As she reflects on her journey to corporate vice president of information technology at Cargill Inc., Rita Heise affirms the importance of having a dream. Heise prefers the word “dream” to “goal,” because she sees more room for flexibility – the kind of flexibility that allows for risk taking – in dreams. When you put your goals in the context of a dream, she explains, you have the freedom to pursue your dream without rigid restrictions. “Dreams are undefined. There are times in your life to set goals, but you need to leave room for the future to be discovered.”
Heise’s career path has zigged and zagged between information technology and business, and even seemingly slid backward from management to junior staff. A goal-oriented person might avoid steps that seemed to veer off the path to success, but Heise’s flexibility allowed her to take risks that paid off in the end.
After graduating from college with a degree in math and computer science, Heise entered the workplace. While working at Honeywell, her employer prior to Cargill, she applied for a job in manufacturing strategy. She didn’t get the job, “a low point that turned out to be a blessing in disguise.” The vice president who interviewed her was intrigued by her interest and abilities and created an 18-month internship in a factory for her. The move meant sacrificing her position as an information technology manager to become a factory staff member with a vague job description. “At the time, it felt like three steps back,” she says. Before she completed the internship, she was offered a job in manufacturing. Eventually, she ended up in the job for which she had originallyapplied.
While she was at Honeywell, Heise also pursued an M.B.A. at the University of St. Thomas. “I had worked for about six years. I felt that I needed to understand business to be really good. The fact that I could get my M.B.A. at night while still working was a big attraction, and Honeywell helped pay for my education. Having this education afforded me the opportunity to move between IT and business.”
And move she did. After holding her manufacturing job for a while, Heise returned to IT. She found that her experience on both the technical and business sides improved her job performance. “I was a better leader in business because of my IT background, and I was a better leader in IT because of my business background. One of the valuable experiences I have gained from working on the IT side of a business is that I see the whole business; the systems and information all come together, especially when you hold a leadership role.”
Heise’s next risk was a series of geographical moves: to Europe, where she led Honeywell’s information technology during preparation for Y2K and the merger with AlliedSignal, and then to Arizona, where she worked as CIO of Honeywell’s aerospace business. From there, she returned to Minnesota to work for Cargill.
As Cargill’s leader in information and technology, Heise has responsibility for five key areas. She sets strategy, determining how IT will support Cargill’s business. She leads 1,800 employees worldwide, ensuring that talented people are recruited, that appropriate employee development opportunities are offered and that her team appreciates and fosters diversity. She oversees IT architecture, setting standards, choosing applications and deciding how the company will migrate from one system to another. She is responsible for understanding Cargill's customers and figuring out how information technology can solve their problems. And success in all of the previous four areas depends upon her ability to lead her team to operational excellence.
With leadership come great challenges, and Heise has faced her share. While she was at Honeywell, she worked for several months in preparation for the proposed acquisition by GE. The deal feel through under European opposition. Heise muses, "Unfortunate events turn into blessings. They give me stronger, better insights." This lemons-to-lemonade attitude is exactly why dreamers such as Heise achieve so much.