7 qualities of a resilient IT culture

Winners of the 2022 Carolina CIO of the Year ORBIE Awards share their views on how to build a healthy, resilient IT culture
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Resiliency can make all the difference between a team that struggles with changing priorities and repeated setbacks and one that sails through the unexpected and adapts quickly. This isn’t magic or coincidence – it’s a result of leaders building key characteristics of resilience into the DNA of their IT culture.

“Resiliency is facing challenges and difficult times head-on and coming out the other side stronger. If the past few years have taught us anything, it is that we need to be adaptive, communicative, and willing to challenge the norms of our organizational culture,” says Bill Golden, deputy state treasurer and CIO, NC Department of State Treasurer. “It’s about being able to listen and respond to the ever-changing needs of our customers with a smile and a productive attitude.”

We asked winners of the 2022 Carolina CIO of the Year ORBIE Awards how they define resilient IT culture – and how they are working to build resilience in their own teams. They identified seven core qualities and why each one is important in helping teams adapt and thrive, no matter what the future holds.

An insatiable hunger for knowledge

Tracy Kerrins

Tracy Kerrins, EVP, CIO-Consumer Technology, Wells Fargo: Supporting customers and partners, accelerating digital transformation, and enhancing the overall experience are just a few of the priorities IT departments must deliver. A resilient IT culture is one that can balance all of these priorities while also embracing change and quickly adapting to new requirements and industry trends. When teams can build flexible, scalable solutions and anticipate the needs of customers and business partners, they can deliver transformational results.

[ Also read 10 CIOs share advice on career development. ]

A core characteristic of a resilient IT culture is one that possesses an insatiable hunger to learn – about the business needs of your partners, the latest innovation to hit the market, and the trends most impacting your team and customers. Doing so allows you to look ahead with confidence and be proactive in building a winning strategy that ensures operational readiness and successful delivery.

On my team, I aim to expand these characteristics by providing people with the right tools and a level of autonomy that allows them to deliver results. I also create space for everyone’s ideas and encourage team members to speak freely and candidly, even if that means challenging our current approach and proposing a superior one. And I support my team through the successes and the setbacks – we deliver, we fail, and we bounce back even stronger, together.

Empowerment, transparency, and curiosity

Jay Upchurch

Jay Upchurch, EVP & CIO, SAS: Resiliency today is a competitive differentiator. In the early days of Covid, resilient organizations were able to pivot to remote work quickly, adjust go-to-market motions in real time, and thrive. By contrast, organizations that weren’t resilient suffered because they were slow to react, and they experienced significant disruption internally and commercially.

A resilient IT culture anticipates and reacts to unexpected turns while remaining focused on the long-term strategic game. Be mindful of empowering your team with the space to pivot without fear of retribution for adjusting a project schedule.

To operate with resilience, you also must have trust and transparency with your business partners. Trust and transparency won’t happen without early communication and active listening.

If an organization’s leaders are mindful and empowered, the last ingredient is curiosity. Fuel your team’s curiosity to explore “what if” scenarios. Be ready with answers and solutions. Don’t stifle curiosity with linear operational thinking and a rigid culture that negatively affects the organization overall.

Don’t stifle curiosity with linear operational thinking and a rigid culture that negatively affects the organization overall.

A hallmark of SAS culture is our curiosity. Our talent recruiters actively screen for curiosity with prospective employees. We believe if you’re curious, you’ll bring that sense of tenacious wonder to all the projects and challenges that come at you on any given day. If you’re curious, we believe it’s a good bet you also operate with an innate sense of resiliency.

Recruitment and retention, leadership, and engagement

Bill Golden

Bill Golden, Deputy State Treasurer & CIO, NC Department of State Treasurer: It’s important that IT departments focus on the core fundamentals of IT. If you can do the core fundamentals well, it becomes easier to accomplish dynamic change and innovation and do both really, really well. It’s all about turning a bug into a feature for our customers.

The three most important components are recruitment (and retention), leadership, and engagement. I believe in hiring the smartest people I can, no matter what. I think it’s important to respect employees, give them interesting work and the tools and training they need, and provide a healthy work environment, then stay out of their way and let them be successful. I also believe that there is strength in a diverse workforce and hiring people with different views from your own.

Leaders need to take a calm and steady approach to the constantly changing environment. Servant leaders also need to listen more and speak less. Having a shared vision and responsibility helps to create open and honest communication, so you should encourage and listen to ideas from your staff, peers, and management. This kind of collaboration will help you build on the positive while eliminating the negative.

Lastly, it may sound counterintuitive, but I believe stability of leadership is important as well. It is hard to have a resilient culture when leadership is constantly changing.

A formal annual engagement process is a valuable resource in building a well-functioning team. Another – even more important – is daily informal feedback. Being intentional with everyday conversations can help reinforce your vision and values. It also allows you to gather simple, honest feedback. Informal hallway conversations with your staff will often give you answers you need to be successful. When you receive feedback, it is important to acknowledge it and most of all, act upon it.

Giving your staff challenging and meaningful work is the single most important element in keeping them engaged and resilient.

[ Check out essential career advice from 37 award-winning CIOs! Get a variety of insights on leadership, strategy, and career development from IT executives at Mayo Clinic, Dow, Aflac, Liberty Mutual, Nordstrom, and more: Ebook: 37 award-winning CIOs share essential IT career advice. ]

Carla Rudder is a community manager and program manager for The Enterprisers Project. She enjoys bringing new authors into the community and helping them craft articles that showcase their voice and deliver novel, actionable insights for readers.