CIOs take heart: You don’t have to be an experimental physicist to win a promotion from the IT department into a line management role, but it can’t hurt, as the case of American Express executive Katrina Lane shows. Lane has been achieving at a high-level for a long time. She has a Ph.D. in Experimental Physics from Cornell, spent seven years as a consultant at McKinsey & Company, and took on marketing executive roles at multiple companies, ending up as the vice president of Channel Marketing at Caesars Entertainment. During her time in marketing, she collaborated with IT departments in developing data-driven marketing strategies, and implementing sophisticated customer relationship marketing (CRM) and business intelligence systems. She was so knowledgeable, in fact, that she was asked to take over IT as Caesars’ senior vice president and chief technology officer, the senior-most information technology role in the company.
Although this path may seem strange, there are a number of CIOs and CTOs whose first role in IT were as the senior-most position in the department. Lane’s scientific background, her time in consulting, and her deep collaboration with IT made this possible. Her responsibilities were broader than the average CIO, as well, as over time her role expanded and she oversaw innovation, gaming, IT application development, infrastructure, security, support for customer facing systems, all company web sites, as well as key initiatives to develop new technical capabilities for the Total Rewards loyalty program.
In May of 2012, after more than eight years at Caesars Entertainment, Lane left to become the Executive Vice President of Consumer Cards & Experiences at American Express. In this role, she manages the consumer card products portfolio and customer experiences. She and her team develop new offerings to enhance the card member experience and oversee customer segmentation, retention and advocacy. This is a logical step up based on her past experiences, as she makes clear below.
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Peter High: Katrina, you had an interesting path to head of IT. You have a Ph.D. in physics, you were a consultant, and then a marketing executive before being asked to lead Caesars IT department as its chief technology officer. You are now the EVP of Consumer Card and Experiences at American Express. What is the thread that runs through this journey?
Katrina Lane: I have focused my career on the intersection of marketing, data, customers and technology. This intersection is the place where businesses can best leverage what they know about their customers to create compelling products, services and experiences that are also personalized – if appropriate. The physics degree was good training in overall problem solving. Because I wanted to have broad impact, I intended to find a position in applied science rather than stay in academic, although I do love teaching. But what I learned is that your focus becomes narrower as you work toward a graduate degree, and I started to look for opportunities to continue to do problem solving against a broader set of issues. I moved to a role as a management consultant, where I was able to use analytic skills while expanding my business knowledge. I started to focus on B2C businesses and in particular the areas where data could be leveraged to provide a better experience for the customer (at that point the field of CRM was just emerging). This focus area led to my next role in marketing.
PH: The relationship between Marketing and IT is written about a lot these days. There are those who say that CMOs and CIOs/CTOs are a match made in heaven because they are natural complements, and the nexus of their union is where a tremendous amount of value can be garnered. There are others who say that as Marketing’s IT budget increases, there will be a trend of CMOs taking over the CIO/CTO role. The former is an opportunity for the IT leader and the second means the death of the traditional IT leader. What do you think about these hypotheses?
KL: I think strong partnerships between IT and marketing are key to driving innovative products and services. Marketing is increasingly analytic, influenced by both the shift to digital and the increasing use of data. IT can offer tremendous value by suggesting ways in which marketers can execute programs efficiently and effectively, including linking to current systems infrastructure.
I joined the technology team at Caesars, after working as the business lead on several multiyear technology projects. So I had strong ties to some parts of the technology organization as well as experience with a range of systems. At Caesars, the magic happens at the intersection of marketing and technology — and a critical success factor is the tight integration between those teams. So another opportunity I had was to help grow stronger bonds between those groups.
PH: In your current role, you manage the consumer cards products and services portfolio. What does this role entail, and what are some of your objectives for the foreseeable future?
KL: Our group focuses on creating and evolving great products for our card members in the US. This can include launching new products and services for our card members, as well as collaborating with merchant partners on programs that introduce them to prospective customers and enhance loyalty among current ones. Ultimately we’re in the business of building relationships between merchant and consumer in a way that benefits both parties.
PH: What do you draw from your time as an IT leader in your current role?
KL: I understand the level of complexity of technology, and I have some knowledge of what it takes to create new capabilities. My time in IT really deepened this understanding. I also have a willingness to work through the detailed requirements of the solutions to help achieve the best solutions. Lastly, having seen the complexity and challenges of systems, I have a great appreciation for the efforts of our colleagues in IT as we work to meets our customers’ needs.
PH: Did you always see IT leadership as a stepping stone back into a more traditional “business” role?
KL: When I shifted from marketing into a technology role at Caesars, I continued to have additional responsibilities including the innovation group, websites, and gaming which included products and systems. I saw the role in IT as an opportunity to learn more about the technologies and capabilities that supported our business efforts, and as a chance to work with a great team, while also having many customer facing responsibilities. I was able to gain new experience by working in areas adjacent to my historical roles. My past experience, along with the breadth of the role as CTO, meant that there were a range of possible roles I would have enjoyed following this job. So in short, I did not have a specific plan on whether my next role would be more technology focused or in marketing or a line of business.
PH: For IT executives who have the ambition to take on roles above and beyond IT, what advice do you have to offer?
KL: While the primary focus has to be effectively delivering the requirements of your role, for executives that want to expand I think it is critical to find adjacent areas that leverage your skills while also expanding your knowledge. In addition, it takes a lot of work to learn new areas so I also recommend that it be an area where you have a genuine interest. I would also look for opportunities to take leadership roles in projects that are critical to overall business objectives as a way to gain knowledge and to work closely with key leaders from other functions.