Boeing CIO Susan Doniz leads with curiosity and empathy

Susan Doniz always knew she wanted to be in a “very people-oriented” career.

Initially drawn to medicine, Doniz found that in IT, starting with a 17-year stint working her way up the technology ranks at Procter & Gamble before becoming group CIO of Qantas Airways and later joining Boeing, where she currently serves as CIO, data analytics officer, and senior vice president of IT and data analytics.

That success in IT leadership she attributes largely to a strong sense of curiosity cultivated while growing up in Spain and living throughout Latin America.

“I was very curious about the world around me, and the people in it, and to find out more about not just the world, but myself, too. When you see things that are very different, you reflect on yourself. When I think about leadership, and what kind of led me to my leadership style, it has a lot to do with curiosity. I always I feel like I’m a lifelong learner,” she says.

Her curiosity — and affinity for design thinking — is driven by a desire to “truly understand things and the way they work,” she says, rather than just taking someone else’s word for it.

To that end, Doniz jumped into her role at Boeing by gaining hands-on experience in the factory so she could fully understand the multinational aerospace manufacturer’s business. Today, she works closely with IT interns who are “in front of everything every single day” as part of her commitment to spend time with not only other leaders and executives but also employees, interns, and others throughout IT and the organization at large.

“I’m spending time with people that are really doing the work so that I can develop a deep empathy and really understand how things work,” says Doniz, adding that this approach enables her to understand processes on a “deeply personal level,” to discover “what they’re trying to accomplish,” a vital facet of her role in catalyzing change at Boeing.

Moreover, connecting with people, finding out what motivates them, what their aspirations are, Doniz works hard to put herself “in their shoes,” something she says is particularly important as you climb the leadership ladder, because “the more senior you become, the more obfuscated what’s really happening becomes to you, because things go through so many layers.”

Empowering employees to do their best work

At Boeing, Doniz takes a product-based approach to IT, in which employees aren’t simply assigned projects and told exactly what to do, but focus on “the outcomes and the business processes that they support,” she says, adding that the product model empowers employees to feel ownership over their work, which is more engaging than just being assigned tasks with no context or goals surrounding them.

“Giving people not just the tools, but the ability to make the decisions that they want to make, and to take away the bureaucracy, or any non-value-added work that gets in their way, is really what motivates them,” she says. “Allowing people to do their best work or giving them autonomy and decision-making rights is so important, because people will leave if they can’t do the work.”

That emphasis on job satisfaction and talent retention at Boeing is further enforced by a strong focus on training and career development. Investing in management training to ensure managers are equipped to lead effectively is a key emphasis for Doniz, who also acknowledges that management isn’t the path for everyone. For those who want to remain on a technical track, Boeing offers clear pathways to alternative career trajectories to ensure employees can grow their careers without having to make the shift to management.

The company’s Technical Fellowship program helps to foster the skills of Boeing’s technical workers. The program includes three main levels: Associate Technical Fellow, Technical Fellow, and Senior Technical Fellow, which is a director-level position. But employees can also advance to Principal Senior Technical Fellow, a senior director role, and Distinguished Senior Technical Fellow, at the vice president level.

This alternate advancement path allows Boeing to retain top talent and subject matter experts without the risk of losing them to other corporations in the name of career growth. And in the aerospace industry, subject matter experts are uniquely critical to the success of the business.

“We need experts that are deep experts in AI, data analytics, and cloud. In order to launch things into outer space, and to look at the data that we have coming off from an aircraft — which is literally terabytes of data — you need some pretty heavy-duty technical skills. Those people might not want to be management, and that’s okay,” says Doniz.

The two-career path approach helps Boeing “empower [employees] to do their best work” and contribute to the overall mission of the company while reducing churn, Doniz says.

Keeping up with the pace of technology

In leading Boeing IT and data analytics, Doniz believes translating her love of learning into an organization-wide culture of curiosity is vital for navigating the rapid pace of change in technology — and technology adoption — today. Doniz points to the adoption rates of past technologies, noting how the iPhone was adopted faster than the television, and compares that to current technologies such as generative AI, which was adopted even faster.

“We live in a world full of change,” says Doniz, and that requires technologists to be agile, curious, and life-long learners. “You have to be very adaptable, and pivot very quickly.”

Change isn’t a “one act show,” Doniz adds, emphasizing that those in the IT industry must remain committed to life-long learning, because “you have to constantly be learning new things.”

“I’m constantly reskilling myself and upskilling myself,” she says, “learning about new technologies, working with peers, going to conferences, seeing what people have out there, and being inspired by other businesses and what they’ve done.”

That commitment to life-long learning is an ethos that needs to be encouraged and supported through the entire organization, Doniz says, which means having the right resources in place to support and motivate the natural curiosity of employees.

“We need to provide the means where they can invest, and I’ve never seen a company that allows you to invest so much in learning — you can study anything and Boeing will support you on it,” she says.

That also means giving employees opportunities to gain new experiences on the job by putting engaged and motivated employees into reach roles, which helps grow their skills and confidence, while helping the organization keep pace with technology and skills demand.

“I’m sure you can’t find anybody that has two years of generative AI experience because there’s not a lot of people that have that. So we have to lean forward,” Doniz says. “For people who have shown that they’re curious, and can deliver, and can learn, then we make sure that we’re giving them new opportunities. And I think that’s so important, to take chances and to give people opportunities to show what they can do in new areas of technology, because that’s how you learn — through doing.”

Keys for success

For Doniz, the keys to inspiring a workforce is to genuinely care about the individual satisfaction and happiness of each employee, and to be invested in the organization’s overall success as well. 

“I really want people to be successful and so putting people in the middle of everything and understanding what motivates them, and being genuinely curious and genuinely caring, which sometimes means giving them the hard messages, but in a way that is caring, I think is what helps me connect but also to be successful with my teams as well,” she says.

Growing up, Doniz never considered a career in technology and knows that there are many people who feel they “don’t have the skills or grew up in a place where they didn’t have the resources to learn” about technology. But she believes that technology is more than “being curious about how a computer works”; it’s “really about people.” “I would just encourage more people to consider careers in technology, because you can’t be a good technologist without being very interested in every process from finance, to marketing, to manufacturing, and I feel like I’ve been able to almost do every single career because I support technology. And I might not have thought of that as a girl growing up.”

Aerospace and Defense Industry, IT Leadership