Building great IT teams and breaking out of support-only perceptions
Steve Brown became the Vice President, Information Technology of ECMD, a building materials supply chain company based in North Carolina, in 2001. He says he thinks the IT leadership door opened for him after he pulled a bad ERP implementation out of the fire. In January, Brown will be switching from full-time employee to an advisor for the next couple of years.
We spoke to Steve about team-building and his current focus of attention, succession planning.
Is team building more or less challenging for a mid-size business?
Brown: With a mid-size business, you have the needs of a multi-billion dollar company, but you don’t have the resources or the manpower. The challenge is to do a lot of the same things, achieve the same amount of automation, standardization, and consistency that you need, but with a staff of maybe only 10 to 20 people.
What are the advantages with building a great team in flyover country?
Brown: Our location has actually worked to an advantage for me. If you hire somebody in this area, they tend to want to stay here. They want to raise a family, live in a place with lower taxes. And people don’t tend to job hop as much as they do in, say, Silicon Valley.
I interview specifically for our area and our company culture, and not strictly by certifications or resume details. To evaluate ability, we use a simple oral test of just a few open-ended technical questions. An unqualified candidate will not know the factual answer, or not even understand the reason for the question. The basically qualified candidate will answer factually, but minimally. The great candidate will answer more fully, showing interest, enthusiasm, and knowledge of the subject.
Once basic ability is established, I look for personality and culture fit with the rest of team, and for the company as a whole. We openly describe the pluses and minuses of our department and company personality and culture, partly as a sales technique, but also as a means to allow the candidate to self-disqualify if they realize we are not a good fit for them.
How did having a cohesive team make it easier for you during the pandemic?
Brown: The biggest thing for me was that my team was able to keep the company running smoothly despite the extreme, unprecedented challenges of a pandemic. Secondly, we were thereby able to validate that working from home was an option for our company, going forward. Our department had always had some degree of work flexibility, if nothing else to deal with off hours and constrained resources, so it wasn’t a huge adjustment for our team when most folks were sent home.
Aside from creating a great team, what should a CIO strive for in a company?
Brown: For a CIO in a midsize organization, one of the more important things is to develop a rapport with the business, to develop good everyday working relationships with the other department-division leaders. That means you should strive to have IT treated just like any of the revenue divisions, by working with them the same way they work with each other. IT should be an integral part of the business, like HR and Finance, and not be treated as just a low-value cost center within the company.
That’s not always an easy thing to attain.
Brown: It can be difficult, especially with companies that have grown from smaller companies. A lot of IT departments start out in smaller companies as just another ‘necessary evil.’ It’s hard to break out of the support-only perception. But in general, it’s much easier today for a CIO to show the value of technology. It’s easier to show the value of what you can do even on a small scale, even if you’re just talking about niche areas. You just have to break out of that perception box and develop relationships with your business colleagues, as well as build a great team.
One way to improve an IT team is to empower them with knowledge of the business itself. If your IT team members understand how your business makes money, how it is positioned and differentiated within your industry, and what the company strategy is, then those members will be able to make better day-to-day micro decisions in so many situations. They will always better understand context. They will feel part of a bigger effort, part of a true team, be thereby better motivated and engaged.
You will be leaving the company in a couple of years. What is your succession plan and how will you prepare your team for that?
Brown: A manager in a midsize company deals with a little more detail, typically, than one in a big enterprise. A midsize company, particularly one that’s grown over the years and had significant growth, will have upper managers that are both tacticians and strategists. It’s a little harder for those who deal in detail to grow a second and third level of mid-management, from which to create bench strength. That means mid-sized leaders must put special effort into delegation, mentorship, and training.
Sometimes, you still will have to look outside for the right successor, though that comes with its own challenges. It can be very difficult to find the right cultural, skill, and viewpoint mix that will allow someone from the outside to fit your department and company, especially at a given point in time.
There’s also the issue of retaining institutional knowledge. It helps as a CIO to know what you’ve done in the past, why a certain technological or business decision was made. Once you know the original why, you can then evaluate whether it is still a good idea.
Ed. note: Here are some more helpful tips for recruiting top tech talent: