Dan Roberts
Contributing writer

Baker Hughes CIO Jen Hartsock on balancing speed and perfection

Jan 25, 20228 mins
IT LeadershipIT Management

The digital technology leader discusses the importance of vulnerability in leadership and what it takes to attract, develop, and retain awesome talent.

Jen Hartsock, VP & CIO, Baker Hughes
Credit: Baker Hughes

Jen Hartsock is vice president and chief information officer at Baker Hughes, a Fortune 140 energy technology company with 54,000 employees, $20 billion in revenue and a reach of 120 countries. As leader of the digital technology team, Hartsock is primarily responsible for delivering and supporting technology solutions to enable business results. She also leads the company’s digital strategy to enhance internal business productivity and accelerate customer outcomes.

Hartsock says she was drawn to technology as a career when she signed up for her first programming course as an elective for a math degree. She quickly discovered that she was energized by the opportunity to solve real-world problems with technology. She applied that passion throughout her career as a technology executive driving transformative change at global industrial businesses.

When we spoke for my CIO Whisperers podcast, Hartsock talked about the different leadership skills needed to support a company operating at two cycles of business, one focused on a mature market of efficient, affordable, and cleaner use of upstream oil and gas capabilities, and the other focused on new industrials and creating the new energy we need for the future. She also shared some of the game-changing innovations her team is working on to support Baker Hughes’ ambitious energy transition goals. After the show, we talked some more about what it takes to lead, develop, and galvanize a technology team that’s forging new territory every day. What follows are highlights of our off-air conversation.

Dan Roberts: Some say speed is the new currency. Can you talk about that and its impact on how you think about the customer experience, employee experience, and all of your stakeholder relationships?

Jen Hartsock: What comes to mind is, is it speed with purpose? Is it directionally aligned with where you’re trying to go and then working on what is the right framework to support that speed? 

In my experience in digital organizations, we oftentimes love to go back to standards, what I call the normal shields of defense: Here’s why we need to slow things down. Here’s why we need to ask more questions or put more structure around it. And what I would say is, if we’re doing this well, the structure should support speed and agility. And I think that’s one of the design criteria we have to have for organizational design. It’s design criteria for our systems. And I think that shows up in your point of how we are continuously improving our customer experience, employee experience, and honestly, with everybody that we have the opportunity to work with.

That’s a good segue into the “Jen-ism” of perfection—that perfection can no longer be the goal. What does that mean?

What I think we have to change our mindset about is perfection decision-making and assuming that we have to have all the answers and one hundred percent alignment, one hundred percent consensus. To use a sports analogy, the world’s best athletes don’t hit one hundred percent of the balls that are thrown at them. They don’t win every match they play. We have to be more tolerant of doing the best we can in preparation, framing the decision, making a decision, moving forward, and then reserving the right to get smarter and more fit and more capable tomorrow. And that’s where speed comes in. 

There are certain areas of our lives—safety, compliance, those types of things—where maybe perfection needs to be the objective. But for the vast majority of things we work on, perfection isn’t needed to win.

You are one of the most intentional people I know when it comes to developing your talent. Can you talk about how you’re thinking about talent, growing it, finding it, keeping it?

The fact of the matter is, attracting, developing, and retaining awesome talent is incredibly important to what each and every one of us do, and it is through the intellectual capability of others that we show up. That’s who we are. As digital leaders, we have a responsibility to make sure that we’re creating an environment where people want to be successful, can be successful, and are recognized for that.

I’m stealing this shamelessly from a super CIO colleague of mine, Adam Stanley. He framed it up and I’ve modified it into what I call the 4 Ls. We owe it to our teams to be able to articulate and connect with them through each of these.

The first L is living: Can I support myself and my family? Do I feel like the compensation package I’m getting is fair for the contributions I’ve been able to create for our organization? This is also about whether you have the flexibility to have the work-life balance you need. We’ve completely leaned hard into flexible work and helping teams be able to leverage that. 

The second L is loving or liking. Do you feel you can show up as yourself? Do you feel valued? Is it a culture you feel like you can thrive in? Are you aligned with the values of the organization? As a leader, you have to verbalize the obvious, which means you have to remind people that the culture is not a gimmick. We have to foster it and care for it to make people want to be a part of it. 

The third L is learning and continuing to invest in the growth and development of the talent we have so that they see themselves in a future where we are as invested in what they want next as they are. You and I are kindred minds when it comes to continuing to invest in that next generation of talent. 

The last L is one that can be overlooked but is certainly a big motivator for me: legacy: Do you have the opportunity to work on things that matter? When I think about the Baker Hughes value prop, the fact that we can help make energy cleaner and more affordable and more available to our customers as our people are lifting themselves up—that upward mobility is super compelling. I think we, as leaders, have a responsibility to make sure people know that. It goes back to, am I cutting rocks or am I building cathedrals? Do you understand how you connect with the purpose and mission of the organization? 

Many say that empathy and care are also the new currency for leaders. How do you think and act about this today, especially given the need to build the resiliency muscle in ourselves and in our people?

If the last couple of years have taught us anything, it’s that we are human first and then digital leaders or digital contributors second, third, fourth, somewhere down the list. As a human first, we all start from a place of trying to support ourselves and our families, keep them safe, keep them fed, keep them sane and cared for. And as leaders, we have a responsibility to not only role model that but to actually, genuinely care, to have empathy—for our customers, our employees, our peers, for the whole ecosystem of what it takes to be successful. 

That shows up in our everyday interactions. It shows up by asking people how they’re doing and wanting a real response. It also means that when I’m having a tough day, it’s okay for me to say, look, I am not at Jen’s best right now. We’ll do what we can, but I’m just disclosing that I’ve got a lot going on personally, professionally, whatever it is, and I need a bit of empathy. 

I think that that kind of role modeling of vulnerability also builds trust, and it builds a much stronger team. The world has proven that even with the best life plans, variables will come in that none of us could predict and turn things upside down. The way our organization flexes with that is, I think, in large part because we laid a foundation where we know each other well enough to know each other’s strengths. We trust each other. We know how to make the best use of the talents and the capabilities of each individual in the moment we need them. And that all comes from that investment in people and genuine, authentic relationships.

Funny you should say that. One of your folks recently told me that she feels that she’s built great trust and resiliency in herself by watching you be so transparent. But it can be hard for some leaders to be that open or be okay with admitting it when they make a mistake. Can you share an example of how you’ve done that and the impact it’s had? 

First of all, I am very proud that that person feels that way, and I consider that a huge compliment, because that’s how I intend to show up. And I think that includes owning it when we screw up. During the podcast when I was talking about our digital strategy build, for example, holy cow. I blew it with our executive leadership team. I went in, I had a pitch. I thought I was ready. I didn’t do enough pre-work. I didn’t meet with the people.

I know our culture, and the meetings before the meetings are super important to get people aligned and get them engaged. And I whiffed. Going back to our baseball analogy, I completely struck out. It was not my finest day, and I think that what I did after that was probably beneficial.

First, I owned it, and I shared with my peer group that that was not my finest moment. Give me another chance; I’ll come back and we’ll get to a better outcome. I also owned it with the team that helped deliver the content. I said this was not my best. Here’s what I learned. Here’s what I have to do differently next time. 

I think that sometimes we want, as leaders, to appear like we’ve got it all figured out and we are batting a thousand. The fact is, none of us do. None of us got to where we are by getting it right all the time.

For more lessons and insights from Hartsock’s digital leadership playbook, listen to the full podcast episode here.

Dan Roberts
Contributing writer

Dan Roberts is the CEO of Ouellette & Associates Consulting, host of the Tech Whisperers podcast, and author of numerous books, including "Unleashing the Power of IT" and "Confessions of a Successful CIO."