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Positioning an IT Department for Success
Having end-to-end accountability for IT is highly enjoyable, but you could also say that it’s highly risky. There are a lot of things that could go wrong, and as leader of this group I’m ultimately accountable for any one of them.
As the head of IT you have the good fortune of positioning people for success. That means making the right decisions that allow them to continue to be successful and, of course, employed. At the same time, you know that if you make bad decisions or bad choices, the risk is that you could impact someone’s career — and someone’s livelihood. That is a lot of risk, and that’s the number one thing that concerns me in my role. On the other hand, I also have the ability to accelerate, improve, and make the careers of my direct reports enjoyable, which I prefer to focus on more than I go to the negative.
IT Transformation Begins with People…
Over the past three years at this organization, we’ve really worked hard to transform IT. I think it’s safe to say IT is now a fun place to work. And one area where we’ve done a great deal to make that happen is with hiring.
Changing our existing hiring culture was not an intuitive process, and that became clear as some of my employees started to question me. “It seems like you’re only hiring entry-level people,” they said. “Should we be concerned?” And my response was, “Yeah, if you don’t want a promotion.” When they looked at me strangely, I laid out my approach point by point:
- If someone leaves IT from a senior-level position, and I go out to the marketplace and hire a senior-level person, that position is closed.
- If I promote you and then promote someone into your job and then promote someone into their job and fill the capacity at the lowest possible level, I can get anywhere from two to five promotions as a result of someone leaving. And people in this department that have worked hard and delivered over the past few years can get promotions.
- When I refill the capacity to get work and I bring in a lower-cost employee, I’m driving down cost, I’m increasing morale, I’m promoting from within, and I’m bringing new energy and new ideas into the organization.
At that point I would ask them, “So you want me to keep doing it the old way?” And to a person they always said, “No, no. Keep going!” I took that as a good sign.
…But Transformation Never Happens Overnight
These conversations are typical of the ones I had three years ago. But the transformation itself doesn’t happen right away. It’s only now that the fruits of those investments and the returns on our investments are starting to be seen, both from a morale perspective and an energy perspective. The new hires I’ve made are challenging some of the ways that we’ve done things, but meanwhile they’re mixing those new creative ideas with the experienced thinking of people that have been here. The diversification of people both new and tenured has enabled us to just get to the middle, and that middle, in my opinion, is really where you get the best decisions.
What is critical is encouraging IT-business partnerships. We have 1,000 employees at my current company, whereas at my prior company we had 3,500 employees just in IT. That made for very little movement from IT to the business. But because we’re a midsize company we can get direct interaction with the business more easily. In fact I learned more about the business of insurance in six months of my current role than in my ten and a half years at my previous employer. Now I’m in discussion with my business partner on a near-daily basis. I’ve led discussions on our executive team about business and IT strategy and synergy. Even at an individual contributor level, we don’t have the luxury of multiple layers between the business and IT, so we don’t operate that way.
Is it all paying off? Recently we’ve received comments that IT at our company, under my leadership, was no longer a drag. IT has done a lot to deliver on many things and change how the organization works. We now receive comments such as, “I really feel that IT is an enabler.”
Paul’s responsibilities at Arbella span infrastructure, application development and IT core services. Paul previously spent 10+ years at Liberty Mutual where he was the Senior Director of IT. He has particular expertise in the design and delivery of cost-effective, high-performing information technology organizations accountable for providing applications and infrastructure to support business strategies.