Tech Data Corporation is one of the world’s largest wholesale distributors of technology products, services and solutions, generating $27.7 billion in net sales for the fiscal year that ended on January 31, 2015. Headquartered in Clearwater, Florida, the company is ranked No. 107 on the Fortune 500, just behind Nike and beating other large brands like McDonalds and Exelon. Tech Data is also one of Fortune’s “World’s Most Admired Companies” and is ranked No. 450 on the Global 500.
A key leader in the success of Tech Data is John (“JT”) Tonnison. The company’s executive vice president and chief information officer (CIO), he was appointed to lead the strategic direction, operations, and go-to-market execution of the company’s worldwide cloud business in July of 2015. In this expanded role, Tonnison will oversees Tech Data’s cloud leadership in the Americas and Europe. One of our ‘Movers and Shakers’ profiled in last year’s inaugural round-up of Florida’s 100 brightest LGBT community members, we had the opportunity to dive deeper with Tonnison. We discussed work life balance, obstacles he has had to overcome, and the Competitive Workforce Act.
Born and educated in the United Kingdom, Tonnison began his career in the ‘tech.com boom’ and held executive management positions in the U.S., United Kingdom and Germany with TSN, Ameriquest, Log 2000, Frontline Distribution and Mancos Computers. Tonnison joined TechData in 2001.
One obstacle Tonnison had to overcome on his path for success was himself. In his early years at TechData, Tonnison had a very solid reputation for delivery, getting tech done, and for creative and pragmatic solutions to problems. “I did not have a good reputation for developing a leadership team that would sustain without me. I was not considered a people leader.”
The company then paired Tonnison with a Doctor of Psychology in a mentoring relationship to help him re-frame his approach to guiding his team. The doctor would shadow Tonnison throughout his work days and then sit at dinner with him with some very candid feedback. “He substantially changed my operating mode and that was to move me away from answering questions as a virtue when being asked them. When getting into that rapid fire where somebody would ask me for an answer for a problem.”
Dr. Frank Merritt was Tonnison’s executive coach. With a PhD in Psychology, Merrit was and is the CEO of TalentQuest. He pointed out to Tonnison, “You seem to think that you are doing this great macho high velocity thing. Very high energy. You are getting thorough lots of answers really quickly but what you are actually doing is you are negating the need for the people to come to you to find their own thoughtful answers because they know you are going to do it very quickly. So why waste the time if you can do it quicker? Secondly, if they have had a thing that they have been thinking about or worrying about, and they can’t solve and bring it you and you solve it quickly, they are insulted. This is not good.”
“This very profoundly shifted me into a more questioning style in response to questions,” Tonnison remembers. “To go back and respond in ways to help someone unblock their limitations and road blocks in their own thinking. To throw another idea out there to explore but to do it in a questioning style so they can find their own way.”
When asked about work life balance, Tonnison quickly jokes, “What’s that?”
“IT in the tech industry is very high velocity, very fast moving, an ‘always on’ business, ” Tonnison continues. “One of my responsibilities as CIO is for all of the technology throughout the world. Running our business at this high speed velocity – there is not exactly downtime in IT.”
Tonnison continues to explain that while his role as CIO is overwhelming and fast paced at times, his home life maintains an important balance. “We find that balance in our household boils down to the individual person. My partner is a not-for-profit guy. And I think my work and lifestyle become his balance. My needs become high velocity capitalist commercial engine. His needs are far more about hearts and minds and mission and about what society needs.”
Tonnison has been with his partner for eight years. “In any relationship, you have to be able to talk about both of your interests and both of your jobs. I actually think it is that balance that provides the balance for me. You reconnect with someone who is so deeply mission centric, who is so focused on real world harm, real world hurt, real world inequalities, and imperfections in our societies to improve people’s lives That is what creates balance for me. It reminds me even though I am a leader of this huge corporate entity that outside there are lots of real life people with real world problems and challenges and absence of fairness. Those things still need our attention, still need our compassion, and still need time.”
Describing his household as capitalistic and caring, Tonnison is the self proclaimed capitalist half of that. “When it comes to the equality causes, what I do and bring to there with the full support and faith of my corporation, we bring the economic imperative into the equality conversation. There are numerous forums of voices. When it comes to my role as I represent this Fortune 500 company, we bring the voice to strongly argue why equality is a powerful positive economic force.”
Tech Data is a leading voice in the Florida Businesses for a Competitive Workforce coalition, promoting the Competitive Workforce Act (SB120). “I personally have been very active on behalf of the corporation, expressing to the Florida legislature the economic motive and moral imperative of expanding the state’s definition of equality to catch up with society’s overall evolved thinking and standards. I have spent face time with the chair of the house committee on who’s desk the bill lies, and the state senator who’s district the majority of our Florida employees reside, and who sits on the judiciary committee that is hearing the bill this session. I have spoken publicly on behalf of the coalition, appeared in Tallahassee in person to give testimony in the hearing of this bill.”
On February 8th, Tonnison gave again testimony to the judiciary committee of the state senate, in favor of SB120, seeking to add LGBT protections to the 1992 Civil Rights Act. He stayed in Tallahassee as the bill was carried forward into the next day’s agenda.
Shifting the overall culture of Florida is extremely important to Tech Data, who has to compete with more progressive states like California and Washington when it comes to recruiting tech talent. “We are a heavily technical based company. That means the products we sell and service use technology on a massive scale to make our business work. So we need technology talent. Technology talent and Florida are not terribly synonymous. There are states that are far more clearly defined as technology states. Establishing and growing Florida’s relevance, reputation and appeal to technology companies, students and talent comes out on a number of fronts that need to be progressed.”
One of those fronts is to demonstrate some of those characteristics of the places where technology is more obviously at home. “One of the characteristics of that is open inclusive equatable freedom where you have a tremendously diverse industry. As you try to appeal to students, to talent, to businesses for investors – to try and echo some of that progressive thinking and openness we believe is a very important aspect of placing Florida on the map.”