Traditionally the role of the CIO has been to keep the data center humming, but increasingly CIOs are becoming active members of the C-suite and involved in business decisions. In a previous article, I describe how Abe Leitz, CIO at Curves Jenny Craig, transitioned IT from an order taking role into a consultative role. For this article, I interviewed Ryan Fay, Global CIO at ACI Specialty Benefits, to learn how he uncovers and solves business problems before the business units even know they have a problem.
ACI Specialty Benefits is a global provider of employee assistance programs (EAP), corporate concierge and multiple work-life services. They partner with clients to improve employee engagement and productivity with benefit programs that improve morale, productivity, and ROI. ACI looks at what they can do to ensure clients’ employees know and understand all of the benefits their employer provides, and design systems to help accomplish that.
Given the rapid pace of change, Ryan likes to think of ACI as a 31-year-old startup. He describes the business as unique in that they do not use off-the-shelf enterprise software. It is not for want of trying. Using those platforms would make his job much easier, but the specialty benefits market changes so fast that enterprise software does not keep up. After observing they were using only a small part of the functionality, he realized that enterprise software products are not a good enough fit with ACI’s particular requirements. It has been more cost-effective to build the software themselves.
A key aspect of Ryan’s process is identifying issues and solving them before they become issues for the business, which he dubs the Quentin Tarantino method. (Tarantino is famous for starting his movies at the end, and then showing how he got there.) Ryan and his team identify potential issues by actively listening from the boardroom down. What needs are people talking about, and how often do they come up? Whom do they affect? When something surfaces frequently, the idea is to resolve that issue before it becomes a business issue.
Once the team has identified an issue worth tackling, they work backwards and develop the plan. In a sense, this process has automated innovation. The idea of starting with the end in mind is particularly helpful when tackling complex problems, because knowing where you are going helps you get there.
When it comes to managing software projects, ACI uses an agile process driven by social prioritization of work. For example, when many people are constantly interacting around a problem, all of that activity drives priority up. Conversely, when an issue is not affecting day-to-day activities for employees, priority goes down.
Ryan is a big believer in insourcing. To keep up with business needs, he constantly recruits, trains and helps developers get the appropriate certifications, and then has them work on a product that they control and manage. Many companies don’t want to talk to a new employee about what their next job will be, but that is the first thing Ryan asks. He recognizes that software developers won’t be with ACI forever. What is the developer’s dream job, and how can ACI help that employee get there? Ryan then helps developers acquire the skills to make them more marketable.
This opens the lines of communication, and employees “understand you respect them and they respect you.” When employees tell Ryan they’ve received an offer from another company, he will tell them that if it looks like a good move, they should probably take it. But what he often finds is they no longer want to go.
Since ACI codes all of its own software, the company is willing to spend the time, money and resources to recruit and grow developers. Ryan recruits for the long term and focuses more on personality and culture fit. An excellent coder who does not fit the company culture can only get so far, because that person will never be happy.
On the other hand, the right personality fit can always learn new languages. Ryan looks at experience, and the biggest issues the person has solved. To get a richer picture he also looks at their personal life and hobbies. He considers what can be done to make the candidate successful, and if they could be happy at ACI in 10 years. Ryan’s job is to get his entire team passionate and motivated about their work. If he can find something that excites them outside the office and bring that inside, that can turn the 9-5 person into a true team member. He finds developers love working at ACI, in part, because he encourages them to do what they want, provided they are being productive and innovative. While every member must produce, they all have their day to shine.
In closing, I asked Ryan if he had anything he would like to share with other IT leaders. He said that even though your neck is on the line as a leader, make sure your team understands you all work together. Trying to be perfect does not get you anywhere. Don’t be afraid to fail, but when you do fail, fail quickly and learn from it. Be transparent and share what wasn’t successful so others can also learn. When a team member fails, take them aside privately to mentor, coach and encourage them.
Collaborate across the organization and let stakeholders know that you are there to help. Above all, listen. Be a forward thinker, a change agent and an enabler who drives business value and helps other departments grow. Ask yourself how you can make the business better today than it was yesterday. If you are not doing that, you are not doing your job. As an enterprise, it takes all departments working together to create a solid product for customers.
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