CIO Exit Strategy: View From the Departure Lounge


By Tony Kontzer

It's not often we tech journalists get to talk to a big-company CIO who appears to be on his way out. Most companies aren't usually eager to make those folks available for interviews. I recently had just such an opportunity with Ron Anderson-Lehman, the long-time CIO at Continental Airlines. He appears destined for new endeavors once the carrier's merger with United Airlines gets approval from the U.S. Department of Justice, expected later this year.

When the airline announced its new executive leadership earlier this month, Anderson-Lehman's name wasn't on the list. United's Keith Halbert got the nod as CIO of the combined company, which will retain the United name.

Anderson-Lehman has occupied the CIO post at Continental since 2004, an eternity for a big-company CIO during these past several volatile years, especially in the topsy-turvy airline industry. While Continental struggled, as did its competitors, during that time, it also developed a reputation for strong customer and employee relations, a sign that its IT team has been doing something right.

Under Anderson-Lehman's helm, Continental Airlines did the following:

  • Charged into virtualization, helping it to save millions in hardware, software and operational costs
  • Championed the use of a travel industry XML spec designed to simplify booking and distribution, and enable stronger connections with partners
  • Undertook a massive overhaul of the airline's customer-information-management systems

When asked if he wishes he'd done anything differently, Anderson-Lehman says he has no regrets, and is proud of his legacy. Along the way, however, he's learned some things that could very well help out other CIOs.

For instance, he's very clear now on the critical role IT plays in the merger process, having gotten an up-close look at a huge one over the past few months. His advice? Take a leadership role in the process, but don't make big plans for the future. "Focus on an agenda that aligns with your CEO, and keep on that path while supporting the merger planning," says Anderson-Lehman. "And if you're not the choice for the new company's CIO, turn the page and move on; don't take it personally."

Anderson-Lehman also says he's come to realize that CIOs need to be pragmatists rather than purists. In other words, a good CIO focuses on practical business issues rather than getting mired in technology. Technology, he says, is in constant transition, whereas business conditions change quickly and violently, requiring foresight, determination and flexibility. "Like canoeing in a fast-moving river, you've always got to keep paddling to keep the vessel moving straight through the rough water."

The next few months, as the merger awaits final approval, will likely bring rough waters indeed, and Anderson-Lehman intends to do everything he can to contribute to the health of United's long-term IT strategy. Then he'll head off to the next challenge.

"I'm hoping to find a company that is in a growth mode for technology and looking for some strong leadership and technical vision to support that," he says. Something tells me there are more than a few companies out there who fit the bill.


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