Building a Culture of Urgency in IT

To Steve Zerby, CIO of Owens Corning, urgency is more than an emotion

zerby Owens Corning

As a senior executive, you can only push a handful of messages out to your team consistently. For Steve Zerby, CIO of Owens Corning, the $5B building materials maker, one of those messages is “urgency.” 

“When you are in a service business like IT, you need to act with as much urgency – or more – than those you are providing service to,” Zerby says. “The positive feeling you want to create is predicated on your organization’s demonstration that your business partners’ challenges are as important to you as they are to them. When they feel like their hair is on fire and you act like it isn’t a big deal, everyone loses.”

Urgency, to Zerby, is not an emotion, it is a culture. “As CIO, you have to talk about urgency,” he says, “but it is more important to create an environment where urgency happens naturally.”

So, where do you start?

Five Steps to Building Urgency in IT

Step 1: Positioning

At Owens Corning, Zerby co-locates many of his senior leaders with the businesses they support. “The first step toward creating a culture of urgency is to put your senior leaders in a position – which includes their physical environment -- so that they can build relationships with their counterparts,” he says. “They need to be present in the meetings where strategies are decided and it needs to be natural that they are included in those meetings.”

Step 2:  Broad latitude

“If a business leader is confronted with an urgent situation, and the IT leader says, ‘I have to check with someone, because that’s not my responsibility,’ it’s like seeing someone drowning in a swimming pool, and saying, ‘I could save them but I’m not the lifeguard,’’ says Zerby.  “As CIO, you need to give your people the authority to make a broad set of decisions in real-time.”

Step 3: The Right Leaders

“The senior leaders I position with our business partners each have 20 years of experience across different realms of IT and some are in their second career,” says Zerby.  “There are few urgent situations that come up that they haven’t seen before. They are able to rely on a lifetime of experience and good judgment.” Zerby also values humility in his senior leaders. “If as CIO, you tell a senior business leader that you are attaching a resource to them and that person acts with professional humility and a clear message that they are there to advance the business cause, that’s a tough offer to turn down. Humility is a big part of our brand in IT.”

Step 4: Resources

It is one thing to demonstrate urgency and another to get something done.  “Latitude and positioning without resources won’t get you far,” says Zerby. “Our senior IT business leaders have a small, lean team that is dynamic and athletic enough that they can get 80 percent of issues resolved right away without going anywhere else.” Zerby places more importance on leaders with a broad set of skills than on specialists. “When it comes to acting with urgency, it is more important for our team to be wide than deep,” he says.

Step 5: Establish clear principles

To establish a culture of urgency, you need to be clear about the principles by which your IT organization operates, says Zerby. “If you don’t want your leaders stopping by your office after every meeting to make sure they make the right decision, put your fundamental principles on paper so that your team can understand them,” he says.  “When we built our leadership team, we told them, ‘If you are in a situation and can provide immediate action to resolve it, my expectation is that you are going to do it whether you are formally responsible for it or not.”

There you have it.  Give your senior leaders the right positioning, the latitude to take action, and the resources to follow through, and you will be well on your way to embedding urgency into the fabric of your IT culture.


About Steve Zerby

Steve Zerby is the VP of Information Technology and CIO at Owens Corning. He has been in this role since February 2013, and started at the company in 2000. Prior to joining Owens Corning, Steve was with Marathon Oil and NCR. Steve graduated with a degree in Management Information Systems from Bowling Green State University. Additionally, Steve serves on the governing board of the Ohio CIO Executive Summit, Co-chair of the Cleveland Regional CIO Summit, Customer Advisory Board and is a member of the Bowling Green State University College of Business Leadership Board.

About Owens Corning

Owens Corning is one of the leading providers of insulation, roofing, and fiberglass composites, with a deep expertise in materials, manufacturing and building science to develop products and systems that save energy and improve comfort in commercial and residential buildings. The company was founded in 1938, employs approximately 15,000 people across plants and technical centers in 26 countries. Owens Corning is headquartered in Toledo, Ohio.

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