Michael Fulton, CIO, Vernovis

Michael Fulton is CIO and Senior Vice President, Consulting & Advisory Solutions at Vernovis, Ohio’s premier technology staffing provider. Mike joined Vernovis in July 2022 and now has overall responsibility for the company’s IT and Cybersecurity, as well as technology talent advisory services.    Mike is also academic director and adjunct professor for Digital topics at The Ohio State University.   Prior to joining Vernovis, Mike spent time at Expedient where he was Chief Innovation Officer along with other roles; Nationwide where he was AVP Technology Strategy & Innovation; CC&C Solutions where he was Chief Information & Digital Officer and President, Americas Division; and P&G where he was Chief Cloud Architect and Chief Shared Services Architect among many roles. He has also been a startup mentor, industry advisor and board member over the years. 

Recently, in an exclusive interview with Digital First Magazine, Michael shared his professional trajectory, his role and responsibilities as CIO at Vernovis, insights on the importance of embracing servant leadership, personal sources of inspiration, future plans, words of wisdom, and much more. The following excerpts are taken from the interview.

Hi Michael. Please tell us about your background and areas of expertise.

I am Chief Information Officer and Senior Vice President, Consulting & Advisory Solutions at Vernovis, the Midwest’s leading technology staffing provider. I joined Vernovis in July 2022 and now have overall responsibility for the company’s IT and Cybersecurity, as well as technology talent advisory services. I also teach digital topics at The Ohio State University, where I am an adjunct professor and served as academic director for Digital Executive Education.

Prior to joining Vernovis, I worked at Expedient, the Nation’s premier VMware based hybrid cloud provider as their Chief Innovation Officer.  I also ran a commercial operations shared service team as well as had overall responsibility for the company’s commercial strategy and market intelligence functions. Prior to joining Expedient, I was AVP of Technology Strategy & Innovation where my team-built prototypes leveraging technologies like Mobile Devices, Cloud, Artificial Intelligence, Chatbots, Voice Assistants, Blockchain, Smart Contracts, Augmented Reality, 360 Video, Virtual Reality, & Internet of Things. I did a stint running the Americas Division of CC&C Solutions, a global boutique Enterprise Architecture and IT Strategy consulting and training company headquartered in Sydney, Australia.  I was also Chief Digital and Information Officer of the parent company and led 11 different engagements worldwide in 20 months. Finally, I spent almost 20 years at Procter & Gamble, where I did almost every job in IT, including Chief Cloud Architect, Chief Shared Services Architect, head of EA Capability, and head of Strategic IT Cost Optimization. I am certified in TOGAF 9, TOGAF Essentials, IT4IT, Cloud Architecture, and ITIL; am accredited to train both TOGAF and IT4IT; and have experience serving on multiple company and industry boards as well as coach and mentor to many individuals across IT industry.

Brief us about your role and responsibilities as CIO at Vernovis.

As the CIO of Vernovis, my primary responsibility is to lead the company’s digital transformation efforts. This is a multifaceted and strategic initiative that requires a comprehensive review of our business operations and a thoughtful integration of technology solutions.

Our approach is centered on identifying opportunities where technology can drive significant improvements in productivity, efficiency, and employee experience across the organization. This involves closely examining our existing processes, workflows, and systems to uncover areas that can be optimized or automated through the deployment of innovative digital tools and platforms.

At the same time, we are also focused on leveraging technology to enhance the capabilities of our organization and deliver a superior experience for our customers and candidates. This could involve the implementation of advanced analytics, the development of custom applications like our website, or the deployment of cutting-edge customer relationship management and applicant tracking systems.

By taking a holistic and user-centric view of our digital transformation, we aim to position Vernovis as a technology-forward leader in our industry. This not only strengthens our competitive advantage but also empowers our teams to work smarter, more collaboratively, and with greater agility.

As the CIO, I am responsible for spearheading this transformative journey, aligning our technology investments with the company’s strategic objectives, and ensuring seamless execution across the organization. It is a complex and multifaceted role, but one that I am deeply passionate about as we work to unlock new levels of innovation, productivity, and customer satisfaction.

What are some of the technology challenges facing the industry right now?

As CIOs, one of the most pressing technology challenges we face today is the responsible experimentation and deployment of generative AI solutions. The rapid advancements in tools like ChatGPT have captured the attention of businesses across industries, promising to enhance productivity, creativity, and decision-making.

However, the integration of these powerful AI capabilities must be approached with great care and foresight. We need to develop robust governance frameworks that address the ethical implications, data privacy concerns, and potential for misuse.

Employees must be educated on the appropriate and responsible use of generative AI, ensuring it augments rather than replaces human intelligence.

Additionally, we must be vigilant about the potential for “AI hallucinations” – instances where the AI generates plausible-sounding but factually incorrect information. Rigorous testing and validation processes are crucial to maintaining the integrity of the insights and outputs generated by these systems.

Another significant challenge facing the technology industry is the dramatic cost increases associated with VMware licensing, following Broadcom’s acquisition of the virtualization giant.

Industry reports suggest that customers are seeing VMware licensing costs rise by as much as 300-500%, putting significant strain on IT budgets. This is particularly concerning for organizations that have heavily invested in VMware-based infrastructure and are now faced with the prospect of either absorbing these increased costs or exploring alternative solutions.

As CIOs, we must work closely with our VMware account teams to understand the full impact of these changes and negotiate the best possible terms. Additionally, we should explore alternative virtualization platforms and cloud-based solutions that may offer more cost-effective options, while ensuring a seamless transition for our organizations.

In your opinion, what should CIOs and businesses do to take advantage of recent technology evolutions?

As a forward-thinking CIO, I believe there are several key steps businesses should take to capitalize on recent technological evolutions. First, CIOs must be at the forefront of driving digital transformation initiatives that leverage technology and data to transform business models and customer experiences. The pace of digital change continues to accelerate, and it is crucial for CIOs to spearhead these transformative efforts.

Second, the rapid advancement of generative AI tools like ChatGPT presents significant opportunities to enhance productivity, creativity, and decision-making across the organization. CIOs should work to educate their boards, peer executives, and employees on the capabilities and appropriate use of these technologies, while also developing robust governance policies to ensure responsible and ethical deployment.

As the threat landscape becomes increasingly complex, CIOs must also make cybersecurity a top priority. This includes developing cybersecurity strategies and tactics informed first by ROI, implementing robust risk management frameworks, investing in advanced security technologies where appropriate, and fostering a culture of security awareness across the organization.

To stay ahead of the curve, CIOs should cultivate an innovation-driven culture that encourages experimentation, rapid prototyping, and the adoption of emerging technologies. This agile mindset will be crucial in navigating the fast-paced digital landscape.

Finally, CIOs should partner with HR to implement robust upskilling and reskilling programs, equipping both IT and non-IT employees with the skills needed to thrive in a digital-first environment. This evolving technology landscape requires a more adaptable and tech-savvy workforce, and CIOs must take the lead in ensuring their organizations are prepared for the future.

By embracing these strategies, CIOs can position their organizations to capitalize on the latest technology evolutions and drive sustainable growth and competitive advantage in the years to come.

As a leader, what approaches do you use to create a culture of experimentation and innovation within your team?

As CIOs, we know that cultivating a culture of innovation and experimentation is crucial for driving digital transformation and staying ahead of the curve. Based on my experience, there are three key steps we can take to set the right tone from the top:

First and foremost, we need to set an example ourselves by actively engaging with emerging technologies. This could involve hands-on experimentation with generative AI, low-code/no-code platforms, or other cutting-edge tools. By demonstrating our own curiosity and willingness to learn, we can inspire our teams to adopt a similar mindset.

Secondly, we must create a psychologically safe environment where our people feel empowered to take calculated risks and experiment without fear of repercussions. This means openly acknowledging that not every initiative will succeed, and positioning “appropriate failures” as valuable learning opportunities rather than career-limiting events.

Finally, we need to be strong executive sponsors of innovation initiatives, providing the necessary funding, resources, and air cover to enable our teams to thrive. This could involve setting aside dedicated innovation budgets, shielding projects from bureaucratic roadblocks, and publicly celebrating successes to reinforce the desired behaviors.

By leading through example, cultivating psychological safety, and providing robust executive sponsorship, we can foster a culture of innovation and experimentation that will be crucial for navigating the rapidly evolving technology landscape. This, in turn, will position our organizations to capitalize on the latest advancements and stay ahead of the competition.

What has been the most fulfilling part of your career?

As a seasoned technology executive and board member with global experience within small, medium, and large businesses, I can say with certainty that the most fulfilling aspect of my career has been the incredible variety of opportunities I’ve had the privilege to experience.

My journey has been anything but linear. I’ve worn many hats – from operations lead to developer to architect to project manager to Chief Information Officer to Chief Innovation Officer to Business Unit Lead. Each role has presented unique challenges and allowed me to develop a diverse set of skills that have been invaluable in navigating the ever-evolving technology landscape.

Early on, I had the opportunity to focus on technology as I ran and operated financial systems, led marketing technology implementations, designed cloud architectures and operating models, architected enterprise-wide solutions, and delivered transformative technology strategies that drove significant cost savings and operational efficiencies. These experiences honed my ability to think strategically, see the big picture, and translate complex technical concepts into business value.

As I progressed, I was able to move over to the business side where I had the opportunity to build a revenue operations shared service team, lead product strategy and innovation work, and take on P&L ownership. These roles allowed me to develop a deeper understanding of the commercial side of the business and the importance of aligning technology investments with overarching strategic objectives.

But perhaps most rewarding has been the chance to mentor and develop talent. Whether it was taking care of the professional development for over 100 architects globally or serving as an undergraduate and executive education instructor, I’ve found immense joy in paying it forward and helping the next generation of technology leaders reach new heights.

Throughout it all, I’ve been fortunate to work with brilliant, passionate teams and to be recognized for my contributions to the industry, from awards for blockchain leadership to accolades for my impact on the local IT community.

What keeps me energized is the constant evolution of this field. Just when you think you’ve mastered one technology or challenge, something new emerges that requires you to adapt, learn, and grow. It’s a thrilling ride, and one that I’m grateful to be on.

So, while my roles may have evolved significantly over the years, the core of what drives me remains the same – the opportunity to solve complex problems, drive innovation, and make a tangible difference in the lives of those I serve, whether they are colleagues, customers, or the broader community. It’s a privilege I don’t take lightly, and one that has made this an immensely fulfilling career journey.

What are your valuable learnings and un-learnings during your journey to a visionary leader?

As a CIO who has navigated a diverse and fulfilling career, I’ve had the privilege of learning some invaluable lessons that have shaped my approach to visionary leadership. One key learning and one key unlearning stand out in particular.

The key learning I want to share is one that a close CEO friend of mine often shares: “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.”  This simple yet profound wisdom has been a guiding principle throughout my journey. In the fast-paced world of technology, it can be tempting to try to forge ahead alone, driven by a singular vision. However, I’ve found that the most impactful and sustainable progress comes when you build a coalition of passionate, talented individuals who can collectively push the boundaries of what’s possible.

Whether it’s assembling a cross-functional team to tackle a complex digital transformation initiative or cultivating a network of industry peers to share best practices, the power of collaboration cannot be overstated. By empowering and aligning my teams, I’ve been able to achieve far more than I ever could have on my own.  The collective knowledge, diverse perspectives, and shared sense of purpose have been instrumental in driving innovation and delivering meaningful results.

The key unlearning I want to share is the importance of truly understanding your customer, rather than relying solely on your own opinions and experiences. It’s a common trap that many leaders, myself included, have fallen into – putting ourselves in the shoes of the customer and making decisions based on our own unique perspectives.  However, I’ve come to realize that I am, in fact, a customer of one, with a very specific set of needs and preferences that may not be representative of the broader customer base.

To overcome this bias, I’ve made a concerted effort to invest in robust customer research, data analysis, and user testing.  By gathering insights directly from our customers, I’ve been able to uncover unmet needs, identify emerging trends, and make more informed, customer-centric decisions. This has not only strengthened our product and service offerings but has also fostered a deeper level of trust and loyalty among our customer base.

Embracing these learnings and unlearning – the power of collaboration and the importance of truly understanding your customer – has been instrumental in my journey to becoming a more visionary and impactful leader. They have helped me navigate the complexities of the technology landscape, drive meaningful change, and position my organization for long-term success.

As I continue to evolve and grow in this role, I know that these lessons will continue to serve me well, guiding me to go further and achieve more than I ever could alone.

In your words, tell us the leadership skills that everyone should learn?

As a CIO, I firmly believe that the principles of servant leadership are essential for anyone embarking on a technology career, regardless of their role or seniority. At its core, servant leadership is about putting the needs of others before your own and using your position of influence to empower and support your team.

In the fast-paced, ever-evolving world of technology, this mindset is particularly crucial. As leaders, we must recognize that our success is inextricably linked to the success of our people. By prioritizing their growth, development, and well-being, we create an environment where innovation, collaboration, and excellence can thrive.

Servant leaders understand that their primary responsibility is to remove obstacles, provide resources, and create the conditions for their team members to excel. This could involve anything from securing the necessary funding for cutting-edge tools and training, to shielding the team from bureaucratic red tape, to simply being a sounding board and source of guidance when challenges arise.

Importantly, servant leadership is not about being a passive or hands-off manager. It requires a deep understanding of each team member’s unique strengths, weaknesses, and aspirations, and the ability to tailor your approach accordingly. It’s about empowering your people to take ownership, make decisions, and push the boundaries of what’s possible.

By embodying these principles, technology leaders can foster a culture of trust, empowerment, and continuous learning – qualities that are essential for navigating the complexities of digital transformation, cybersecurity threats, and the rapid pace of technological change.

Moreover, the benefits of servant leadership extend far beyond the immediate team or organization. As these leaders mentor and inspire the next generation of technologists, they help to cultivate a more compassionate, purpose-driven, and innovative industry as a whole. This, in turn, strengthens the entire ecosystem and creates a rising tide that lifts all boats.

So, for those embarking on a technology career, I would encourage you to embrace the mindset of servant leadership. Focus on how you can uplift and empower those around you, and trust that your own growth and success will follow. It’s a philosophy that has served me well throughout my career, and one that I believe is essential for anyone aspiring to make a lasting impact in this dynamic and rapidly evolving field.

What is that one thing which motivates you to become better and better every day? 

Personally, I am constantly motivated by the rapid pace of change in the technology industry and the incredible opportunity it presents for continuous learning and growth.

In this dynamic industry, standing still is not an option. The technologies that power business today can become obsolete seemingly overnight, and the skills that were once considered cutting-edge can quickly become outdated. It’s a reality that requires a mindset of agility, adaptability, and a relentless pursuit of knowledge.

What energizes me is the challenge of keeping up with this breakneck pace of change. Whether it’s mastering the latest advancements in cloud computing, exploring the frontiers of artificial intelligence, or understanding the implications of emerging cybersecurity threats, there is always something new to discover and learn.

I find immense joy in the process of uncovering these innovations, understanding their potential impact, and then translating that knowledge into tangible business value for my organization. It’s a constant cycle of learning, experimenting, and iterating – one that keeps me intellectually engaged and fuels my passion for this work.

But it’s not just about staying ahead of the curve; it’s also about the opportunity to grow and evolve as a leader. With each new challenge I face, I’m able to expand my skillset, broaden my perspective, and develop a deeper understanding of the intricate interplay between technology and business strategy.

Whether it’s mastering the art of change management, honing my communication skills to better engage with the C-suite, or cultivating a more empathetic and servant-leadership approach, every experience serves as a chance to become a more well-rounded and impactful CIO.

And it’s not just me – I’m fortunate to be surrounded both internally and externally by so many talented, curious individuals who share this thirst for knowledge and growth. Collaborating with them, learning from their unique experiences, and watching them flourish in their own careers is a constant source of inspiration and fulfillment.

So while the pace of change in technology can be dizzying at times, I embrace it wholeheartedly. For me, the opportunity to continuously learn, evolve, and push the boundaries of what’s possible is the true essence of what motivates me to become better and better every day. It’s a journey without end, and one that I’m honored to be a part of.

Where do you see yourself in the next 5 years?

Over the next 5 years, I envision myself working closely with my peers to continue to build and grow the Ohio Tech Community and to help bring our vision of Ohio as the #SiliconHeartland to live.

The technology sector is one of the most dynamic and innovative areas of the global economy, with a diverse and engaged community of entrepreneurs, developers, investors, and enthusiasts. Technology is central to the biggest companies in the world.  Technology fuels the startup landscape.  And technology is at the core of transformation for companies of all shapes and sizes.

In Ohio specifically, technology is HOT, with massive investment dollars being driven by high tech companies coming to the state and an aggressive move by state government to push Ohio to become the #SiliconHeartland.  Now is the time for technology leaders to step to the forefront and lead the way.

But technology changes fast and it is challenging for technology professionals to keep up with the rapid pace of change.  I believe that the best way for technology professionals to keep up is by coming together as a community and learning from each other.

I have a passion for the tech community here in Ohio and believe that it is a powerful and valuable asset to the state that can be leveraged for attracting startups, high tech companies and corporations to relocate to the state. Over the next 5 years, I hope to play a small part in bringing that vision to life.

What is a piece of career advice you have been given that you would pass on to others? 

As a CIO with decades of experience, I’m often asked about the keys to career success. One piece of advice I consistently share is the importance of adopting a “give before you receive” mindset.

Throughout my career, I’ve made a concerted effort to invest in my professional network and give back to my community without any expectation of immediate return. Despite this, I firmly believe that I’ve gained far more from these efforts than I’ve given.

When people know you genuinely care that you’re there to lend a hand, and that they can turn to you for advice or support, they become more than willing to reciprocate when you’re in need. These same individuals are often the ones who will advocate for you, provide valuable introductions, and open doors to opportunities you may have never discovered on your own.

In contrast, I’ve observed many professionals who focus solely on their own performance and deliverables, only reaching out to their network when they require something. The response they often receive is a deafening silence, as their peers have not experienced the same level of investment and support.

So, for those starting out their careers or even those further along, I encourage you to find your tribe and make a concerted effort to invest in it. Give of yourself without any expectation of immediate return, and trust that you will eventually receive far more than you’ve given.

This approach has served me well throughout my career, and I believe it can be a powerful differentiator for any aspiring leader or executive. By cultivating a reputation as a generous, supportive, and trusted colleague, you’ll position yourself for long-term success and fulfillment.

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