By Melissa J. Anderson (New York City)
Joyce Ulrich, Chief Information Officer at Legg Mason, is still learning to get comfortable with her position as a role model. “Some women in the firm have said to me that ‘you are a role model,’” she explained. “A role model is someone whose behavior you emulate, and I had never thought of myself in that way.”
Ulrich, who has spent her entire career in financial services, and all but three of those years in technology, has developed a clear perspective on how women can thrive in the field – and how companies can help them achieve a leadership position.
She encouraged women with less career experience to enter technology, and to figure out what they’re passionate about. “Be a geek. Find your passion for the technology and exploit that. Be flexible and open to learning new things, and don’t be afraid to approach different territory. And especially don’t be afraid to approach new territory that is currently dominated by men.”
As for advice for women who are more senior, she continued, “As I survey the landscape, I’m not sure that as women we’re necessarily good at playing by rules of the old boys’ network.” So we have a choice: we can learn to play by these obscure rules, or not, but what I would really prefer is for the rules to go away altogether.”
“I want to lead by example,” she added, “I have always tried to lead an honorable life. I hope that is what makes me a potential role model.”
Transforming an Organization
Born and raised in Baltimore, Ulrich went on to undergraduate study at Wharton and then moved to New York for her first job. “It was not the highest paying offer,” she recalled, “but it was clear to me that my new boss was going to be a great mentor, and he was.” Since then, Ulrich has spent her entire career in financial services. “I’ve run the gamut of types of companies, from insurance to consumer banking to investment banking to asset management.” And she added, “each time I left a firm, it was because I felt I’d reached the limit of what I could accomplish there. I was always eager to face the challenges the next opportunity would bring.”
Ulrich found herself back in Baltimore at Legg Mason when she decided to leave her former job because she felt the culture wasn’t the right fit for her. “I was looking for other opportunities, but with this one it was almost an instantaneous attraction. I took the train from New York to meet with folks at Legg, and I knew before I got back on the train that this was where I wanted to work.”
“And being back in my home town was the icing on the cake,” she added.
Today, as Chief Information Officer at Legg Mason, Ulrich is focused on transformational change. One of her proudest achievements, she says, was the transformation of the company’s technology organization. “In 2010, Legg Mason was in the midst of a very dramatic change to our business model. In technology, we started to move from a centralized set of services used by multiple affiliates to a decentralized structure where each affiliate controlled their own technology functions. It was very disruptive, and it meant a large reduction in costs and staff. I was a transitional employee, that is, I was one of the folks tagged to help finish the decentralization and then ride off into the sunset.”
She continued, “In the midst of this radical change, I had an epiphany. We were all focused on the loss brought by this change in the model, but I realized it was also a unique opportunity to remake technology within Legg Mason. I guess I was looking for the silver lining of some very dark storm clouds. The ‘aha’ moment was when I realized that the product life cycle (innovation – commercialization – commoditization) applied to technology, too. We should be happy to let go of the commodity functions in technology, and differentiate ourselves by focusing on activities that are innovative and/or strategic.”
“So, rather than just plan to ‘keep the lights on,’ we started to think about how new ideas, new technology and ready access to information can directly help our revenue producers,” Ulrich added.
“When you’re focused on the commodity functions, especially infrastructure, the best you can do is reduce costs. To reduce costs, you need scale, and we did not have scale,” she explained. “We figured out that we needed to outsource our core infrastructure. Keep in mind, this was two years ago, when the cloud was the new thing. So I rallied the team and challenged them to think differently, too, as we developed a strategy. We located a service provider in record time, and ultimately changed the way we deliver technology to our end user.”
Ulrich explained that Legg Mason “leapfrogged from a very expensive, do-it-yourself organization with a high fixed cost to a nimble organization with a pay-as-you-go model. Applications are now designed to permit ‘universal access’ via any device.”
The program’s success is one point of pride. The other, she explained, is how she convinced the company’s leadership and her team that they could succeed in the initiative. “To be able to help the organization do the analysis, and reach the conclusion that we had the opportunity to transform in a positive way, and then achieve that transformation in record time – that’s my proudest achievement.”
Managing New Technology
Ulrich says that these days, she is particularly interested in three topics in the technology space: the growing prevalence of mobile, leading high performing technology teams, and security.
“In the financial space, with the exception of commercial banks, we can be slow to adopt new mobile technologies. I want to understand how we can use mobile to better deliver services to our end users. And of course that brings up the inevitable question of which device do they use, and then you have a whole other set of issues,” she said with a laugh.
“The second thing I’m excited about is the development of my team. I like helping them get comfortable with rapid change, and helping them find the opportunities in those changes.”
As an example, she noted that most programming languages and technologies will inevitably go out of use. “Nobody can afford to be just a COBOL programmer anymore. If you are comfortable or prefer one technology, you should get over it.”
“Helping the group understand that change is okay, and that you should want to learn new things, and do new things, and let go of some things that make you comfortable, that’s exciting to me.”
Finally, she said, “I’m also very interested in cyber vulnerabilities. I do believe it’s exacerbated by bring-your-own-device. But we are where we are and there’s no going back. We need to figure this out.”
Aiming for Meritocracy
“What I always understood, and I’m glad that I understood it, is that you should never permit nonsense to stand in the way of your career advancement,” Ulrich said. “By nonsense, I mean working for someone who will not give you a fair shot.”
If you find yourself in that position, she encouraged, “Just move. Go find someone who will give you a fair shot – those people are out there.”
Ulrich says there are many ways women are challenged in the workplace, but the main challenge is the need for equal opportunity. “I think of this in terms of the pipeline; who is in the pipeline for advancement. We need to broaden that pipeline so more women can step onto the advancement track.”
She explained, “I go to several CIO conferences a year, and the good news is that there are more women than ever before. But the bad news is that there’s never a line in the ladies room. What causes that? It’s not that women aren’t interested in technology.”
One area for improvement could be evaluation structures, she suggested. “In technology, we have the potential to make very objective measurements. Does your technology work or not? Are your projects delivered on time? A lot of industries don’t have objective measures. I’m suggesting that we do our best to measure results objectively to determine who’s qualified for the next step. I don’t think that’s always happening.”
She added, “Women are also not always self-promoting, and that can harm us. But I would say I have a strong belief in meritocracy.”
Ulrich acknowledged that the word meritocracy can be problematic – with many people using it to refer to a system that is blind to difference and inequalities. “I believe the most effective approach is a meritocracy, and that you need objective ways to measure merit.” When asked if this was realistic, she replied, “Can’t we aspire to meritocracy? No one has ever said it was easy. I think recognition of merit is one of the key elements to equal opportunity.”
It also means casting a wider net to get people in the pipeline in the first place. For example, she explained, firms should make sure to recruit at colleges where students may not be of the same gender or ethnicity as the majority of the firm’s current staff. “If you’re going to run a trainee program where you ask people in the firm to recommend graduates from their own college, you’re going to get candidates with the same sphere of influence.”
“The better way,” she continued, “is to also recruit at colleges that don’t have the same sphere of opportunity.”
“Creating equal opportunity and casting a wider net… that is tough for companies to do.” But, she continued, she believes companies have an obligation to try, thereby creating a platform for meritocracy.
Ulrich, who is chair of Legg Mason’s Diversity and Inclusion Leadership Council, praised Legg Mason’s Women’s Leadership Network. “It’s a grassroots movement by senior women in the firm to create leadership opportunities for women. It’s a phenomenal program.”
In Her Personal Time
Ulrich has two daughters now out of the house, but when they were younger, she served as a Girl Scout leader for both of their troops. “I was a Girl Scout leader for 14 years – it was a huge amount of work but it was remarkably rewarding.”
“I have a passion about service to the community,” she continued. Ulrich serves on the boards of the local council of Boy Scouts and a local diabetes group, the technology council for the Walters Art Museum, and the Board of Visitors for Coppin State University, a historically black university in Baltimore. She is also on the board of the Baltimore Leadership Program, of which she herself is an alumnus.