CIO-turned-CEO Kevin Hart on developing successful IT leaders

We have a weekly cross-functional meeting with the top leaders in the company where we go through every major function, every major KPI, and we talk about our successes, and we talk about our challenges. I’m able to learn a fair amount from that and ask pretty decent questions and also bring solutions to the team.

I think when the leadership is modeling the behavior, it shows that we are a team. We’re going to do whatever it takes to get to where we need to be, and we’re going to help each other out. That breeds camaraderie and teamwork and a can-do spirit as opposed to people feeling like they need to cover their bases or just look out for themselves.

What motivated you to invest time and money into leadership development and CIO University? What’s the ROI on that?

As every good team leader or coach knows, you’re only as good as the players on your team. If you go back 10 or 20 years ago, a lot of the really proficient technology leaders weren’t necessarily as astute in terms of business acumen, so they got a lot of pushback from CFOs around the cost investments. I thought, why don’t we build a bridge between our stakeholders and educate our teams on things like what it means to hit your quarterly revenue or EBITDA numbers, what it means when you’re trying to generate free cash flow, etc., so that we can walk in their shoes and, in turn, do a better job delivering to benefit them and us.

A lot of it was around communication, personality types, and business acumen. I started getting feedback from my stakeholders like, ‘It’s working. Your team is actually listening and they’re compromising to find win-win solutions that can move the business forward.’

I also created something called the value meter that captures revenue growth, cost reduction, and vendor cost optimization. I had one instance a few years ago that generated $1.4 billion in cost savings, cost avoidance, or revenue enablement. When you sit down with the CFO or stakeholders and talk about the financial problems of the company, and you deliver solutions that contribute to the financial success of the company, that gets their attention. You can only do that if you have a team that understands how the business operates and can communicate, connect, and deliver to benefit the growth of the company. Those are just a couple of examples of how I know that the investment in your team pays off.

You’re also trying to build a great workplace. I’ve taken over teams in the past with engagement scores and employee NPS scores that were below average for the company. Because of the communication skills of the leaders that we were fostering and investing in, those scores, in most instances, had increased to be at par or at the top of the company. Employees like to communicate with their supervisors and be heard and provide input.

Fundamentally, most of technology is about people, so investing in your leaders to help them enable others to rise to the occasion is definitely a worthwhile value proposition.

Your CIO, Rose Chambers, told me that one of your biggest assets is that you listen before speak. Does that come from your consultant training?

I think so. When you show up as a consultant, you’re not there to tell them how great you are; you’re there to help them solve their problems. You’re asking, what problems do you have, what are you trying to solve, and then you can start pairing up your particular solutions or scenarios that might be a fit for what they need. At the end of the day, they’re only going to hire you or engage you if you can actually help them be successful in their roles.

In general, I’m a lot more analytical than otherwise, so I’m trying to listen and process information. I look for patterns and solutions before speaking. I also try to keep in mind that when I, as the leader, say something, people will start to line up around that, and it might not be the best outcome. I’ll caveat things by saying, ‘Here’s an idea. It doesn’t have to be this way, but let’s start with this and then see if we can make it better.’ I want to avoid a situation where people just say, ‘Well, he said this, so that’s what we have to do,’ because I’ve seen that a lot and it doesn’t tend to end up that well.

Dan Roberts: From your vantage point as CEO, what advice would you offer CIOs and IT leaders about how to make the biggest impact?

Now that I’m the CEO, I look at the CIO role and think, wow, that was a lot harder than I could ever imagine it being. When you’re in the middle of it, you just do what you have to do. But when you’re observing the situation, she or he is supporting every function in the company. Everybody wants something, everybody wants it yesterday for low cost or free, and it just doesn’t work that way. So you need to be able to navigate, be a consultant, and put financial priorities in place, because you have to protect your team, too — you can’t just burn them out. You basically have to be an international ambassador of goodwill to try to keep the peace with everybody and keep the progress moving for the company.

At the end of the day, you need to stay focused on, what business problem are we trying to solve? Is it revenue? Is it EBITDA? Customer experience? It sounds like an easy question to ask, but in too many meetings, people have no idea what they’re trying to solve. Ask that question. Get focused in on the solutions, and as a CIO or technology leader, translate the tech talk into business speak. Then be a partner and a consultant and you’re going to end up in a good spot.

For more insights from the leadership playbook of CIO-turned-CEO Kevin Hart, tune in to the Tech Whisperers podcast.

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