Equifax CTO: 3 keys to leading culture change

Equifax CTO: 3 keys to leading culture change

Culture change is now the hardest part of the IT leader's job - much harder than technical change. Equifax CTO Bryson Koehler shares advice on three strategies

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February 05, 2019
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Whether you’re in the midst of a transformation or operating in daily maintenance mode, culture change is the most difficult part of any technology leader’s job. At its core, culture is about the way people think, talk, and interact with each other. If that foundation is not in place for the leadership team and your line-level employees, dysfunction, finger-pointing, perceived bureaucracy, and missed opportunities will creep in.

Technology leadership is different today than it was just five years ago. Many technology problems that were priorities in the past have become commoditized, simply consumed services. Because there are less underlying technologies to invent and fewer basic technology problems to solve, our unique value as technology leaders is in how we assemble these services to operate more dynamically and provide better uptime, performance, and responses to our customers’ needs. 

Technology leaders of today must balance creating like-mindedness with the ability to promote, debate, and allow different ideas to flourish while also making clear, quick decisions, and creating an environment in which everyone supports those ideas as if they were their own.

I often view myself as the Chief Disruption Officer because I think we constantly have to help our teams feel comfortable disrupting themselves.

At Equifax, one of the most exciting aspects of my job is our work to build a culture that embraces new challenges. I often view myself as the Chief Disruption Officer because I think we constantly have to help our teams feel comfortable disrupting themselves, pressurize the culture, change the way we think and the way we interact. If I get that right and develop a culture I can build on, I know our ability to use the latest technology with the best security and to assemble it in a way that makes sense for Equifax and our customers becomes so much easier.

[ Do your words get under your team's skin? Read Management phrases that make people crazy. ]

I believe successful cultural transformation is an evolution for every organization in three distinct, equally important parts.  

Embrace the barrier

Tech leaders need to recognize, and embrace, the biggest barrier to technology plans isn’t whether the technology will work – it’s the organizational culture. Ten or 15 years ago, the danger was in the details of knowing whether or not Vendor A could interoperate with Vendor B. Today, we don’t have those same technology barriers; instead, people and cultures have become our largest challenges regardless of the size of the company or industry.

Encouraging teams to think and act differently requires an invitation to have them join you in a different way of working.

Encouraging teams to think and act differently requires an invitation to have them join you in a different way of working. Whether or not they accept that invitation is up to them, but it’s up to you to make decisions based on their response.

Change must occur – people either want to change or you need to change the people. Look at your team and your people, your own cadence, your own style, and your own words. We have to be intentional about the way we work, the way we talk, the way we interact and the types of people we hire. That’s all a reflection of the individual culture that each of us wants to build.

Assess your technology culture

Consider the tools you give your company to work with and what it says about the culture you want to have. The tools you give your employees either support or sabotage the type of culture you’re trying to build.

If you have legacy tools that aren’t user-friendly, then the culture you’re building isn’t user friendly.

To set up a printer, for example, do you have to write down a long printer name, search for it on the network, and then spend 25 minutes setting it up? Or have you created fun, easy-to-use printer names that are discoverable and easy to add? Is everything locked down with VPN? Is the guest network still running with the 74-hexadecimal-character passcode you obtain from the front desk? Are employees still sending PowerPoint files back and forth to each other with various versions attached? Are employees leveraging video-conferencing appropriately, or are just hopping on phone calls with each other?

Those are the types of things that really matter – the little things. If you’re creating frustration or friction and making it difficult for people to do their job, that’s the culture you’re reinforcing. If you have legacy tools that aren’t user-friendly, then the culture you’re building isn’t user-friendly.

Technology leaders need to recognize that the tooling and the technology we give our employees is one of the most important and powerful culture-changing capabilities within the entire company. CIOs can change, help reinforce and build culture with far more influence than the head of HR, marketing or any other senior leadership position because we’re all using the technology and tools we put in front of our employees every day. 

[ Want to create a sense of urgency in your IT organization? Take 5 quick steps with our Fast Start Guide: Creating a sense of urgency, with John Kotter. ]

Let your culture evolve

Culture change isn’t a project: It doesn’t need a name and it doesn’t need a banner. It needs time to evolve. Once you have the right pieces in place, culture must be allowed to grow and flourish organically. Leaders can fertilize it, set the stage, encourage it and lead by example. But at some point, once you’ve solidified the foundation by putting the right tools in place and made it a frictionless, fun environment that encourages debate and decisions – it has to self-evolve.

That doesn’t mean the work is done. Course correction is an ongoing process, celebrating what’s working and fixing what isn’t, noticing when new friction has crept into the environment and removing it. 

It is up to each of us, every day, to excel in creating a positive culture for our employees that drives success for the larger enterprise.  

[ Read our report from HBR Analytic Services: Transformation Masters: The New Rules of CIO Leadership. ]

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Bryson Koehler is leading the technology transformation of Equifax, a global data, analytics and technology company. As a vision-driven, no-nonsense leader, he inspires his global technology teams to build products and services that create data insights – empowering customers and partners to make more informed decisions. Koehler is recognized for creating positive change within an organization through innovative technology and relentless relationship building. 

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