Ed Smith | Executive Profile | ATLANTA TREND
Work Hard, Play Hard, Lead Well
By Karen Rosen
Growing up, Ed Smith embraced every opportunity with enthusiasm. His hands-on jobs included mowing yards, refereeing basketball games, working at a gas station, carrying bricks for a construction company and even dressing in a gorilla costume to entertain at a party.
“All of these taught me the rewards and the value of hard work and the importance of making the most of each situation,” Smith says. “It was important to learn to listen and ask lots of questions -- make mistakes especially when they don't matter. That’s something that was encouraged.”
Smith, who is now the CIO & President of Technology Solutions at Alere Health, also took on the kinds of jobs you would expect of a math and physics major with a minor in chemistry and a goal of attending medical school: He was a lab assistant at the National Institutes of Health, a calculus teacher’s assistant and worked at a pediatrician’s office.
In that latter role, Smith saw first-hand the grind of medicine and didn’t appreciate the autonomy that doctors have.
“One of the things that really struck me was how little time he had for his family because pediatricians can’t delegate what they do,” he says. “I knew that eventually having a family and balance was important to me.”
A mentor suggested that Smith take off a year after his graduation from Indiana University and work as a health care consultant before resuming his studies. Smith joined Arthur Andersen – later Andersen Consulting and then Accenture – and wound up staying for 15 years.
Building a Foundation
The company had a culture of “work hard/play hard” and “up or out,” which kept employees focused, says Smith, who made partner at Accenture in the late 1990s.
“In retrospect the physician may have had better balance, but you need to learn from your mistakes and make the most of each opportunity,” he says.
Smith says consulting exposed him to so many different solutions that he got an appreciation for why a solution worked in one situation and not in another. He learned how to anticipate a problem and tailor solutions based on each business’s unique organizational, technological and strategic complexities.
“Math and Physics had given me a good foundation in problem solving, but Accenture really helped me to understand how to deliver value,” Smith says. “I learned to ask why before what. That helped me to make technical solutions relevant to complex business issues.”
Those 15 years at Accenture flew by as he saw the world one conference room at a time.
“The underlying theme was the ability to change and respondto new challenges, but what did I want to be?” Smith says. “Projects blurred, but relationships with clients and coworkers endured. Early in my career I was taught to leave home at home and work at work.
“From experience, sharing your status report with your wife is not the answer, butnot cutting everyone out and sharing yourself with your team helps them get to know what makes you tick and you to know them.”
With object-oriented technology new and hot, Internet banking sites started taking off. Smith led Bank of America’s initial internet banking implementation and became one of Accenture’s leading Internet financial services people. He was the client partner for S1, an Atlanta-based software company, and did a lot of work helping to implement or develop software solutions with S1 or implement their solutions globally,
“While at S1, Chip Mahan was one of those CEOs who made everyone feel like the most important person,” Smith says. “Chip surrounded himself with people he wanted to work with and always looked to learn from each situation. He impressed upon me the importance of people wanting to work with you, which was critical to building a team.”
Smith learned how to lead people by balancing all of the different motivators, as well as how to build high-impact teams through collaboration.
After Accenture, he joined Unisys, where he was GM of the Health Information Business. When that business was sold, Smith ran development for the Homeland Security practice in a role similar to a CTO.
“They needed a business technology leader to make sure that what we were developing innovative solutions in line with the mission of Homeland Security,” Smith says.
He had gained experience managing a 1,000-person organization -- something he had not been able to do at Accenture – and parlayed that into an opportunity to come back to Atlanta and join Equifax in 2007. Smith began as CIO for its personal solutions business, and then became CIO of US Customer Information Services business.
“At Accenture most of my peers seemed to have similar motivations, but at Unisys and Equifax there was a wider range of talent and a bigger challenge to motivate and align the team around common goals,” he says. “Empathy is so important. When you realize that your team really wants to do a good job and your job is to help them -- it all clicks.”
Smith says he has worked with a lot of CEOs, some of them visionaries and some he calls “operators.” Some have focused on the short-term, others the long-term.
“All of them are valuable examples,” he says. “Rick Smith at Equifax highlighted the importance of balancing a long- and short-term perspective -- not either/or -- while being a great example of balance with the community and his family.”
At AlereHealth, CEO Tom Underwood introduced the book “Drive,” by Daniel Pink.
“The message resonated with me on many of my best and worst examples,” Smith says, “the book says that to have great teams you must create an environment that encourages autonomy, develops mastery and aligns the team around a common purpose.”
The winner of CIO Magazine’s “Ones to Watch” award in 2009 says that looking back, the projects that stick out in his mind aren’t always the ones that brought the great accomplishments. “It’s the people that you work with and how we overcame our challenges.”
Directly responsible for about 500 technology resources and with influence over about 500 more, Smith says he believes in staying positive as a leader.
“But balance being positive with being realistic,” he says. “Anyone can say no but we are paid to find solutions to complex problems”.
He says someone once told him, “Nobody follows a pessimist.” “And it’s really true,” he says. “If you have a negative outlook on what you do, then you’re not going to be able to lead your team.”
At Alere Health, Smith is responsible for IT strategy, product development, IT operations and global infrastructure.
“Alere pulls it all together,” he says. “Healthcare is prime for innovation. So many of the solutions are out there; we just need to harvest solutions from other industries like retail and financial services and tailor them to the complex healthcare challenges that are in the news every day”.
Alere develops medical devices that it then monitors remotely to help people and providers more effectively intervene in critical health situations.
“These solutions empower patients while extending the providers’ reach to drive improved outcomes and a lower cost,” Smith says. “Mobile will drive improvements in engagement, analytics will focus on highest impact areas and people will continue to make the difference. Personal accountability is critical to solving health care issues, and we help people help themselves.”
And maybe it will allow doctors like the pediatrician Smith once worked for to spend more time with his family.
Secrets to Success
- Collaboration is critical to building a stronger team and larger results -- really understand what motivates your team before it’s too late. The answer may surprise you.
- Really understand why something is important and leverage analytics to drive sustainable improvements.
- Have Fun. Life's too short; be nice. Learn from your team and provide autonomy. We’ve implemented here at Alere something called “Fed Ex” days where once a quarter people can just work on anything. The idea is we deliver results in one day. People work harder on those days than any other day. And the stuff that they come up with invariably enhances other work that we’re doing and challenges the status quo.
Ed Smith is the CIO & President of Technology Solutions at Alere Health.Atlanta Trend expresses its thanks and deep appreciation to Ed Smith for sharing his thoughts with us.