To call Evelyn Follit right brain-left brain-dominant is no oxymoron.
The analytical and artistic gifts of RadioShack’s former chief information officer frequently collide. An idea that starts with statistician-speak veers into a near tailspin before landing gently somewhere in the realm of a personal-fulfillment mantra. She manages the verbal maneuvers with skill. Years ago, doing racing time trials at the Lime Rock Park racetrack taught her that sometimes acceleration, not braking, is what it takes to maintain control of a speeding Porsche. Those racing days are behind her and now she’s on track to bring her ideas to business and technology.
“The real challenge is figuring out how to apply a business ‘net present value’ approach to your time in order to optimize your personal delight,” Follit said with a grin, as though this is how most people speak. Only Follit could articulate in this way the welcome dilemma a high-profile cio faces upon leaving a demanding job for other business pursuits — and fun.
The prominent cio retired from $4.8 billion RadioShack five weeks ago after leading an IT transformation to support strategic business objectives. During her seven-year tenure, Follit helped shape the company’s online strategy. The network initiatives she oversaw enable a more connected RadioShack to expand its reach, such as into Sam’s Club. The kiosks RadioShack operates in more than 500 Sam’s locations sell wireless products and generate nine times the sales per square foot of an average RadioShack store. While the chain trails front-runner Best Buy and number two Circuit City in the consumer electronics sector, its sales and profits have climbed steadily in the last few years.
Follit is now serving on two corporate boards and is looking for more to do. But not too much. The new regimen must accommodate board meetings and windsurfing, charitable work and crabbing. “I’d like to have a great golf swing,” said Follit, who shoots around 106, “but there are other things I like to do, too.” Furniture design is one. A cream linen sofa and a pair of chaises are just three of the pieces she created for the Florida home she shares with her husband, Bill.
In 1998, when Follit became the first female senior vice president at the 84-year-old RadioShack, chief executive officer Len Roberts confided she held “probably the most important job” at the organization. A few years later, she would take charge of human resources in addition to technology, an unusual and demanding combo.
After she announced her plans to retire from RadioShack, three men moved into jobs created to fill the sizable void she would leave.
Follit’s mouthful of a title — senior vice president, chief organizational enabling services officer and chief information officer — generated much ribbing at first. Those who follow her career aren’t laughing, however. Her stint as chair of the National Retail Federation’s CIO Council introduced Follit to retail leaders in all classes of trade around the globe. They say her rare combination of people, technology and finance skills is what ceo’s are seeking in their technology leaders today.
And not just ceo’s. Even the government came calling post-9/11, when the Central Intelligence Agency and the Federal Bureau of Investigation sought out the woman who knows the nature of people and technology. Playing a role in homeland security was attractive to the native New Yorker, but Washington winters do not appeal to Follit. Instead, she’ll serve on the board of $2.7 billion Linens-N-Things, which she joined on Monday, and on the board of Catalina Marketing, a marketing services company based not far from her home in Tarpon Springs, Fla. It was here, in a blindingly sunny room overlooking the Gulf of Mexico, where Follit talked about what’s next for her and what needs to change in business overall.
Representation of women on corporate boards is woefully out of whack, said Follit, who holds an MBA in finance from New York’s Pace University. The subject takes the usually animated woman to a somber place. “We have so much work to do,” she said, almost in a whisper. “I’m not sure we’ve made great strides. Then there’s the Summers thing. What do we have to do?”
“The Summers thing” refers to Harvard University president Larry Summers’ remarks about gender differences in scientific and mathematical capacity, which stirred up controversy and last month led to a vote of no confidence in him from the Harvard faculty.
Follit points to published findings that indicate women hold just 7.9 percent of board seats at Florida’s major public companies. “Oh, my gosh, I am not going to put the state of Florida on notice here, but if you look at the empirical evidence, it doesn’t look good,” she said. “Our representation on boards, the roles we play, it should be higher than it is.”
That the gender issue surfaces in media reports on the ouster of Hewlett-Packard’s former ceo, Carly Fiorina, is yet more evidence of progress not made, she said. “You don’t even ask that stuff if it’s a guy [involved]: ‘Does he have a gender problem?’ [Criteria] should be performance-based,” Follit said.
IT Mind-set Makeover
Performance became a pivotal issue when Follit joined RadioShack (then known as Tandy) as vice president of human capital in 1997. A year later, she was named senior vice president and cio, responsible for the 600 IT staffers in the Tandy Information Services (TIS) unit. Hiring practices were outmoded and compensation was below the market rate, she said. Morale suffered.
“When I say, ‘downtrodden,’ it was like ‘Les Mis’ downtrodden,” Follit said of employees who accepted their station like oppressed characters in the Victor Hugo classic “Les Miserables.” The retailer’s IT employees were conditioned to think like accountants, but were not held accountable for results. It was a sickness, she said.
“I even had a name for the disease: ‘TIS-itis,’” she said. When computer system glitches occurred, as they invariably do, staff would capably enumerate the chain of events that led to the problem. “They’d look pleased with themselves, that they’d told me everything that was wrong, and I’d say, ‘That’s only the first step, folks. What do you do about it?’ I think they believed I was going to walk in and figure it out for them. No, I want them to own the solution,” she said.
The transition took time. Mentoring and continuing education improved the IT staff’s communication skills, leadership and financial acumen as well as technical proficiency. Soon, employees became comfortable articulating the return on investment for a particular project. “And they all figured out how to read our P&L,” Follit said with pride.
The culture shakeup was disruptive, and many employees left in the process. “It led to a quiet period. People were intimidated. But once everybody got the hang of it, they realized they’d become not just accountants of the facts; they now were financial analysts of the future,” she said.
Today’s employee engagement rating, a metric that reflects commitment and job satisfaction based on 70 survey questions, is 82 percent among RadioShack’s corporate IT workers, she said, a sharp rise from the 36 percent score recorded in 1997.
Employees in stores also got a boost, with a Web-based communications system that supports perpetual connectivity with the corporate office. It’s the success of this initiative that Follit cherishes perhaps more than any other, not only for the technical accomplishment, but for its impact on employees’ productivity and self-esteem.
With a company slogan like “You’ve got questions, we’ve got answers,” RadioShack is expected to staff experts in stores. But keeping up with emerging technology and new service offerings is a tall order for anyone. The perpetual connectivity to stores provides employees access to an online, interactive help desk so they can assist customers knowledgeably and up-sell and cross-sell with confidence.
Before the system was introduced, exit interviews with departing store employees revealed that “people felt stupid,” Follit said in a hushed tone. “They felt they couldn’t keep up and here’s a way for us to help them master this stuff.”
Follit is an advocate for people and pushes to develop them in multiple areas, just as IBM did earlier in her career. She started in the computer company’s technology division, and when her business aptitude was spotted, IBM mentored and moved her into its finance group. A self-described “financial analyst on steroids,” Follit priced software and high-end computers for IBM.
‘Breaking the Frame’
Long before IBM, Follit had a champion in her father, who’d feed her math and memory problems while fishing near a train trestle in Pelham Bay, N.Y. “Trains would go by and each one had a car number on it. He would ask me to remember the numbers on the cars,” she recalled. “And then, when the train was gone, he’d say, ‘OK, now here’s the game: How far can you get?’” and six-year-old Follit would recite 10 or 15 car numbers in sequence. “He helped me to improve my memory.”
As a child, Follit spent more time with her father fishing, crabbing and going to motocross competitions, while her mother and older sister bonded as shopping partners.
“When you talk about women who succeed in business, we are all our fathers’ sons,” she said. “That’s not to say women can’t raise children. It means there needs to be a way to break the frame” of thinking that puts limits on women. “Women can be feminine, have the heart of a woman and the caring of a woman but also be able to make some tough decisions. It can happen.”
Some difficult decisions are on the horizon for corporate boards, she said, particularly with regard to pay and perks for ceo’s.
“After Sarbanes-Oxley and after cleaning up financial controls, I believe you are going to see a continuing effort on the part of boards to rein in executive compensation,” Follit said. “Is that a good thing? You bet it is.” Company leaders should be fairly rewarded, she said, “but don’t let anyone kid anyone: The work is done by the guy who is writing the program, the guy driving the truck and the guy who is meeting face-to-face with the customer.
“I believe everybody should be rewarded for what they do, but it’s just the sheer size of the multiple. How do you rein that in? Yes, it is important that the head of some company shake hands with some head of another company. But was that handshake — is anybody’s handshake — worth a multiple of 50 times what the worker in a company gets?”
Greater diversity in the makeup of corporate boards will go a long way toward correcting the imbalance, she said.
“When I say, ‘diversity,’ it has a gender element, an ethnicity element and even the diversity of thinking, which is critically important to the quality of decisions made and the quality of life,” she said. “It gives a different resonance, so much so that when you walk into a room and don’t have that diversity — it’s missing.”
Follit’s earliest exposure to diversity among people was as a child, attending a Children’s Aid Society summer camp for a dollar a day. The 1954 Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court ruling meant integration, and suddenly hers was among the few white faces in the crowd. She recalls thinking that was “cool” and it wiped out any tendency to see people in terms of color. As a college student, she tutored disadvantaged children from New York’s Spanish Harlem and shuttled them around in her Volkswagen.
What could be next for Follit? She expects to devote time to the Children’s Aid Society, which provided her childhood inoculations and straightened her teeth. Demands of her work schedule ruled that out until now, she said.
Another possible move involves familiar territory — the intersection of people and technology. She may join the board of an unnamed technology start-up whose service identifies and tracks specially skilled workers for companies with fluctuating workforce demands. Follit serves on the board of the New York-based American Friends of the Jerusalem College of Technology, which connects her to new talent and technology. And that could lead to the next “next.”
Walking around the backyard of her home, Follit says she delights in the “stupid manatees with their cow faces” that occasionally peek up from the Gulf waters lapping at her property line. Overhead, an osprey soars before landing in a neighbor’s tree. These beasts appear to have achieved the balance, contentment and purpose Follit is looking for in her next chapter.
“I hate to be existential, but what’s next is enabled by what came before,” she said.