Owens Corning’s Zerby and Baymiller on customer-centric innovation

After more than three decades in corporate IT, including the last 10 years as senior vice president and CIO of Owens Corning, Steve Zerby will be retiring in March, handing over the reins to his longtime colleague and the company’s current vice president of IT, Annie Baymiller.

Under Zerby’s tenure, the $8.5 billion global building and construction materials company has been named one of Computerworld’s 100 best places to work in IT for the past eight years, ranking No. 1 two of those years. His Global Information Services (GIS) organization has also been recognized with six CIO 100 awards. While those are big shoes to fill, Baymiller’s own career journey and willingness to step up to big challenges with confidence and a learning mindset have her well-positioned to carry on that legacy and build on it further.

In a recent episode of the Tech Whisperers podcast, Zerby and Baymiller shared what it takes to develop an enduring career as a CIO and how to do leadership succession right. After the show, we spent some more time discussing how they’ve developed an innovative, customer-focused IT organization that has made tangible contributions to Owens Corning’s continued business success. What follows is that conversation, edited for length and clarity.

Dan Roberts: Steve, I don’t think I’ve ever spoken with you when you haven’t talked about the company’s focus on the customer. How can other CIOs embed this kind of customer-centered approach to innovation into their technology organizations?

Steve Zerby, CIO, Owens Corning

Owens Corning

Steve Zerby: If you want your technical talent to impact the customer, you can’t expect a miracle to happen. You can’t expect an unknown technology talent to show up at a business president’s office and have them immediately say, ‘Why don’t you go spend some time with the most valuable customer of our company.’ It just doesn’t happen that way.

The first thing you have to do is figure out how to work your way into more strategic conversations, and we’ve always used service as our gateway to get us there. I think for a lot of CIOs, when they hear service, they think subservience or servants. But we use service in a very utilitarian way. If I figure out how to do something for a business or another function that feels like I provide a great service to them, I create an opportunity to be in the next one, and the next one. On day one, if they want us to take out the trash, we’re going to go take it out better than anybody’s ever taken it out before, and then they’re likely to invite us back in to do something else. And the opportunities will get bigger and bigger.

When you take that kind of spirit and mentality around service and then you put long tenure around it, that’s where our philosophy of building roles around people is so important. We build roles around people because aspirations for career growth that don’t happen are one of the three reasons people leave a company. We always want to add to your role in a way that feels like you’re experiencing career growth so you don’t have to go look for it somewhere else. But we also do it very strategically for the benefit of our stakeholders.

Roberts: What are some of the ways you do that? What does that talent strategy look like?

Zerby: Annie is a good example. She’s been attached to our roofing organization for the better part of the decade now, and yet she’s done a thousand other things, and we’ve done that by adding to her core role as our divisional CIO for roofing by giving her more team leaders and more folks that can begin to execute some of the things that she had to execute. Being that tightly knit to a single business like ours for that amount of time, of course over time you get to be in more strategic things, of course they now trust her to have more conversations with our customers. But you’ve got to have a talent strategy that doesn’t rotate your key IT executives away from businesses every 24 months. Because it takes 24 months to build that kind of trust.

So our talent strategy of building roles around people to give them the career growth they want, and at the same time leaving them anchored to stakeholders for long, long periods of time, is key to not only interacting with internal stakeholders, but also if you want to make it to the point where you can interact with the biggest customers of a company. That’s the journey you need to put your team on.

My advice for other CIOs is: Don’t think about your talent as a way to go satisfy some demand; think about your talent in the way that you develop them so that they are in demand and develop them so they can actually play where you want them to play. It’s a little bit like our D&I journey. The best thing we can do as leaders is make sure that there is a diverse group of employees ready for those challenges, who can go perform very strongly when given that opportunity. When you put all those pieces together, inevitably you end up in conversations with customers and suppliers and board members, because you’ve knit that whole people strategy together.

Roberts: Annie, I still hear of a lot of technology leaders say they struggle to get into that first strategy meeting and only get invited later when there’s something for IT to do. What’s your advice to them?

Annie Baymiller, vice president of IT, Owens Corning

Owens Corning

Annie Baymiller: I think Steve said it well: You just can’t expect a miracle to happen. You have to chip away at it a little bit every day when you’re connected to a new business or a new team. For me, it’s always anchored back to building authentic, trusting relationships, and a way to build that trusting relationship, whether it’s meeting 100 or meeting 2, is to focus on how you add value when you’re in there. Then, whatever the outcome is of the session, you’ve got to go hit a home run delivering on it. You lose all credibility if you’re interesting and additive in the meeting and then when it comes to the thing that needs to be executed, you miss the mark or it doesn’t become a priority or the business doesn’t really believe it’s something you’re capable of driving. Executing and being reliable and dependable — that gets you invited back. And then you get invited back earlier and often.

I can imagine it being daunting if you’re getting invited in on meeting number 10 and you can’t figure out how to get invited earlier. But I think if you can just be the best version of yourself every day when you come to work, good things will happen. If you see problems and you run at them, if you ask questions that you think are for the good of the company or the good of the work, if you really get to know people so that they can understand you at your core, then that builds much faster trusting relationships.

Some of this is back to basics. If you love what you do when you come in and you do your best at it every day, some of those things just become non-issues over time. But I do think the delivery, the execution against it, is hugely important, because that’s how you get invited back.

Roberts: With 68 consecutive years on the Fortune 500, Owens Corning has had a remarkably consistent track record of business and financial success. Steve, can you talk about the business and what it’s doing to continue to be well-positioned for the next 68 years?

Zerby: In the last 24 months, I think the businesses have been leaning forward into innovation and growth in a completely different way. I’ve worked with three Fortune 500 companies, and probably the shortest CEO tenure that I will have been under will be [Owens Corning CEO] Brian Chambers, and if there’s a regret I have, it’s probably that I’m getting less of his leadership than I did many others. He just has a tremendously unique way of being challenging but, at the same time, totally respectful of the opinions of the experts that work in his company.

There are a lot of CEOs who have to be the smartest person in the room, but Brian’s got a unique way of putting enough people in a room that the room becomes really, really, really collectively smart. And he gets more out of the people around him than any CEO I’ve ever seen. So as I leave, it’s a bit of a regret, because I really have enjoyed the time in that sort of environment. But it’s also one that I think is going to continue to let the company be very innovative and be on a growth track. His constant consumption of opinions, ideas, thoughts that aren’t his but yet he can shape them and direct them — I think is a winning recipe that’s going to be outstanding for a long time to come.

Roberts: Annie, how is that driving the innovation in your area, and how your teams are stepping up to the challenge?

Baymiller: As Steve said, it starts with Brian and the leadership team’s commitment to really running at what it means to be a digital leader and how we can go create unique capabilities for our customers. And that’s hard work, because no customer is exactly like the other customer.

Over the last two years, I’ve seen our business teams really open themselves up in a way of ideating about what the future can be — figuring out how we quickly evaluate what some potential opportunities would be and letting them fail fast if they’re not the right thing for our customers or our market, and then looking at how you learn from some of the ones that we think could be interesting.

That can be an uncomfortable process when you’re thinking about things that might have relevance years down the road and there’s lots to do tomorrow. I think we’ve navigated that really well, with people feeling comfortable being vulnerable in what they know and what they don’t know, but also bringing the many years of experiences we have with some of our leaders across the company to shape that process.

As we continue to think about what innovation means for us across our products, across digital, across sustainability, it’s that commitment to it, every day, of knowing that we’ve got to continue to win today, but we also have to win tomorrow, and we can’t give up one for the other. That’s an interesting muscle to build and I’m really proud of how our leaders have driven that change for the company.

For more insights from Zerby and Baymiller on their career journeys and leading innovative IT teams, tune into the Tech Whisperers podcast.

IT Leadership, IT Strategy