IT leaders should go “undercover” to understand the business

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CIO Shrinking Information Sector

Earlier this year, I quite literally found myself in the shoes of our field engineers. We were touring a wastewater treatment plant in Kentucky, and I had to borrow a pair of steel-toe shoes because I didn't have any with me. After I was outfitted for the trip, I spent the day watching and learning from our field engineers while they megger tested some transformers.

I’ve started spending more time in the shoes of my internal customers to get a better understanding of their pain points and to signal to them that I’m not just an IT leader – I’m also a business leader.

A week after my trip to the plant, I met with the leadership of that business unit, and I was able to do a much better job of articulating changes that would benefit their field service engineers than I had in the past. I was also able to demonstrate that I understood how we make money. I didn’t really spend a great deal of time talking about platforms in the meeting. Instead, our conversations focused more on the business and the role technology plays in it.

Going Undercover for IT

I call these customer trips my “undercover boss activity,” and I’ve found that they really help break down the barrier of being seen as the IT guy in the room. These trips help me establish credibility as a business leader with an IT responsibility. And the more I do it, the more interesting conversations I get invited to.

I also encourage the rest of my team to take these field trips. Some of them see it as a weird request. Yet if we are going to provide a service, we should understand the world of the people to whom we’re providing that service. Beyond establishing credibility, it also lets us torpedo assumptions that may be wrong, as well as build relationships.

For example, I recently spent a day with our sales organization pretending to be a distributor. The trip gave me an opportunity to use the tools my team supplies. At one point, just to picture it, we were in a room and one of my applications blue screened. The senior executive of sales walked across the room, put his hand on my shoulder and said: “Dude, it’s not personal.” Our relationship has been solid ever since, even through difficulties, because he knows I give a damn.  

If you want to establish more credibility as a business leader with an IT responsibility, schedule a trip with your internal customers out in the field. Just make sure you pack for it so you don’t have to borrow a pair of steel-toe shoes. Not only will it give you more insight into the business, but it could also help you get invited to more interesting conversations.

For more about how to connect with your real customers, read, "If it doesn't enhance the customer experience, start again." by Peter Buonora

Eamon O’Kelly leads the Information Systems organization for Schneider Electric's North American division. He is an energetic leader with a proven history in building and leading high performance, multinational teams in engineering, consulting and IT. In his current position, Eamon leads the IT team of 240 people, with an IT budget greater than $130 million.

Eamon O'Kelly is an energetic leader with a proven history in building and leading high performance, multinational teams in engineering, consulting and IT. Eamon holds a Bachelor’s degree in Industrial Engineering and Information Systems, as well as a Master’s degree in Mechanical Engineering from the University College Dublin. He is a green advocate and avid sailor.

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