Why Your Culture Might Hold Your Team Back - and What To Do About IT

Onyeka Nchege, CIO, Interstate Batteries
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Onyeka Nchege, CIO, Interstate Batteries

I remember a man named Paris.

Paris, like most of his fellow co-workers, was intelligent with first-rate technical skills. In addition to possessing all of the technical skills and smarts we as leaders and resource managers want in our organizations, Paris was keenly observant.

It was during a conference when I first noticed just how truly observant Paris was. We had an area set up where attendees could drop off their laptops or phones for a free tune-up as they walked into the conference. Even though a location for drop-off was right by the door, only a few people stopped to take advantage of our free service. Paris made a keen observation that taught me something every CIO should remember.

People do business with who they’re familiar with.

Paris watched as attendees gravitated to other techs they knew, though many of the others were not offering the free service. He noticed that the attendees gravitated to these others, even if it was for nothing more than a passing wave or a brief conversation. He recognized the relationship the attendees had with those techs was more valuable than our free service.

When I learned this from Paris, my first notion was to think about our organization and put a plan in place to address this gap. My most valuable takeaway was no matter how technically savvy the men and women who serve our organization are, they must also be relational. A smile and cordiality often serve as the icebreaker moments we all need to open the door to showing our impressive skills.

As I trade experiences with other CIOs and leadership teams, I always ask this question about how to be impactful in the age of information and social media.

How do you build the right culture within your organization?

Some common struggles we all face within our organizations as CIOs include:

► Struggling to build credibility in your enterprise, despite hiring the brightest and most talented people

► Fielding a lot of small requests from internal business customers instead of working on a holistic strategy for your enterprise

► Internal business customers going around your IT organization to create a solution

In essence, we all struggle to transform our organizations from being order takers to delivering value-add, enterprise solutions.

As I learned from Paris during that conference, the relationship we want starts with how we chose to relate to others. How we relate is the basis for the culture we want to build, and as CIOs, we are the genesis for defining that culture. We define how to build relationships with our business partners.

Time to stop working in your department and start working on it. Jim Collins, the author of Good to Great, describes it as putting the right people in the right seats on the right bus. I periodically lead this kind of change and when I do, I want my team to get to a place where we are wholly accountable for delivering value for the business.

You have the opportunity to establish a culture of accountability, responsibility, and business focus to build the relationships between your IT organization and your business. Show your people how important it is to be personable and to build up pride in their work. An identity for your organization can market your culture’s message throughout your area. Put some words to what they care about and focus it on supporting the company’s direction. Then hang it on a wall to show that you are all collectively saying, “This is what we want to be about.” In short, this is your chance to re-center the culture in your IT organization.

Everything starts with us.

As the CIO for Interstate Batteries, a company that has been around for more than 60 years, I can say from experience that relevance requires innovation. Businesses that compete in new ways and stay efficient will outlast those who do not. Innovation is everything. The innovative shaping of our IT organizations and their alignment with our business partners will change the relationship dynamics.

We gravitate from being order takers to deliverers of value-add solutions and ultimately as strategic partners to our businesses.

Remember Paris, the observant tech. His story is your story, except your stakes are much higher.

Your partners need your technical skills, if anything to make business easier to do. They will notice when your team starts focusing on their business and living out their culture of accountability. Then, you can pose questions about capability:

“What tools you do need?”

“Why are you doing this manually?”

And the all-powerful what-if questions.

Your partners can’t see the solution. And without relational skills, your team can’t see the problem.

A culture of business focus means deeply understanding the business. To do something valuable, someone in your IT organization needs to take off their Techie Guy hat and work on understanding your partners’ business and their needs. Learn to speak their language. And then, because you sent a bilingual over to understand the problem, you can propose innovative solutions that make sense outside of your department.

Now, you’ve got something magical. Deep business understanding equips your team to hit targets your partners didn’t even realize were available.

This is the kind of problem-solving, solution-making work every one of us dreams of. And a re-centered IT culture brought your team in at the beginning, where you can plan valuable solutions with strategy. And as the CIO, you can put together a road map to support growth.

Even better, you and your team will see intersecting needs—and the solutions to them.

We all call that integration. Yet, how many integration efforts start from culture? The right culture creates the foundation your organization needs so they can build trust in small and big ways.

Remember Paris.

What do you do when trust runs short? Start with culture.

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