By Scott Robbin
Sheleen Quish “wore” two hats in her role at Ameristar Casinos, as the former Senior Vice President of Information Technology & Human Resources. When asked the key skills needed to be successful in both IT and HR, Quish responded that it is a matter of experience and style rather than skill. “You cannot train for this,” she said.
[Scott Robbin] Being the head of both IT & HR is not a typical match at organizations – how did this come about?
[Sheleen Quish] You are right, this is not a typical match up at all. In fact, you could actually say it was a mash up! It was not a strategic decision that came about as a result of a study or anything like that. It was born out of some extenuating circumstances, but then again isn’t that how many things happen in business? Opportunity and timing are really what’s at play here.
So in this case, here is what happened. I came to Ameristar as an interim CIO for a 3-4 month gig. I knew the executive recruiter through my networking. My background was multi-industry and multi-functional. I had the experience of being responsible for a company’s operations, HR, IT and a variety of other functions. Those were very valuable years and made me a very inclusive leader. My first IT job was CIO for a $4B company with a staff of 450 IT professionals. Since i was not a technical whiz and the number one challenge was to align business and technology more effectively I used every skill and trick in my bag to impact positive change. That role was repeated in 3 more companies after that. So, Ameristar got the value of all that experience and when I got to get an inside look at their IT/business challenges and expectations I realized I was well equipped for the job. They seemed to agree and I was hired full time in May 2007.
“HR desperately needed to embrace IT and IT needed to be more human.”
The IT transformation to an enterprise service organization who operated as an extension of the business functions while supporting a strong and stable infrastructure, created a culture that was both energizing and attractive to other departments. At the same time two other dynamics developed: the company was going through some re-structuring and the HR leader got an offer in another industry that was too good to pass up. So there we were with a dilemma: how could we recruit and hire someone in that environment and how long would it take them to learn our culture? The executive team looked inside for answers first and at the same time I was seeing that my role was ready to be expanded. My IT operation was running smoothly. I had selected my successor and was actively grooming her for growth. People like and trusted me and saw me in a role beyond IT, after all I was interacting, as was my team, every day with the business at all levels. And by the way, IT people were happy, having fun and delivering great results! So it came down to a conversation: what if? And it all made sense in a crazy way so we did it. I told our president that the challenge and opportunity were so valuable to me I would do it for nothing. Of course they compensated me accordingly but it was never about the money. This move also put me at the executive table in two seats: a very good thing!
How did you make it work?
I ran two departments and made sure I had good leaders in both. I took my expanded role as a member of the executive board very much to heart and became even more visible as a message to all our team members how valuable they are. I happen to be very much a whole brain person and working with both sides of my brain at the same time feels really good to me!
How would you respond to the professionals who say that HR & IT are too different for one person to run both?
When people say that the job was impossible and the functions are too different, I disagree:
1. Both IT and HR are service organizations that exist to serve and support business operations. They do not generate revenue. They are cost centers. Cost centers have many things in common, especially around budget time!
2. Both IT and HR have a jargon of their own. You figure that out and you are half way there.
3. Both have professionals with technical certifications. They are unique to each but the process is similar.
4. In both cases the leaders are generally very good technicians that have worked their way up the food chain. They may not always be great leaders and managers so in the end these functions are not necessarily well manged overall. In fact, I think that is why I even had a career.
5. My favorite rationale is that HR desperately needed to embrace IT and IT needed to be more human. Now at Ameristar the IT group was pretty evolved after almost 5 years with me so the real challenge was integrating technology into HR. It was a lot easier for me to do it and pull the right resources from IT and set some new priorities from my new vantage point!
How important is technology to the future of HR?
Technology is critical to the future of HR and its overall value proposition to the business. All those mundane, paper intensive, non-value added tasks can be automated. How may HR departments are comprised primarily of clerks? HR should be focusing on supporting business needs like recruiting, hiring and developing talent, developing strong leaders.
“Technology is critical to the future of HR and its overall value proposition to the business.”
HR can impact the company in so many ways that have a direct impact on the profitability but they generally do not have the tools to do it and may not know how to select them even if they had the desire and the funding.
What was the most difficult aspect of running both functions?
The most difficult thing was not having enough time to spend with the individuals in both departments. My time got shared with an even broader group of team members as the role of HR leader is really like being Mother Goose to the whole corporate team and beyond. This was especially valuable when the company entered into an agreement to be acquired by Pinnacle Entertainment. IT and HR are critical to the integration of the companies.
What did you learn most from the acquisition process you just went through from an HR standpoint and from an IT standpoint?
I think the most important thing I learned form the recent acquisition process was that trust is the most valuable asset! We spent almost 8 months in pre-closing activities. Of course there were some restrictions due to regulatory issues but but what was valuable was that people got to meet and share how they operated. We help 21 Info Sharing sessions to start the dialogue between functional leaders.The Pinnacle leadership team partnered with our leadership team an we did 2 full road trips to all our properties and meet with team members and toured the facilities. In both cases we provided insights into the acquisition process and into the the cultures of both companies. IT and HR were key to making all this happen and of course the longest tail to an integration is generally IT with HR close behind. 99% of all the team member questions were related to HR issues. Planning and communicating are the most important aspects and proactive communications are mandatory. Even if you you only say nothing has changed it is better than having people make up facts in a vacuum!
What is one piece of advice that you have for an executive looking to head up two functions in an organization?
Don’t do it, just to do it. There has to be a compelling reason and you have to be the right person, the only person for the job. This is NOT a trend. You need to have a driving passion for culture and be willing to be the company cheerleader in addition to all your other hats. I loved every minute of it!
Sheleen Quish is the former Senior Vice President of Human Resources and Information Technology at Ameristar Casinos Inc. Ameristar was recently acquired by Pinnacle Entertainment. Sheleen became the Chief Information Officer for Ameristar Casinos, Inc. in January 2007. The primary goal was to transform the IT organization from a business obstacle to a business enabler. This has been done by upgrading the skill set on the IT team, building effective relationships with business leaders and aligning the projects of the IT team with business initiatives. In 2011, Sheleen assumed additional responsibilities and was named Sr. VP of HR & IT. Although this could be considered an odd combination it has proven to be an advantage to our business operations. IT and HR are both service organizations that need to support business objectives, both functions derive value from standardization and brand wide strategies. HR is now poised to generate more value through the use of technology: online team member training, a Team Member portal, a new labor management systems and new Team Member scheduling system.
Prior to joining Ameristar Sheleen had formed a consulting firm, Box 9 Consulting, providing IT leadership in a variety of industries. Her role as VP & Global CIO for US Can Company, based in Chicago, Illinois, was eliminated when the company was sold to the Ball Corporation. At US Can she was responsible for the global infrastructure, three data centers and a wide array of applications to support the $750 million company in 24 locations in six countries. Sheleen’s background is relatively unique in the CIO world. She has 20 years of Marketing and Operations experience in health care, retail and insurance before venturing into IT management. While driving improvements in the operations of a major health insurance company, Sheleen became fully aware of the power of IT in shaping a company’s performance and growth. At the same time she recognized that IT is often not well aligned with business objectives. In 1993, Sheleen assumed her first position in a pure IT role, as a CIO. Over the last 15 years she has been in a CIO role in multiple industries and has developed a set of IT management principles and strategies that support achieving business goals and creating a viable IT culture for IT professionals to thrive in.Focusing on people, processes and technology Sheleen has consistently lead business improvements in each organization on her resume. Sheleen shares her experiences with IT leadership and their staffs through writing, speaking engagements, radio broadcasts, coaching and mentoring.
She is a graduate of the College of New Rochelle, New Rochelle, NY and has also been a Senior Consultant with the Cutter Consortium, Boston, MA, and is an Emeritus member of CIO Magazine Editorial Advisory Board. Sheleen is also on the Executive Advisory Board of Gaming & Leisure magazine, the industry publication for IT professionals.