Can a Mortgage Titan Teach Government to Run Smarter?

The CIO for Quicken Loans shares her tactics for a functional, successful organization during the 2015 Michigan Digital Government Summit.

by / October 1, 2015
Quicken Loans CIO Linglong He discusses innovation and building a world-class team at the 2015 Michigan Digital Government Summit Wednesday morning. Government Technology
LANSING, Mich. — Linglong He, CIO for Quicken Loans, shared her secrets for running a world-class IT department with attendees of the 2015 Michigan Digital Government Summit the morning of Wednesday, Sept. 30.
 
The longtime coder and technician had a lot to say when it came to how she and her staff of more than 1,400 people work to better the mortgage lending business. Surprisingly, not all of it was centered on hiring talented technicians.

He, an energetic leader with a straightforward style, said there is more to the success of an organization than just having a skilled team and setting clear project goals. She also stressed the importance of nurturing trust and communications, and the need to constantly build on innovation.

An example of this innovation is best described by the company’s Bullet Time program, which encourages staff to find creative solutions to problems that extended beyond the Quicken workplace. The program allows for staff to use four hours every Monday afternoon to work on projects of their choosing, even if it has nothing to do with their normal assignments.

“It’s so important that we want to reserve time for them to be innovative, to prototype, to explore, to research,” she said. “We have a lot of innovations [that come out of Bullet Time] that aren’t mortgage related, but they still have positive impact. We make it happen and we support that every Monday afternoon.”

Originally a six-week pilot program, Quicken’s top brass wasted no time in recognizing the benefits of providing staff a creative, teambuilding outlet.

“People didn’t ask me, especially leaders, how much [the program would be],” she said. “Think about it. It’s pretty expensive for 1,400 people working for four hours. But one thing I want to share with you is that not everything can be measured on the spreadsheet.”

On top of encouraging employees to think outside of their job descriptions, He said company culture promotes an open-door environment at all levels. The validity of an opinion is not tied to organizational rank, she said.

“For some reason people think if the position is higher, the idea is better, which is not true,” He said.

This approach has served the company well in staying ahead in the mortgage game. The CIO likens efforts to being proactive and looking forward to her own experiences learning to surf in Hawaii.

She sees a parallel between the force of incoming waves and what a changing marketplace can do to even the biggest of industry titans, like video retailer Blockbuster and film magnate Kodak.

“You need to get up before the wave comes,” she said. “You have to stay ahead of the curve. People are not going to wait for you. Think of Kodak.”

The CIO said this logic extends past the company’s innovations and ties in with the need to make effective policy decisions. She refers to Quicken’s practice as the “one level up, two levels down” approach, in which ideas and policies are collectively addressed at multiple points of the organizational ladder.

Ending the “blame game” is another key focus of He’s organizational strategy. She said her team strives not to concentrate on who is right, but what is right for the company and its clientele — a motto she admits is easier to verbalize than realize.

“At Quicken Loans, there is no ‘they.’ We are the ‘they,’” she said. “That means everybody, regardless of whether they are from the business or technology, from anywhere, we build together. We are all in if we do something. We are aligned for the mission we are trying to accomplish.”

Alignment and innovation within the company are handsomely rewarded. He said the top 200 best performing employees are taken on a Hawaiian retreat each year. While there is no place for blame, the CIO said healthy competition is crucial.

Though trips to exotic locations may not work in the government sector, He said the five “ingredients” to an organization’s success — alignment, execution, trust, communication and innovation — fit anywhere. 

From her perspective, you must cultivate and maintain a positive company culture, or you'll pay for it later.

Eyragon Eidam Web Editor

Eyragon Eidam is the Web editor for Government Technology magazine, after previously serving as  assistant news editor and covering such topics as legislation, social media and public safety. He can be reached at eeidam@erepublic.com.