July 18, 2011, 2:23 PM — This interview is part of ITworld's regular "How I got here" series which focuses on the career path of successful IT professionals.
As a people person, Gary Kuyper has found his niche at Grand Rapids, Mich.-based Bethany Christian Services, the country’s largest adoption agency. As CIO, he’s been able to live his service leadership mission, building relationships and helping others develop to their highest capabilities along the way. Kuyper, also a member of the CIO Executive Council, shares his journey and career beliefs in this interview with contributing writer Beth Schultz.
In your career, you’ve worked in the machinery and food retail industries and had own your own business. What led you to the nonprofit environment
Sixteen years ago, I was asked to join Bethany Christian Services as the main IT person. The position offered less income and at the time was less challenging than where I was but I went because I felt it was the right place for me. The challenges and opportunities when the organization was smaller were phenomenal. I could use my marketing background, entrepreneurial mindset and business focus to construct a technology and business migration. I have a service mindset, so it has been a good fit. The organization fits with my values.
How have your varied experiences prepared you for your role as CIO at Bethany Christian Services?
All of my experiences are collective, and additive. My retail days taught me to focus on the customer experience. I worked closely with an exceptional leader who was an expert in marketing, advertising and process. Most of my previous positions were about implementing and introducing change with technology. The idea of constant change, creating new processes with and for people became the norm in my career.
Was CIO a goal, or more of a happenstance?
CIO was a happenstance. The day- in, day-out goal was and is to move an organization to be the best it can be. The focus is on making the business its best. The outcome of technology implementation and being the CIO are products of that.
You recently received your MBA and are an adjunct professor as well. From a career perspective, why is education important to you?
Being a lifelong learner is a focus I have always had. I am naturally a learner (my personal results from the Clifton Strengths Finder and Kolbe personality profile prove it), and a person who wants to find facts while implementing. I was part of technology prior to the PC, and had implemented Ethernet when it was only delivered as thicknet cable, so I can see that it is essential to be a continual learner. Change is happening at an accelerating pace, along with the idea of continual improvement. Lifelong learning is essential for anyone, especially leaders, and is crucial to technology-concerned leaders.
What do you teach?
I currently teach business technology. I can also teach general business and leadership, but have yet to get one of those classes offered. I teach to give back to the education process and, because as a teacher you learn too, to keep learning. I am a father of eight and I do not plan to retire, so teaching will give me a vocation when I move out of daily leadership.
As CIO what are your leadership strengths and weaknesses?
My weakness is that by nature I am risk-adverse. I like to be planned and calculated, whereas many of my peers are risk-takers who like to try out new ideas. My nature is to test, plan and implement. I am a people leader, a servant leader who enjoys investing in others and developing people. The staff I have is exceptional, and I make sure I give them opportunities to succeed (and sometimes to fail and learn). I am naturally a coach, learner and implementer. I enjoy creating new business systems that serve internal and external customers.
I’ve looked over your LinkedIn profile and noticed a few things, one being that you’ve got a ton of recommendations. What makes you so likeable – and how does that help you in your role as CIO?
Technology leaders are implementers of change, and relationships are essential in this journey. Building relationships in and with others in the business is an important aspect of the CIO role. A portion of the role is also that of service, fixing, enabling and doing for others. Doing this well gets and keeps you connected with many others. I am a leader who is business- and people-focused, interested in developing both to their highest potentials.
Another thing that stands out is your membership in a slew of professional organizations. How has this external activity helped you professionally?
This is related to my being a fact-finder and my focus on learning. I am a person who enjoys meeting others, especially while learning about what they have found, what works, who to work with and great execution of a job or project.
Reflecting over your IT career, what’s the biggest challenge you’ve ever faced?
The biggest challenge is and continues to be to convince those at all levels of an organization or those I teach that the implementation and consistent use of technology in the way it was intended is game-or business-changing.
In addressing these challenges, what has or hasn't worked well for you over the years at Bethany Christian Services and elsewhere?
As far as maximum use of technology to be a strategic game-changer in an organization, there is no silver bullet. The more you can get an organization’s staff and leaders behind any initiative, the execution and implementation becomes more important. Getting leaders and staff on board is the first step. We make the technology part of the process, fulfilling a solution, and involving the end client as part of the system to ingrain system use. Anytime the system can be part of the next step in a process it will increase its value and if done right the value of the process will increase. Another method we use is to reward staff or divisions publically for correct and as-designed system use. This means creating use metrics for a system, measuring use, and then naming those who have used the system well. We also try to offer continued training.
As CIO, you’ve risen to IT’s upper echelon. What’s your best advice for IT professionals aiming for that role?
Make it about others, the team – not about you. Serve well, and live well while continually learning with a delivering-value mindset.