How I Got Here: Avid Modjtabai Executive Vice President & CIO, Wells Fargo

By ELIZABETH GARONE
Special to THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

Name a department at Wells Fargo & Co., and its likely that Avid Modjtabai has held a senior position in it. From online personal-finance services to human resources and consumer deposits, Ms. Modjtabai has been there, done that, in her 14-year tenure with the company. Her experience has not gone unnoticed; in addition to being named one of the "Most Powerful Women in Banking" by U.S. Banker, she also received accolades from the San Francisco Business Times as of one of the "100 Most Influential Women in Bay Area Business." Elizabeth Garone spoke to Ms. Modjtabai about her career and the benefit of moving across functions. Edited excerpts follow.

[How I Got Here]

Full name: Avid Modjtabai
Age: 46
Hometown: Kentfield, Calif.
Current position: Executive Vice President, Director of Technology Information Group (Chief Information Officer), Wells Fargo
First job: Consulting at an investment firm in San Francisco
Favorite job: Being CIO -- one of her most challenging jobs
Education: B.S. in industrial engineering from Stanford University; M.B.A. in finance from Columbia University
Years in the industry: More than 20
How I got here in 10 words or less: Taking opportunities where I could grow, learn, and make a difference

Q: As director of Wells Fargo's Technology Information Group, what does your position entail?

A: I'm responsible for all the core technology activities of the company, including technology infrastructure, development of business applications and information security. Our team manages multiple large-scale data centers and provides 24/7 support for all of our operating platforms -- the voice and data networks, open systems environment, desktop support and all the other functions required to support that environment. We provide our lines of business with technology solutions to help them better support their customers, making sure that information is available to those who need it every time and any time we interact with a customer.

Q: Do you consider yourself a techie?

A: I understand technology, but I don't see that as my primary role; there are plenty of exceptionally talented people on the team that understand technology far better than I do. I feel my role is to understand how technology impacts our business and contributes to business results. My job is to help our team members see everything through our customers' eyes. To create an environment for them to deliver high quality technology, in the least amount of time, while maintaining strong cost management disciplines.

HOW YOU CAN GET THERE, TOO
 
[How I Got Here]
Best advice: "Your job has got to be right for you, and it has to be fun -- if not, then move on," says Ms. Modjtabai. She also recommends taking chances on people and on yourself. "Be open to any opportunity," she says. "Remember that leaders are only as good as the team, so investing in building a high performing team is always the right answer." Good people are critical to an organization, adds Ms. Modjtabai.
Skills you need: "I consider myself more of a general manager rather than a technology manager, so the skills are those core management disciplines that are common to most businesses and functions," says Ms. Modjtabai. "You need core leadership skills, especially communication skills, and above all the ability to listen and value diversity in building high performing teams."
Degrees you should go for: An M.B.A. is one option, says Ms. Modjtabai. But, she says, the degree is by no means required to get a rich, diverse set of professional experiences and contacts.
Where you should start: "There are no right or wrong places to start. It has to feel right for you," says Ms. Modjtabai. Career experts recommend starting in a junior role in the industry in which you hope to climb the ladder.
Salary Range: Salary.com lists a range of $158,955 to $351,296 base salary plus bonus for a CIO in California, Executive Vice Presidents will $124,031 to $379,740 plus bonus, according to Salary.com.

Q: These days, 14 years at one company seems like quite a long time. But, in that time, you've held a number of different positions. Is that how you have been able to keep your work fresh?

A: I love Wells Fargo -- we have great leaders, great team members and a great culture. It is a very dynamic, innovative company, and every day new ideas emerge. I feel very fortunate to have been given the opportunity to work in so many different roles.

Q: Were any of your moves lateral, or were you always moving up in the company?

A: A little bit of both. Some of my most rewarding job moves have been lateral. I always want to be intellectually challenged and have the opportunity to learn -- that is my guiding principle. People with rigid ideas about career paths and goals often don't get to where they want to go because they turn down opportunities that usually lead to more advancement later.

Q: Any advice for women considering an executive career in banking?

A: I think it's very important to be yourself and not act the way you think people want you to be. Be flexible -- be open to the possibilities of life and different opportunities, and consider lateral moves as long as you are growing and learning. Surround yourself with a strong team you can rely on and (one that) can grow with you.

Q: What's next for you?

A: I have no idea, and I'm confident I will be as excited about my next role as I have been about my previous ones. The one thing I know for sure is I'm open to whatever comes along, as long as I'm learning, working with good people and having fun. In the meantime, I'm very happy doing what I'm doing, and there is plenty to do.

Write to Elizabeth Garone at cjeditor@dowjones.com

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