Susan Leatherwood recently moved up to a new job as executive VP of technology for Transamerica Retirement Management, which is a division of Transamerica Capital, Inc. Transamerica is a wholesale broker/dealer and marketing agency for fixed and variable annuities and life insurance products. Division HQ is in Cedar Rapids, IA.
Leatherwood will essentially be the division's CIO, responsible for all technology, including strategic direction, project efforts, support of strategic goals and more.
Senior enterprise architect
Until very recently, Leatherwood was senior enterprise architect (EA) in the company's IT group. The mission of the EA team is to determine IT changes and additions that will help the company's many divisions do business in the most fiscally responsible way. "We looked at trends in technology and tried to assess how they would impact the company environment," Leatherwood says. "We tried to predict things that were changing, or that needed to change."
The members of the six-person team address issues like making a major platform change or putting multiple divisions on the same interactive voice response system. Clearly, members of such a team need to know the company's current systems and keep a vigilant eye on new technology. They also need a good understanding of the company's business goals.
The enterprise architects also provide guidance to the company's twelve divisions. The EAs are assigned two divisions each. They meet with the CIOs and understand their divisions' strategic direction.
Leatherwood was responsible for the Transamerica Retirement Services division, which led to a smooth transition to her new position as executive VP. She was also responsible for the division that manages internal investments. She met quarterly with the CIOs of both divisions and worked to integrate their perspectives with the overall enterprise program.
She was in contact with her divisions daily, and also working closely with other team members. "This work is good for the team, good for the divisions and good for the overall company," she proudly states.
Addressing today's needs
In her new role as EVP, one of Leatherwood's important initiatives involves pulling information from multiple divisions for use in the retirement efforts.
The idea is to provide information to a client or an advisor regardless of which products the client currently owns. "It doesn't matter which products you hold, you'll get that holistic view," Leatherwood explains.
Jumpstarting her career
Leatherwood began as a Cobol programmer with CyCare Systems (now McKesson) in her junior year at the University of Dubuque (Dubuque, IA). She was working after school at a pizza restaurant, and CyCare's CIO was one of her regular customers.
When he learned she was majoring in programming, he sent her to interview with CyCare. She started as a computer room operator and later moved to junior programmer. She loved the hands-on opportunity and continued full-time for another two years after graduating in 1985.
Then she moved to Omaha, NE, a bigger city, where she worked for Majors Marketing Research (now Nielsen) and Mutual of Omaha.
On to Schumaker
In 1989 she married a Navy man, which meant a move to the east coast. "There are very few ships in the Midwest," she notes with a smile. She found a job as senior programmer/analyst with F. Schumaker & Co (New York, NY), the manufacturer and distributor of Schumacher, Waverly and Village fabrics and wall coverings.
Progressing to manager of production support, Leatherwood supported a distributed IT environment, with warehouses in Chicago, Los Angeles and South Carolina. Still hands-on, she worked on a warehouse shipping system that updated order entry in real time. "This was cutting-edge technology back then," she notes.
She also became a serious student of leadership. When people came to her with a question, her initial response would be to ask if they'd read the manual. "In fact, they made a sign for me that said 'RTM' because I encouraged them to grow their own skills first, and then look for help."
It can't be just about money
In 1996 Leatherwood left Schumaker to try high-paying consulting work. "I soon learned that no matter how much they pay you, if you hate it, it's not worth it.
"The job was all about giving the customers what they wanted, rather than working to provide the best solution for their needs. I realized it's not good enough just to be smart in IT."
Before the year was out she'd moved on to Vanguard Group (Valley Forge, PA) as a senior tech lead. She soon became the "go-to" person, earning a promotion to key tech lead within her first year.
The world of architecture
More promotions followed, and she began to manage apps in data architecture. From 1998 to 2004 she managed a dozen people, more or less, while doing some of the architecture work herself.
Vanguard understood that business information is the foundation for good business, information, technical, and operational architectures. "They had the same user interface for their external website that the employees used to service customers. That's cutting edge," Leatherwood explains.
During her term at Vanguard, Leatherwood began to research enterprise architecture in greater detail, especially as it related to her job. As it happens, this new awareness was what led her to her current company.
As she delved into how other companies defined and structured their organizations, she noticed a listing for an enterprise architecture job in the Midwest.
After that, "It happened really, really fast," she says.
"My father was in failing health, and my husband and I had thought about moving back. But we both agreed it had to be the right opportunity for me, and it had to offer something for him and be great for the kids."
Just a few days after she sent in her resume, she had been screened twice by phone and was flying to Louisville, KY for an interview. Within a month she started her new job back home in Iowa.
The relocation has been good all around, Leatherwood says. Her husband, a tech writer, is serving as an associate pastor of their new church. Their two sons love being closer to Grandma and Grandpa. Her brother's family is also local.
Leatherwood is really enjoying the cultural change. The Midwestern culture, and specifically the company culture, value family time. And that, she says, enables her to be much more productive in the office.
She's found that you can go home again, and be even more successful than you thought you'd be. It's an extremely gratifying realization.