DENNIS KLEMENZ

    SVP/CIO at Connex Credit Union

    Can you please provide a little introduction about yourself
    My name is Dennis Klemenz and I am currently the Senior Vice President and Chief Information Officer at Connex Credit Union.  I also teach Computer Science, Cybersecurity, and Data/Analytics at the University of New Haven and Quinnipiac University. I am also quite active with mentoring high school students to ensure they are guided to the path that best fits their career needs. And I'm a big Buffalo Bills fan. Go Bills!
     
    What has your journey to your position been like? What path have you taken?
    It's quite remarkable to think back to the journey. I was in college when the Dot Com was going on.  In my sophomore year in college, I got a job offer that also was going to pay 100% of my tuition. But my advisor told me to hold out because "you'll get double that in a few years". Well...the dot com bust occurred and so did the inflated salaries. I actually considered leaving Computer Science altogether and I got my EMT certification. Out of coincidence, I saw a job at a local ambulance company doing computer programming and data/analytics. I jumped on the opportunity and learned so much. My first boss taught me what it meant to balance work and life. She had so many quotes that we used to joke with her about it...but I repeat those quotes to this day because of the wisdom in them. I ultimately left because ambulance companies are not software companies so my ability to grow would have been hindered quite a bit. I left and did stock option administration conversions. It was a software company so I got to learn what it was like to work in a software company doing financial services. It was a lot of fun but culturally, I couldn't fit into a world where I had to log every hour and those hours would get billed to a client. I very much love to be able to be creative and creativity isn't encouraged in an hourly billing environment. So I left and went to work for an aviation company where I continued my data journey. I was there for 10 years and really loved the work. It was great to work on data then walk out to an assembly line and literally slap the part that you just wrote an analytic on. The data that turned into physical part of the job was great. And I got to work for several amazing people who put A LOT of faith and confidence in a young man. I was given opportunity after opportunity while I was there and I was ready and prepared for those opportunities. My career grew quick as I knocked down project after project.  I ultimately left - something I did not want to do - due to how I perceived the company was treating me. Corporations are tough monsters to work in. They can grow so large that you don't know the people making decisions and they don't know you. That breeds resentment between both parties. So I left and went to a smaller company that was local - and that's where I wanted to be. I wanted to be in a small shop where everyone knew each other and everyone took care of each other. I wanted to be able to be creative again and just work on unique problems. In my first meeting with the CEO, I rambled about some project I wanted to do and I had written up a business justification, project plan, and all that jazz...he slid the papers back to me and said "Do you have budget to do this?" "Yes...Yes...I do..." "Then just do it."  I knew I was home at that moment.  No red tape.  No unnecessary paperwork.  Just pick a direction and go.
     
    WhatsApp Image 2023-01-24 at 1.20.06 PM.
     
    Has it always been your vision to reach the position you’re at? Was your current role part of your vision to become a tech leader?
    No, being the CIO was never in my vision. I come from a relatively modest family so I've always seen the decision makers as being superior and having more experience and knowledge than me. I never thought I'd be "in the room".  My goal was to be a Systems Analyst - that's all I wanted in my career.  What changed was that the more I did, the more I wanted to get done. And the only way to get more done was to get more people.  So my teams always sort of organically grew because we were just solving problems. Want more problems solved? Give me more people. And companies did that...and more problems got solved.  Over time I began to realize that the decision makers didn't have any sort of special juice or knowledge or pedigree.  They were just people and they were listening to my advice.  That's when I thought "I might be able to do that job" 
     
    Have you had a role model or mentor that has helped you on your journey?
    There were so many I could list and each at a different time in my career. I'll give you four mentors of mine. The first taught me how to lead a small team and how to balance work/life. The second taught me how to be an IT leader. The third taught me how to put faith and trust in others and the last taught me everything about business.

    My first boss (Lori Potter) used to look out for me - as a human, not just an employee. She made sure I took vacation time, she made sure that I took care of myself when I was sick, and she made sure that I SLOWED down when I wanted to automate everything. She was diligent that I needed to focus not just on the engineering problem but on the total solution and QA of that solution first.  She had so many quotes like "there is never a good time to take vacation...you just have to take it".  And it was simple quotes that taught me what a leader of a small team needed to be. She got you to do things without forcing you to do it. She gave you the "why" behind the ask and you just naturally went and did it.  She was an absolutely WONDERFUL boss and I was lucky to have my first boss be so accommodating and supportive.

    The next was the IT lead who I met at the aviation company.  He was the CIO at many other companies and had a robust IT career.  I knew I needed a strong technical leader to help me understand tech & business and I had never worked with a technical person like him. His name is Larry Goldman.  Larry was my first "tech" boss. He knew technology. He knew business. He knew people. And he made everything look so easy. He taught me EVERYTHING that I know about IT leadership and business leadership. He showed me how to build things cheap then scale them up. He taught me how to bring humor into stressful situations. He taught me how to act with complete strangers. He taught me how to lead technical staff. Another phrase that sticks with me is "Dennis...they'll never do as good of a job as you'll do...but they'll do good enough." which was the ultimate lesson in how to delegate and not constantly micromanage or doing work myself. I think people underestimate how difficult it is to move from an individual contributor to a manager/supervisor position. It's hard to keep that level of consistency and performance and he taught me how to set expectations and get folks to keep the level of consistency that I demanded. I went on my first business trip with Larry and got to see him work with others. Everyone seemed like a friend of his and they were actually complete strangers. But he got to know the person and he kept a human element. I remember sitting in meetings and thinking "Man...how does he do it?" He negotiated contracts, balanced personalities, innovated and he loved aviation. I aspired to be him and I still try to emulate him today.

    The next was the Vice President at the aviation company. His name is George Mitchell. George was one of the top guys at the company and yet he took a 20-something under his wing. He brought me to meetings that I had NO business being in and would say "just sit in the corner and observe". He made me shadow him and observe him work...observe how others worked...and then he'd ask for my advice.  I don't know how I ended up in that spot or why George picked me of all people but he put trust in me and I was not going to let him down. George's trust and the impact that had on me carries to this day. Sometimes I think about projects and wonder "can so-and-so do it?" and I think about George sitting me down...telling me he needed my help...and then giving me a project that was a stretch for me. And I do the same for others now too.  Trusting in your people and asking for help goes a LONG LONG way and George taught me that lesson.  He also taught me ethical leadership. George is strongly rooted in ethics and his decisions are guided by his values. That's hard to maintain in difficult times but he stuck to his morals and beliefs in the good and the bad times. That's leadership...and consistent leadership. I'll forever respect that man.

    The last was the President of my division. He is the most down to earth person in an extremely high ranking leadership position that I ever met. His name is David Adler and he made the executive level - I don't know what the right world is - but he made it "approachable".  I always saw the "President" as some sort of high level "god on earth" type of person/personality.  David has presence and control of a room but he does so with respect and humility.  When we would meet in the hallways, I would get jazzed talking with him and he would get excited talking to me. We fed off each others energy and we both just wanted to solve problems and build things to help our customers. We would have impromptu meetings - he kept Peppermint Patties in his office and left his door open.  I would randomly pop in to grab a patty and we would talk business. I was telling him how out of reach it all seemed to me - it being business, leadership, executive level positions.  He said the most profound words I've ever been told...and I don't think he was trying to be profound, it was just a conversation. He said to me "Dennis...business is just people...it's all just people. People work for - and WITH - you and they have expectations, worries, goals, aspirations, insecurities...and so do your clients.  All you need to do is pick a vision...work with your people to make sure they are all working together on that vision...work through the speedbumps that will pop up along the way and then make sure your clients are happy.  If you do that...everything just falls into place."  It was a PhD in business in 10 minutes and that one discussion forever changed my view on business and people.
     
    How do you see the role of the technology leader evolving over the next 5 years?
    Technology is becoming the forefront of how companies interact with other businesses and clients. That increase in technology isn't going to stop and it is only going to keep accelerating more and more. If you are a service-based company you need to think of yourself as a "tech company" because I will take a guess but MOST of your clients are likely consuming your service through tech.  I don't know if businesses FULLY understand that shift. 

    Everyone is moving towards being a tech company and tech leaders need to keep thinking like they are a CEO...not a CIO.  You can impact - and scale that impact - better than any other C-suite executive. You can become the next CEO of the company and I think that's were CIO/CTO's are going.  We need CIOs/CTOs to start understanding the business side more but they already understand tech and they already understand risk (cyber risks certainly).  They need to better understand the financial and human aspect of the business.
     
    What skills do you think leaders of the future will need in order to thrive?
    They need to understand people. Like I said before..."it's all just people".  And the truth is that people end up being the hardest part of the job. Tech is easy. Once you understand tech, you understand the cyclical nature of tech and you understand the direction its going. People are the hard part. They have expectations.  They have aspirations.  They have insecurities. They have needs.  And its your job (as the leader) to care for those AND still get the vision moving along.
     
    How do you keep current with new skills, technologies and personal development?
    I teach cybersecurity, computer science, and analytics.  There is nothing like standing in front of 30 students to force you to stay current.  I spent A LOT of time researching for school and learning the latest & greatest.  

    I also network...A LOT.  I have no issue picking up the phone and talking to someone I don't know.  It's all just people and they probably have the same question/concerns that I do.  I love talking to others, hearing the struggles, hearing how they solved them, and then trying to see how I can engineer a solution for them.
     
    What do you see as the next leap in technology that will impact your business or industry in particular?
    I'm a data guy so I'm going to go with data.  I think that predictive analytics are going to transform industries.  I did predictive analytics at the aviation company and I see the need for those in many many industries.  Think about restaurants.  Wouldn't it be great if restaurants were able to highlight foods that I would like?  And maybe identify foods I wouldn't like.  How about knowing my behaviors and if I haven't traveled, to start recommending custom travel trips?  I think predictive analytics is going to really transform the delivery of ads to folks.  They do it today but those analytics are far from perfect.
     
    "I know that you'll look at the next job and want to be there TODAY but enjoy the journey of your career."
     
    If you were mentoring a leader of the future, what advice or guidance would you give to help them on their way?
    Don't look too far ahead. I know that you'll look at the next job and want to be there TODAY but enjoy the journey of your career. You'll meet some many personalities. You'll meet some many interesting challenges. Enjoy that moment.

    The second thing is to learn from each person you meet. Emulate the things you like in others. I heard the term "We stand on the shoulders of giants" and that's true. Learn from those giants and emulate them - in your own way.  But also learn from the leaders you don't admire. Learn what it is about them that you don't like and make an effort to NOT emulate those behaviors. I honestly believe that you can learn just as much from a BAD boss than you can from a GOOD one. The lessons are just different.
     
    Is there anything in particular that you would still like to achieve in your career or what is the next step on your journey?
    I'd love to run my own business. It's a challenge that I'd love to tackle.
     
    If you could change one thing in the world, what would it be?
    In the whole world? Wow...  What a question and what an ocean to fish in!! hmmmmm.... I think that respectful discord is a lost art these days.  You can disagree with someone and not be required to hate them.  You can have a different vision than someone and that doesn't mean you need to hurt them.  You can have a different faith and that doesn't mean that others are lesser than you.  

    Since we've lost the art of discord, we've gotten too overly sensitive to disagreement.  The standing belief is that if you disagree, you will offend someone and therefore that's bad.  It isn't bad to disagree.  We have to understand that...life is offensive. Thinking is offensive.  We are going to offend each other when we think and communicate those thoughts. That doesn't mean we need to attack each other and also overly generalize someone.  I hear the phrase "that's something a liberal/conservative would say!" and it undermines an entire idea, thought, or concept.  

    We need to keep talking. We need to keep communicating. We need to have discord and discussion. And if the evidence points in a specific direction, we need to be okay with changing our minds or following the evidence.  We've gotten to focused on "being right" rather than "seeking truth".  In the pursuit of truth, we'll find out things we didn't know. And that is a good thing!!  Since when did changing your mind become a weakness? Scientist are supposed to use the scientific method and if the evidence doesn't support your stance, you change your stance. But for some reason, it seems like we double down on bad decisions because admitting someone else was right is seen as a weakness.  So if I could change anything, I would want more discussion and I would want folks to understand that being offended by something isn't a personal attack. It's an idea...and it is HARD to hear some BAD ideas.  But we need to counter the idea with facts, logic, and evidence and we need to stop attacking the person and we need to avoid shutting down conversation because someone is offended.
     

    A big thank you to Dennis Klemenz from Connex Credit Union for sharing his journey to date.

     

    If you would like to gain more perspective from Tech Leaders and CIOs you can read some of our other interviews here.

     

    The CIO Circle Interview

     

    The CIO Circle Editor
    Post by The CIO Circle Editor
    May 24, 2023