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Deep Dive: Michael McCalmont, CIO – Verso

H. Michael Burgett
Contributing Writer

Michael McCalmont, CIO for Verso, had experience with both small and large teams before arriving at his current position. With a background covering engineering, operations, information security and a variety of other domains, Michael provides vital leadership to his organization. As the top technology executive, he oversees all of Verso’s technical operations and initiatives.

We had the chance to sit down with Michael and talk about his career progression to CIO for Verso, his advice for aspiring CIOs, and his goals for future innovation. Michael has overseen impressive IT initiatives during his time with Verso, and the plans for the future that we discussed reflect a consistent dedication to organizational excellence.

In this issue, Michael also spoke with us about how the technology industry has changed over time and some of his favorite pastimes when he is away from work. 

Walk us through your CIO path. How did you decide to pursue a career in technology, and how did you progress to your current organization?

My educational background was in mechanical engineering, and I added an MBA to this foundation because I could see the value of combining skillsets. Eventually, for my role in operations management (which I had done for about nine years out of college), I was asked to take on a leadership role on global ERP implementation. I immediately found gratitude in the ability to see across the enterprise and play a role in determining how a global business functions.

After about 10 years in IT roles where ERP was the most significant component, I pursued a role at a smaller organization to pick up infrastructure and IT security skills. At this point, I knew I wanted to be a CIO, but I was missing some of the most important technical pieces. From this new experience, I was able to build a platform of expertise in areas I previously lacked. Eventually, this path led me to my current role at Verso.

Would you consider yourself a CIO, a CTO, or a hybrid? Why? What are the essential differences?

I don’t get too caught up in the differentiation between titles. I feel that it’s my responsibility to represent applications of technology to business leaders so that they can achieve their goals and objectives.

I know that if you look up the formal definition, a CTO is typically externally facing while a CIO focuses more on internal initiatives. I think the most vital responsibility of technology leaders is to provide solutions to our business partners that allow them to achieve their objectives. Whether that means an internal or external focus, the end goals of CIOs and CTOs are very similar.

What initiatives have you overseen to date in your time with your organization? What’s on the horizon?

The first initiative was massive cost reduction. Achieving a sustainable year-over-year cost structure was the price of admission for IT credibility and our ability to have any other conversation with our leadership. We evaluated every dollar we spent in this organization and created a service catalog so the business understood how much we were spending on every single service. We were able to remove a lot of our IT costs over the last year and a half.

Second, we’re moving to gain alignment on our ERP direction. A lot of our systems needed to better reflect how we’re running the business today, as opposed to previous operations. At the heart of it, we’re a company that has rolled through multiple mergers and acquisitions in the past, so creating a model that reflects contemporary pulp and paper operations practices is important to us.

Third, we are finalizing technical harmonization from several previous mergers. This initiative touched all areas of the company, and we’ve finalized the consolidation to single platforms across much of our infrastructure and operations.

How do you foresee your organization being different in two years, and how do you see yourself shaping that change?

We are building our digital journey for the future. That journey includes a list of applications and goals that are in front of us today, from analytics, to big data to AI. We think we can leverage analytics running on big data platforms to help make our mills more efficient and predict failures in critical areas.

I just met last week with the president of one of our divisions and we discussed how new technology could either enable us or represent a threat. Going forward, we’re going to decide where we want to go with these areas in the future.

What new or disruptive technology issues or emerging trends do you think will impact your industry in the future?

We operate in a very traditional industry. Companies that run the most efficiently are going to be winners, and successful organizations have an impressive wealth of data accumulated on their operations. Whoever can harness that data to monetize it, even though it’s going to be internal monetization, will benefit greatly. In this industry, efficiencies are key to winning in the long term, which is why analytics and AI are so important.

Share your thoughts on the availability of IT talent. What strategies do you employ, and what’s different in your organization?

We look to develop people into roles, which means taking chances on them earlier in their careers and providing development opportunities. In addition, we’ve also launched a formal internship program and are building relationships in the regions that we operate in.

Our goal is to make Verso the employer of choice. There’s no substitute for developing people internally and bringing them up through the organization.

What personal traits and attributes are essential for today’s CIO versus 10 to 20 years ago?

Leading people remains one of the most fundamental skills that we as leaders must get right. Everybody at work wants to be appreciated. They want to understand how their functions relate to the objectives of the organization. With that in mind, my staff and I work very hard to make sure that we remain the employer of choice.

As a leader, I work at being transparent, direct, consistent and fair in order to establish a position of trust in the organization. This requirement hasn’t changed, either. In conclusion, I really have always felt that it’s my responsibility to provide technical insight and differentiate us in the business that we do. Yes, the technology has changed, but the fundamental nature of influencing people and leading an organization really hasn’t.

What advice would you give to someone who aspires to be a CIO?

Always take the difficult assignments when offered. You’ll learn something as a result of it. Aspiring CIOs should also be curious about technology and its applications. Good leaders learn how to translate technology into business-friendly terms, because that’s the key to influencing people and leadership. It’s also important to build a high-performing team: you’re only as good as your people. Lastly, I would say try to be diverse in your technical background so that you can understand as much as possible about your profession.

How do you decompress from the challenges of being a CIO? What do you do for fun?

My free time is largely family oriented. I have five kids, so I love to cook for my family whenever I can. I really enjoy spending time with them. I also like outdoor activities: anything on skis or two wheels is my passion.

Who have been your biggest influences, and why?

I don’t really pin my style and approach to any one person. I have been fortunate enough over the years to have been a student of many great leaders. Early in my career, I began a list of each leader or mentor so I could note what they did well. I attempted to emulate those traits that I admired. Along those same lines, I tried to avoid the qualities that I saw as counter-productive. One trait that I consistently admire is the ability to be strategic one moment and detail-oriented the next. That combination establishes a strong vision while setting the expectation of accountability throughout the organization.

Lastly, I’ve also been blessed with a supportive family and wife who has enabled me to take on these challenges throughout my career. She often reminds me that relocating with five small kids was much more difficult than any of the assignments that I took while on this journey. Quite frankly, I think she’s absolutely right.

Which books have you gifted the most over your career?

My most-gifted book is “The Goal” by Eli Goldratt. The second is “Primal Leadership” by Daniel Goleman, Richard Boyatzis and Annie McKee. “The Goal” is one of the first leadership books I read, and I was fascinated by its applications for organizations.

“Primal Leadership” shows the importance of empathy, self-awareness and trust, which are so important to creating enduring connections that really align organizations.

If you weren’t doing the job that you have today, what would be your dream job?

I would love to be an outdoor adventure journalist. I really admire the ability to bring the color and experience of culture, food and outdoor recreation to the lives of those who don’t have the ability to experience some of these things on their own.

What would you want our readers to know about you that we haven’t asked?

There are many paths you can take in your career. Where you begin doesn’t determine where you’re going to end up. There are many recipes for success, but there is no substitute for a strong work ethic and relentless focus on the skills that make people want to come to work and that they can rally around.

One quote, from Maya Angelou that I remind myself of daily, is: “People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” I think this is an important part of how we interact with people and leadership in order to align organizations.

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