What defines a high-performing IT team? 5 CIOs speak out

Leading CIOs discuss what sets top teams apart – and how to foster these qualities on your own team
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Being a part of a high-trust, high-performing team can feel a bit like magic. But CIOs know there is a lot of work that goes into building and nurturing a team that can continually meet challenges and exceed goals.

CIOs who recently won the 2022 Chicago CIO of the Year ORBIE Awards shared with us a few telltale signs of a high-performing team, the qualities that set them apart, and how IT leaders can bring out the best in their own teams.

1. Create an environment for teams to unleash their potential

Sabina Ewing

Sabina Ewing, CIO and VP, Business & Technology Services, Abbott: “High-performing teams are relentless about getting better, being more efficient, and yielding meaningful, quantifiable results. As a CIO, I’ve found it critical to surround myself with smart people, including folks smarter than me. My role is like that of a coach for a professional sports team. You have folks in specific positions, covering different areas – infrastructure, cyber, divisions, delivery, etc. It’s incumbent on me to create an environment that allows them to unleash their full potential.

“Moreover, we can’t hire our way to performance, we must up-skill and establish higher expectations from the current workforce. I remind my leaders that we win or lose as a full team; no one individual supersedes that.”

2. Ensure teams understand their 'why'

Anupam Khare

Anupam Khare, SVP & CIO, Oshkosh Corporation: “Behind every high-performing team is a strong purpose. Most teams have an understanding of ‘what’ needs to get accomplished, but few teams have strong conviction around the ‘why.’ If you’re able to emotionally connect your team to the purpose, you will be amazed at what your team can accomplish.

“At Oshkosh, we have a very strong purpose of providing vehicles and solutions that help everyday heroes around the world. The same is true for our IT team, where we rally around maximizing the potential of our people, assets, and data through technology. We connect every IT team member with this purpose and help them define their own ‘why,’ from automating mundane work for our business partners, to enhancing machine uptime through predictive maintenance, to turning our data into valuable insights to make better and faster business decisions.

Most teams have an understanding of 'what' needs to get accomplished, but few teams have strong conviction around the 'why.'

“Connecting team members to a strong purpose is especially true in the role of the CIO, where today’s technology can overcome just about any business challenge. It’s no longer a question of if IT can help enable breakthrough performance; it’s a question of where IT should focus its limited resources to enable transformation. I encourage each of my teams to answer this question by looking for high impact areas of the business where there is strong passion. Passion combined with the right technology enables teams to accomplish more than they ever thought possible.”

3. Foster trust by encouraging open and honest conversations

Janet Zelenka

Janet Zelenka, EVP, CFO & CIO, Stericycle Inc.: “CIOs and their teams are continuously faced with a complex and rapidly changing business environment driven by technological opportunities and disruptions. While having the right talent in the right roles is an essential first step to creating a high-performing team, CIOs must also foster a workplace environment that encourages collaboration and authentic relationships.

“High-performing teams are built on trust, where all members, no matter their job title, feel empowered to productively challenge each other to be better. They are encouraged to leverage their critical thinking skills, see issues from multiple perspectives, and freely share alternatives to drive to the best solutions aligned with the company’s values and business priorities.

“CIOs can encourage a culture of trust and respect by being willing to be challenged and encouraging forums and individual conversations that are open and honest. By constructively disrupting the status quo, CIOs can create a high-performance, purpose-driven culture that encourages creative thinking and inspires breakthrough ideas and innovative solutions.”

4. Step back and let your team solve hard problems

Gus Oakes

Gus Oakes, CIO, ATI Physical Therapy: “Building a culture of trust and transparency requires both discipline and patience. It’s easy to step in and put your hands on the wheel, but building trust requires providing guidance, then leaving space for others to find the best answers, make their own mistakes, learn, and grow. The more you step back and enable others rather than solving problems on their behalf, the better.

“As a leader, it’s intuitive to step in and help your team succeed, but exhibiting patience and creating space for them to solve problems is exponentially more effective. Combined with a shared accountability for the best outcomes creates a model for long-term team success.”

5. Build a team that challenges you to think differently

Kiran Achen

Kiran Achen, SVP & CIO, Tokio Marine Highland: “High-performing teams are comprised of intellectually curious, self-driven critical thinkers who have an entrepreneurial mindset and strive to create lasting value for an organization. These teams work smart, take informed risks, embrace a fail-fast mentality, actively collaborate, and do not shy away from seeking help.

“This is the team I aspired to build when I joined Tokio Marine Highland. I sought to create a culture that embraces new ideas and continuous learning – a culture focused on outcomes. In order to achieve that vision, it required me to be more than a CIO. I needed to be a motivator, an agent of change, and a remover of obstacles who allowed the team to thrive and meet new challenges and exceed expectations. In building that team, I sought out individuals who exhibit accountability, empowerment, innovation, initiative, and pride. These are values I embrace, live daily, and encourage continuously.

“I think CIOs today must focus on creating that infectious culture where individuals thrive on collective strengths and compensate for individual weakness. Build a team that challenges you on a daily basis to think differently and journey on the road less traveled.”

[ Leading CIOs are reimagining the nature of work while strengthening organizational resilience. Learn 4 key digital transformation leadership priorities in a new report from Harvard Business Review Analytic Services. ]

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.