by Esther Shein

How to build a resilient IT culture

Sep 08, 2020
IT Leadership

The pandemic has underscored the importance of thriving through hardship and uncertainty. IT leaders discuss how they’re adjusting their leadership practices to help foster this key IT trait for the long haul.

resilient resilience weed growing in desert by barcin via getty images
Credit: Barcin / Getty Images

The word ‘resilient’ is cropping up a lot lately as a cultural cornerstone for coping with the pressures the pandemic has foisted on IT. CIOs have played a significant role in enabling organization-wide remote work strategies at speed while accelerating digital initiatives central to the business in uncertain times.

For many, the ability to shift gears, double down and navigate hardship has been a testament to an IT culture capable of withstanding and recovering quickly from difficult challenges. For others, rising to the occasion has been a crash course in resilience, offering hard-earned lessons in what it will take to thrive in IT in the months and years to come.

“The last few months have been a huge social experiment for every company around the world,’’ says Jacqui Guichelaar, CIO of Cisco, who adds that many leaders discovered their staffs can be just as productive working remotely as in the office. The upshot? Leaders must model certain behaviors in this new way of working, she says. “Traditional tactics don’t work in the new reality.”

Here, IT leaders discuss what makes an IT organization resilient, and how they are adjusting their leadership practices to ensure IT can foster this key trait for the long haul.

Put people first

“Resilience is really the key to being able to make changes that enable an organization to survive and thrive in times of uncertainty,” says Kristin Myers, executive vice president, CIO, and dean for information technology at Mount Sinai Health System.

Myers and many other IT leaders see constant, open communication as key to ensuring resiliency right now. “There’s nothing that creates more anxiety than not knowing. Having open and honest dialogues with your team is important to make them prepared for change,” she says.

Sometimes that means delivering news that won’t be well received, she notes. “It’s important for people to hear those messages directly from leadership rather than other means.”

For Cisco’s Guichelaar, the pandemic has emphasized the importance of empathetic leadership, as a resilient IT culture is about putting people first, she says. “People have to be No. 1 and we have to use everything [we can] to give them the help to be the best they can be. That’s just as important to me as the work side is.”

The executive team at Clear Capital has always paid attention to staff’s emotional welfare, but since the pandemic that commitment has taken on a new dimension, says Larry Robinson, CTO of the real estate valuation, analytics and technology company.

“The imposter syndrome is gone, people can speak freely, and we can intellectually challenge each other without fear of retribution,’’ he says. “We’re trying to create a band of brothers and sisters that look out for each other because we’re all in the same trench.”

This has resonated with people, he says, and it’s something Clear Capital leaders will continue to focus on. “Building a loving environment is something you never read in business books or articles. It’s like we’re afraid to use the word,’’ Robinson notes. “Love is what holds a family together so why not use it to keep a professional business together? It’s a dimension we don’t normally think about.”

“You have to care,’’ agrees Link Alander, CIO and vice chancellor of college services at Lone Star College. “You have to understand everything going on in that person’s life and … support them. You have to be there to help everybody.”

At Cisco, Guichelaar has been carving out time in meetings for discussions that are not about work. “Typically, in an office, you do that. I’m making more conscious time to ask how [IT staff are] doing working from home in a small home, with parents, kids, etc., all those things that are causing people stress and I’m very, very conscious of that.”

This creates an environment where people can open up and share their struggles, Guichelaar says. “The ability to do that is one of the key factors of what’s keeping us together as a team.”

Keep connected

Office shutdowns and the need to connect with colleagues and staff remotely has necessarily ramped up the number of meetings at most organizations. But IT leaders who seek to foster resiliency know the importance of avoiding burnout and Zoom fatigue. Guichelaar, who runs a global IT team with some staff in the EU and Asia, notes that the reduction in travel has meant staff outside of North America are putting in longer hours.

“I realized in March-April that colleagues not in the U.S. were suffering by getting up too early or waiting too long for U.S. colleagues,’’ she says. “So we agreed, no more meetings on Fridays” unless absolutely necessary, and they can instead use the time for “strategic thinking.”

Guichelaar has also begun sending more emails to everyone in IT on priorities for the remainder of the year or to point out the great work a particular team is doing.

“It sounds simple, but we have increased the amount of time we are communicating with people and we’re trying to find different ways we connect to different internal communities,” she says.

Clear Capital’s Robinson is also holding more meetings than ever, but is shortening them and making them more personal. “I do a lot of 15-minute check-ins multiple times a day,’’ he says. “We make sure we do a lot of virtual lunches. I have 13 direct reports and every Monday we have lunch together and catch up on not just what’s going on with the business but with the team.”

This takes the place of walking down the office hallway and going into the break room, he says. “It’s too early to tell if that’s keeping the relationship equity the same or could improve it,” he says, “but we’re consciously addressing it.”

And just as the modes of communications have changed under lockdown, so too does the approach IT leaders must take with communication itself.

“All the excess communication, the constant checking in with people — you don’t have the mechanisms to distribute information and context as easily as you did before so everything becomes more deliberate and purposeful and requires you to have a thoroughness,” Robinson says.

And that makes IT leadership even more of an around-the-clock role. “The way I think about it is I have to be there for my teams and direct reports during the day and I will do my own work in the evenings and on weekends,” Robinsons says. “I think that’s a common pattern.’’

Find common purpose

When things get challenging, purpose can be a great motivator. For today’s IT organizations, that sense of mission can best be found in creating business value.

Jeff McCarter, CIO of corporate and institutional services at Northern Trust, says resilience goes hand in hand with people feeling connected and invested in the business.

“What’s been successful is the concept we have [of] very close alignment between tech and the business, and we look at it as we’re building a product and … not doing projects, which is more of a siloed mentality,” he says.

At Northern Trust, IT uses the agile methodology and frames its work so that both IT and the business are “in the same boat,’’ McCarter says. “So if a storm comes we’re in this together and it’s important for us to pivot together.”

Agile has also helped Northern Trust staff see results from what they do, which is paramount, McCarter says. “People feel like they’re a part of [something] and have a stake in it …and whatever happens, everyone’s got the right mindset as things occur.”

Collaborating with the business on a common purpose often requires a soft touch. At the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, IT works hand in hand with clinicians, and this requires applying soft skills to understand what they need, says Dr. Damian Jankowicz, vice president of information management, CIO, and chief privacy officer for the Toronto-based organization.

“The ability to understand and explain in laymen’s fashion technical limitations and the ability to propose a solution … and problem solving together is critical,’’ Jankowicz says. “A lot of what we’re dealing with now is about that and fitting in tech in a seamless workflow.”

Foster career growth

Of course, the pandemic presents unique problems for collaborating on core projects. Cisco’s Guichelaar says accelerating digital initiatives has become difficult since people can’t get together physically to brainstorm.

“There’s something about having a session with 20 people in a room and you can eyeball them and see their emotional reactions. When 40 people are on a virtual screen, even though you can see them, I’m not sure they’re jumping on board,” she says.

So Guichelaar is meeting with “smaller communities” and “trying to create an atmosphere where people can get involved in things that may not be directly tied with their job.”

For example, an individual who works on the enterprise security team expressed interest in Cisco’s plan to adopt a multi-cloud strategy as the company consolidates its data centers. Guichelaar says she is allowing that person to participate through a “security lens” so they can learn about developing a multi-cloud strategy.

“I believe we have to do more and more of that,’’ she says. “We’ll introduce more roles and give people opportunities to broaden their career paths and we’re broadening our job architecture so people can reskill themselves. We have to provide them platforms to keep those skills up to date.”

Clear Capital’s Robinson says that while it’s not typical to “meddle in people’s personal lives” at work, leaders need to stay aware of what’s going on, especially right now. “We’re encouraging people to find an accountability partner and check on each other and build on the familiarity of those relationships,’’ he says. “It’s more appropriate for them to inquire about” something that might be going on in a coworker’s life.

Establish mutual respect

To be resilient, team members must not only trust one another but leadership as well. Listening and responding to your IT team’s needs and desires is key.

At DHL, employee satisfaction is a significant focus, says Sally Miller, CIO of supply chain, North America. The company conducts an annual employee survey to find out what’s on people’s minds, and based on the feedback, leaders conduct roundtables and form teams to create action plans to address issues that come up.

“We invest a lot of time in evaluating the output of those teams throughout the year, so we continue to have our finger on the pulse of culture” and can make improvements. “Little things the company can do make a big difference,’’ she adds.

Justin Rodenbostel, vice president of solution delivery, at digital consultancy SPR, says a culture of resiliency is fostered when leaders help employees feel comfortable in the face of uncertainty.

“At SPR, we’re talking about adaptation, not how the company has contracted,’’ he says. “We’re talking about how we’re figuring this out and these are the decisions we’re making, and this is why and we’re very happy to have you along for the ride.”

CIOs and IT leaders can take some easy tactical steps such as encouraging people to follow a routine and encouraging a start time, a time to break for lunch or take care of their kids and a time to shut down for the night, Rodenbostel says.

“The more this goes on the more my coworkers have said we’ve developed a rhythm and understand when work time stops and family time starts,’’ he says. Sometimes, SPR’s leadership will proactively “block time on the calendar to replace some of the ad hoc conversations in the office and use that time to stay connected with people.”

Otherwise, it becomes really easy to be disconnected,” Rodenbostel adds.

While it’s difficult to take a breath because everyone is just trying to get through what they have to do, the pandemic has also created a unique opportunity to review what the modern employee experience and workplace look like and what the new expectations should be, Rodenbostel says.

Take care of yourself as well

As they make the adjustments to foster resiliency in their teams, IT leaders should not lose sight of themselves. As Mount Sinai’s Myers notes, avoiding burnout is a challenge as the boundaries between work and personal life have blurred with remote work.

“I personally designate timeframes where I do not check email and also schedule PTO to focus on my personal well-being,’’ she says. “I continually encourage my staff to do the same.”

For Robinson, remote work is taking a toll. “I’m not handling it well, to be honest,’’ he says. “I was encouraging one of my directors the other day to take Friday and Monday off, and he said, ‘And go where, Larry?’ We forget how much just picking up and moving to a new place rejuvenates our soul.”

But he says he’s doing landscaping projects and building cabinets on the weekends and focusing on staying healthy.

Some IT leaders refresh themselves by building up skills. Lone Star’s Alander, for example, says he’s earned a ServiceNow administrator certification, which helps him understand the platform better.

As for Cisco’s Guichelaar, she says she is working as many hours as she was prior to the pandemic, if not more, but is also engaging in recreational activities as a de-stressor. This includes playing more golf.

“I’m actually taking breaks in the afternoon and I would never have done that before,’’ she says. “It sounds simple but being able to get outside and hit balls and clear my head has made a huge difference.”

She is also cooking more — and wants to learn how to be a disc jockey.

“It’s something I’ve thought about for 10 years. I love to dance and always wanted to learn to DJ. We’re not going back to Cisco until January, so I know I’ll definitely be at home another five or six months, so that’s my next challenge,” she says.