to work hard at doing it. Doing it with your authentic self and really enjoying it, is going to make the journey so much better. In a very male-competitive type of environment, I didn’t do that early on in my career. It’s only later in my career that I realized that I could be myself and I could actually have a seat at the table as myself and it was a much better experience when I was doing that than trying to fit a mold that wasn’t me.

Thank you so much. Your experience, your insight is truly inspiring.

Thank you so much this is such a great opportunity for me as well As for Macy’s. I look forward to getting to meet some of these amazing women that are coming through this program and hopefully hiring them soon too.

We are a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization dedicated to inspiring women to excel in technology careers. https://www.womenwhocode.com/