Editor's Note: Zahid Afzal (above) is answering your questions this week at IT Martini on LinkedIn. 

Zahid Afzal: Innovate to Grow
By Terreece Clarke, March 20th, 2012

For Zahid Afzal, executive vice president and CIO of Huntington National Bank, innovation is a life-long pursuit.

He started out running the family construction equipment rental and sales operation in Pakistan and said he "fell into" taking IT courses. After reading an article in a British magazine that published a study of growth in IT, he saw mighty things for the future.

"I realized IT as an industry, at the time, was fairly small, but it was going to grow," he said. "I saw how tech would play a role in every business."

While he was able to earn a degree in mathematics from the University of Karachi, at the time a degree in computer science was not available. His confidence in the future of IT prompted Afzal to move to the U.S. to follow the industry and its learning opportunities.

Afzal went on to earn his degrees in computer science and management from Strayer University and completed executive leadership programs at Duke University and The Ohio State University.

He has held a variety of leadership positions in his career including positions with Broadslate Networks, Citicorp and MCI Communications. Afzal was also senior vice president and CIO of Bank of America's consumer banking, and executive vice president and CIO for Sky Financial Group before it was acquired by Huntington.

Going Mainstream

IT Martini asked Afzal to look into the same crystal ball he used to predict IT's direction and predict the future of IT.

"Tech is mainstream; it's not back office anymore," he said. It's more closely aligned and essential to every business. The separate function called "IT" won't exist the way it does today - as a support structure. It's going to align with sales, with data, with every aspect of business."

To prepare for this future, CIOs and those aspiring to take on that role, must know the ins and outs of all business channels, Afzal said. This understanding comes only by making time to learn, something Afzal said, many CIOs simply do not do.

"A CIO's role is one of the most complex roles, most exciting," Afzal said. "You have a 360 degree view of the company, and [you have to] be in line with business strategies, that only comes from taking the time to learn, to speak the language and word side-by-side with the business partners."

Driving Decisions at Huntington

Right now, Huntington's IT department has a portfolio of 300 projects with about 70,000 work hours. To set priorities, Afzal rethought the way the department made decisions. The result was a committee structure.

"A governance structure is important, and CEO involvement is critical," he said. "It took me a while to get a large cross section of input. We asked, how do we make big decisions? It should not be driven by tech; that's just one component..."

One of those 300 projects includes "Green 2 Green" spearheaded by Afzal. The project's goal is to bring the company to a paperless rate of 85 to 90 percent. This early into 2012 they are halfway there. How?

Internally, the company has gone mobile, replacing paper with electronic strategies that include everything from video to electronic project collaboration.

Leading by Doing

Afzal's leadership style, he said, comes across as easy going and rooted in high standards. Standards he witnessed under one of his leadership mentors - John Reed, ex-CEO of Citicorp. He described Reed as tenacious and visionary.

Like another visionary Afzal holds in high esteem, Steve Jobs, Afzal goes out to discover what people need.

"CIOs have to get out of the back office...think about strategies and solutions and drive them," he said. "We [CIOs] are very reluctant, it requires confidence and knowledge. Knowing your business is so important."

Afzal goes to bank branches on a regular basis and sits down with tellers and bankers. He said he always leaves with three to four pages of actions items.

"A lot of them are small things, easy to do that make a real difference," Afzal said. "A lot of CIOs say they are too busy to do this kind of stuff, but it's important."

The key to driving innovation as a leader, Afzal said, is to encourage a "bottom-up" idea generation culture and establish a process to review and respond to those ideas.

Afzal stays motivated by trying to find new ways to drive the business when others are thinking about coffee.

"My mind is racing first thing in the morning," he said. "I'm driven by a sense of accomplishment, I'm always thinking about which part of the company has challenges? How can we be innovative - not in the context of pure technology, but, in other ways as well?"