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By Phil Weinzimer
Does your IT organization work well in teams? Are you hiring the right people? Do you have the right leadership style to drive employee success? How do you prevent employee attrition? You need to be seriously thinking about these questions because CIOs from your competitor are.
Business today is all about speed, agility, and innovation. That means IT personnel must have leadership skills and work as part of business teams to leverage information and technology to develop new and enhanced products and services that create value for customers, improve margins, and enhance shareholder wealth.
One CIO who excels at building teams of IT leaders and driving extraordinary business results is Sanjib Sahoo, CIO of ApertureGroup, which owns OptionsHouse, formerly known as tradeMONSTER. I had the opportunity to meet Sahoo, one of the new breed of Renaissance CIOs, and we talked about why his focus is on building teams of exceptional IT leaders.
Sahoo is a prime example of a CIO who has improved the competitive position of his company by developing a team of IT leaders that rapidly responds to business needs. He has an impressive background, including designing and building trading and financial platforms for the original tradeMONSTER, XpressTrade (now Charles Schwab), Citibank, Deutsche Bank, Desjardins Bank, and several other organizations. Sahoo complements his technology expertise with his ability to apply business strategy to the role of the CIO.
Recently Aperture Group acquired tradeMONSTER, now known as OptionsHouse, and the integration between tradeMONSTER and OptionsHouse was performed in a record five months. Sahoo has a proven strategy for building a successful team, provides leadership to support the professional growth of IT personnel, and communicates regularly with all levels of his organization.
The results reflect his success. The employee attrition rate at tradeMONSTER was less than 3 percent in the past six years, and application performance uptime is currently at 99.99 percent. This month, Barron’s again ranked OptionsHouse (tradeMONSTER) No. 2 among all brokers in the nation. For the past six years, the platform that Sahoo and his team built has been regarded as the best in options trading in the industry.
I recently had the opportunity to meet with Sanjib and his team. Here are some excerpts from our conversation.
Phil Weinzimer:Sanjib, you’ve had an extraordinary career as a CIO. Building a team of IT leaders is one of your passions. What do you mean by “a team of IT leaders,” and why is this important as part of a successful IT strategy?
Sanjib Sahoo: A CIO can’t do it all or know it all. To execute my vision, I need a great team. It’s great fun to work with a passionate team who focuses on achieving great results. I keep telling my team that if you love coming to work, you haven’t worked a single day. A successful company has a successful team of IT leaders, who can drive ruthless execution and results through a common culture of love trust and respect spread within the team.
Many executives talk about having great IT teams. But the proof is in the pudding. Recently, General Atlantic acquired your company. We are all aware of the integration challenges resulting from an acquisition. Can you speak to how your IT team approached the integration process?
A system integration followed by a merger has a lot of moving parts. The work was challenging technically to migrate customers to a platform and scale the system up many folds. However, it was an even more daunting task to put the two IT teams together and create a common culture and belief. I created several workstreams and a matrix organization during the migration process where each workstream was co-owned by leaders from both the organizations. We all knew the deadline and agreed on the architecture, and the team worked tremendously hard to achieve great results. We accomplished the migration in January 2015 without any major technical issues.
Let’s get down to specifics. You are just 37 years old, respected highly in the industry, have received many distinguished awards, even a personal note from the Executive Office of the U.S. President, and you speak at many CIO/IT/TED events. What are your key principles in building a team of IT leaders?
Over the years of building IT teams, I’ve developed a set of four basic principles.
The first is to develop a culture of creativity that drives innovation and personal growth. This is important because it fosters a culture that touches the core of technologists who wants to create game-changing solutions and helps in creating a fearless organization that is key for being innovative.
The second is to build an organization of strong leaders. This is critical because with every IT organization trying to be smart, nimble, and agile, stereotyping bureaucratic vertical organizations doesn’t work anymore. A true matrix IT organization where you have many well-rounded IT leaders provides the flexibility of developing business solutions fast. Remember, leaders can’t be enforced; they need to be entrusted. Results and a true culture create an environment of mutual trust and respect, and that’s the key of a successful IT organization.
The third principle is to focus on quality over quantity. I strongly believe this because it’s not just the number of the masses that does it for a CIO. The core people even though they are few, should have a combination of core competence, business acumen, and right communication skills and attitude that makes the difference. With a small IT staff, we have produced several industry-moving innovations. Hence, quality is more important. My tip to CIOs, build your strong core team and then scale.
And the fourth is to provide an environment to retain employees. Successful organizations develop a cohesive environment. I believe a true leader makes every resource a rock star. That’s where leadership comes into play. It’s not just about hiring people from outside. The IT leader must provide an environment where employees feel comfortable, work on challenging projects, and believe in the organization. Successful IT teams will have less attrition. It’s challenging to create such teams but not impossible.
You have applied these principals into a three-phase framework for building a team of IT leaders. Let’s explore each of the phases. The first phase is about building a flat organization, developing an effective hiring strategy, an inclusive management style, and a tough love policy. One of your group directors told me, “Sanjib has provided me an opportunity to take on more responsibility and provided me the opportunity to take on more management tasks, which I was not sure I could previously do.” Tell us more about the Foundation Phase.
I start by building a flat organization to level the playing field. I develop a hiring strategy to include a unique interview process that fleshes out the best and the brightest. I believe strongly in open communication and utilize an open-door policy and coaching to build an effective team as well as holding town hall meetings where I share business results, challenges, and opportunities for us to excel. I also believe in a tough lovepolicy where I am open and honest with everyone and everyone is open and honest with each other. If you want to build a team of IT leaders, you need to start with a foundation of teaming, open communication, and delegation of responsibility.
The second phase is the growth phase that includes identifying talent, acquiring business knowledge, cross-training, and technical leadership. One of your group engineers told me, “I’ve really grown as a leader. The environment here has allowed me to build a better team, work with my team members to develop solutions that are more robust and risk-averse. The environment and the leadership from the top have made me more comfortable as a leader and handle people much better in a challenging environment.”
Sanjib, why is this phase so important?
A flat organization enables me to quickly identify talent within my organization, since I interact with the teams each and every day. I’m a “roll up your sleeves and get in the trenches” executive. You have to be, especially in a startup.
I developed an ongoing education program to help IT personnel develop the necessary business knowledge so they can focus on business outcomes we need to achieve to accomplish our ambitious growth goals. I always encourage cross-training that includes a broad skill set within the IT organization, which has both the technical skill and business acumen to support the business. Once I identify a potential leader, I rotate them into assignments so they can experience different projects within the IT organization and have an opportunity to work with different teams.
The third phase is the optimization phase that includes acceptance of leaders within the team, handling conflict management, developing an overall vision, and managing people. One of your IT team leaders mentioned to me, “The open and agile culture here has brought out a touch attitude in me with no fear to face critical issues. Working with great minds has increased my knowledge and confidence. My hard work is acknowledged by my team members and helped me grow stronger as a leader.”
Sanjib, how do you implement the optimization phase?
The foundation and growth phases (phase one and two) help me choose the right talent and enable team members to grow professionally and be embraced by their team members as leaders. The optimization phase builds on the first two phases by incorporating conflict management, vision development, and management as critical enablers for continued success as leaders.
How you manage conflict is a critical success factor for high-performing and well-motivated teams. By training people in conflict management, they are to deal with team issues and disagreements head on instead of circumventing issues that lead to team failure. Helping my team leaders develop a communication style that focuses on business outcomes enables them to convey a vision to their team members that helps the team understand the company strategy and competitive challenges. Finally, the people management training I provide enables team leaders to work with their team members in an inclusive management style that focuses on team success.
What advice would you provide to a CIO or, for that matter, any management executive who wants to develop a team of leaders in his or her organization?
I would advise them to focus on the following six critical success factors:
Adopt an inclusive management style. Connect with your team and care for your team.
Focus on the concept of “Be Your Own Leader.” Create a cross-functional organization structure.
Create an environment for open, constructive criticism, feedback through peer reviews, 360 reviews, etc.
Create a passion and motivation for growth among every level of the team. Make them believe in goals.
Encourage ideas. Establish an innovation committee that includes all levels of personnel.
Create a fearless organization through building a culture of mutual love, trust, and respect.
Building an IT team of leaders is a must for every CIO. It also is a must for executives that manage any organization. This can be implemented at different types of organizations or even groups. It could be finance, HR, or manufacturing. So if you are a CIO, or other CXO, pay heed to Sahoo’s model. If you do, your company will reap the benefits and improve its competitive position.