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A seasoned CIO who has worked in the software, clothing, and retail hardware industries offers insights on leadership and collaboration that are relevant in any business.
By Rosalee Hermens, Board Member and Advisory Services, Hermens & Associates
I recently went back to consulting after seven years at True Value, a hardware retailer with more than 4,000 independently owned locations worldwide. It got me thinking about how much has changed over the course of my career.
When I started in IT in the 1980s, the environment was easy. You didn’t have to worry about the network because programs weren’t networked back then. You didn’t have to worry about security because there was no Internet. The work was much more coding- and hardware-related, without all the surround-sound we have today.
Now, we have security issues, we have the Internet, the UX, the customer layer, the application layer, the database layer, load balancing – none of these components existed when I began in IT.
But that’s okay with me: I’m not somebody who has a lot of patience for doing the same thing over and over – I would be a terrible bot!
And though the change has been relentless, I’ve learned some lessons that seem to apply, no matter what the situation. Let me share some of those in the context of my work at True Value.
Staying out of your shell
At True Value, I spent a very large chunk of my time – about 40 percent of it – with my peers in IT talking about what initiatives we were running and how we were driving growth. But I also spent a lot of my time talking with our end-customers – the independent owners of the 4,000 True Value stores. What technology do they need? What is easy and what is difficult in the ways they do things.
For example, we had an idea that the owners might want a purchasing app for ordering products from us. But when we tested a prototype in focus groups, it turns out they didn’t want a purchasing app. What they wanted to do was research – look up information about a product, look up availability, look up their past orders. We re-tuned our thinking based on what they told us, and the app has been a big success.
In another example, we were developing a Point of Sale/ERP solution for True Value store owners. Because they’re independent, they have to buy this – it's not something we develop and give to them. I needed to win their support from the first day. I needed them to be supportive during the development process, to help ensure the solution was something they could use. I needed them to be supportive as the solution was coming to fruition, so that would buy it. And at the same time, I had to keep my board supportive, because they were putting in the seed money to make this happen. And I had to keep my management team supportive so that they would be out proselytizing to store owners the value of the solution.
We would keep communicating all the way through the process. I think we IT people sometimes tend to imagine that once we finish writing down the requirements, we can go back into our shell and develop something, without having to come out until it’s done. But change management doesn’t work that way. With change management, the contact has to be continuous.
The teamwork imperative
Besides putting a lot of emphasis on front office processes and the customer experience, I also spent a lot of time at True Value helping the company understand the value of integration and standards. There’s a huge amount of good technology out there that’s very easy to get your hands on and that solves some business problem or another. But such technology often creates a level of chaos, too: Because the master data isn’t managed in a standard way, integrations don’t end up promoting an enterprise-wide understanding of revenue and the customer.
Because this kind of collaboration is incredibly important, I would not only talk a great deal about teamwork but also try to encourage it on a daily basis. For example, when we had a design review, we would pull in people from different parts of the organization to offer different perspectives. I would often say to people, “I know this isn’t your project, but we need your help. I want you to step up on this one.”
Another thing that I worked to do was give people the same goal. Doing this, helps them realize that they actually are in the same boat. To some extent, I also did this with our technology partners, as well. I would say, “Tell me who your lead on the program is and how you’re measuring that person, and I will measure my person exactly the same way.” This could cause a little bit of consternation sometimes. Someone might say, “You can’t measure me the same way you measure him or her.” And my answer was, “Well, yes, actually I can.”
Concerns for the future
As I look ahead now at the future of corporate IT, two things in particular concern me. First, I believe we are generally unprepared for the degree to which technology is taking over everything. As I look around the world for an educated population with technical skills, I find too few skilled people to meet the expected demand. In the U.S., there are too few engineers. In India, there are too few engineers. I think that’s going to be a major issue – there just aren’t enough of us -- which means we'll have to think about new ways to attract people to technology roles and then figure out efficient ways to educate and train them.
The second area of concern is automation and artificial intelligence. These will dramatically change how we use technology. The impact of that on the employee population and on grooming and building managers will be enormous. We have barely begun to figure out how to adapt to this change.
Advice for Aspiring Women IT Executives
I think women have a couple of advantages when it comes to IT.
One, I think we are less risk averse than men at work. I think we bring a willingness to take risks in situations where a man might step back and say, “I’ll execute the hell out of this – when it’s a proven commodity.”
Two, I think women tend to connect with other people in more ways. And when you’re driving change, a big chunk of this involves pulling the team together. When you have a problem, it’s not about finding who caused the problem. It’s about figuring out a way to solve the problem. I think women are more naturally able to build coalitions.
So I think a greater willingness to take risks and the ability to get people to work as a team are two things that I bring to the party and that women generally bring to the party.
Of course, that’s not enough to succeed in IT. If you’re a woman and you want to be CIO, you’ll need to do three things.
First, ask yourself, “Do I want to sit in this seat?” Be clear with yourself about whether that’s what you want to do. If it is, then you have to organize your life to support that. I think that’s true for men, too, but it’s much easier for men to organize their life to support their ambition than it is for a woman.
Second, deliver. The first criterion for success is that you are able to get things done. You’re the go-to guy when it comes to getting something done.
Third, it’s important to network both inside and outside the company. I think women do far too little of this. Often, it isn’t as easy for a woman to break into informal organizational networks, but it’s really important. The better connected you are, the more able you are to solve problems and find opportunities. You need to invest time in networking and make it an integral part of your job.
A CIO needs to stay connected with a variety of stakeholders, including her own management team, her business customers, the company board, and its end-customers.
Despite automation, tremendous technology staffing shortages lie ahead, with a looming shortage of engineers not just in the U.S. but in countries like India, as well.
Women in IT have two advantages over their male counterparts: They tend to be less risk averse and they are often better at team-building.