6 questions with winner of the 2018 MIT Sloan CIO Symposium Leadership Award

6 questions with winner of the 2018 MIT Sloan CIO Symposium Leadership Award

Bharti Airtel's Global CIO Harmeen Mehta shares her perspective on failure, innovation, talent retention, and more

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May 24, 2018

When Harmeen Mehta took on the CIO role at Bharti Airtel, India's largest telecom operator, she was focused on insourcing key business and technology capabilities. Since then, she has helped drive innovation into all aspects of Airtel's operations, earning her the prestigious 2018 MIT Sloan CIO Leadership Award. Mehta, who now serves as Global CIO and Head of Digital at Airtel, was recognized for her work Wednesday at the MIT Sloan CIO Symposium

For the past 10 years, the award has honored CIOs who are going above and beyond to use IT to move their organizations forward. To even be considered a finalist, CIO applicants must demonstrate that they're doing more than "just being good at IT," said MIT Researcher George Westerman, who co-chairs the annual awards. "The great leaders we’re finding are actually helping their business colleagues to identify and deliver big change in the business." 

"When you talk to Harmeen, she sounds more like a CEO than a typical CIO. She represents where CIOs need to go – to be business executives and not just technology executives," Westerman said. 

We caught up with Harmeen after she won the award to get her perspective on failure, innovation, talent retention, and more. Below is an edited transcript from our conversation. 

The Enterprisers Project (TEP): Some CIOs aren't comfortable with the word "failure," what's your perspective on failing in IT? 

Mehta: "In the industry we're in and in the field of technology, you can't have fear of failure. If you're trying to do innovative things, then you're pushing boundaries. There is no guarantee you'll have success the first time. But today's technology really allows you to experiment very quickly and fail fast – that's the model that I believe in. I don't have a fear of failure. Learn to fail fast and then just move on and find a different way to solve the same problem. It works. It absolutely works."

[ See our related article Adobe CIO: Cross-functional collaboration requires embracing failure and loss of control ]

"Learn to fail fast and then just move on and find a different way to solve the same problem. It works. It absolutely works."

TEP: How do you get your teams comfortable with the idea that it's OK to fail?

Mehta: "They won't get comfortable with failure if you make a very big deal about it and keep reminding them that they failed. I normally tell them, 'You found a way that doesn't work, let's go find a way that does.' They are probably more sensitive to the voice of the leaders, so if the leaders are basically saying, 'Hey, no big deal, let's dust ourselves off, and here's the next cool thing to go try,' they can move on very quickly and get excited about something new." 

TEP: How do you organize teams for innovation? 

Mehta: "When you have a different idea that's a little out there and you want to try something different, you've got to mobilize the teams very quickly and have them focused on it. One of the things that I think we do relatively well is create these cross-functional teams very quickly. So people across various business verticals, customer experience, and engineering can come together and really work as one single, seamless team. And for some of the larger programs that have been running for several months or a year or so, you'll find that people associate themselves with the program more than they associate themselves with the silo that they're a part of – and that's the sign of a really successful team. 

"When different people with diverse thinking come together and focus on a single goal. Then magic happens."

Plus, we've all been part of a team where there has been magic. You've got to find different ways of creating that magic and that only happens when different people with diverse thinking come together and focus on a single goal. Then magic happens."

TEP: In today's competitive job market, many CIOs are focused on retaining their talent. What's your approach?

Mehta: "People are the biggest assets of the organization. I am very focused on my people. I spend a lot of time with them. I like to hear them directly and see what's troubling them and what's on their minds and doing everything that I can. But I also face reality where this next generation actually has no loyalty. It is not the kind of generation where you're going to find a lot of people who are going to stick around the company for 10-20 years like maybe their parents did. I think that's diminishing. That's a reality you've got to deal with. A lot of these folks are going to stick around for a little while and then move on to other companies.

I think there are only two things you can really do. One is, while they're here, you've got to do far more than make sure they are watered and fed. You've really got to make them part of the organization. Many are young minds and have a very different, very interesting take on things. You've got to give them a voice and make them feel that they're part of a bigger purpose. They're really trying to do big things. That's what motivates them and that's what keeps them. 

Other than that, you've got to be conscious that you're hiring a little ahead. Otherwise it'a Catch 22 – you're always filling in open positions. When you've got so much demand on you from the business, it's going to be difficult to meet that demand if you're spending all of your time recruiting."

TEP: What's the best part about being a CIO today? 

Mehta: "There's no better time to be a CIO because technology is changing so fast. I get to play with new tools every day. I have a lot of fun. The problems that we are solving through technology today are more complex than ever before. And with technology changing so fast there's so much you have to learn and relearn every day and that makes every single day more interesting than the day before."

TEP: Do you have a recent book recommendation for fellow CIOs?

Mehta: "'The Inevitable: Understanding the 12 Technological Forces That Will Shape Our Future'" by Kevin Kelly. It's a lovely book. The author talks about the new trends that are changing the world or are going to change the future and the technologies that are going to be part of it. I want his crystal ball."

[ Enter our May giveaway for a chance to win one of 7 must-read books from MIT Press and MIT CIO Symposium speakers ]

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As community manager for The Enterprisers Project, Ginny Hamilton helps build the site's community of CIOs, IT leaders, and readers. She is responsible for helping tell the stories of leading IT executives – showcasing the projects, experiences, and challenges they're facing in their roles as IT leaders.

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