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The Beauty of Business and IT Alignment: Q&A with Ekta Chopra

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We sat down with e.l.f. Cosmetics Head of Digital and Keynote Speaker for Dreamforce 2019’s Customer Success Keynote: Your Path to Succeeding with Salesforce, Ekta Chopra, to get her take on how business and IT leaders can work together to find alignment.

elka headshot3 Supplied by Salesforce

Technology is changing the way we live our lives, including how we do business. As the technology capabilities for business evolve, how can tech leaders reevaluate their roles in enabling business goals? 

Q: How would you define business and IT alignment?

Ekta: It’s a century-long struggle. The big question people face is when to bring technology to the table. The role of technology has evolved so much. Before, technology was very much behind the scenes. It was something you needed, but you didn’t know how it helps you do your work. From there on, it has shifted from being behind the scenes to becoming an enabler for achieving business goals.

In my mind, technology and business are very much hand-in-hand. If the technology team or your leaders understand the goals of the business, you can set them up to meet today’s needs, and also start building what you’ll need for tomorrow.

If I think about e.l.f.’s journey from when I joined and how the business has matured, as our customers and industry have evolved we as a company and IT department have also evolved. We’ve grown from traditional technologists to now being a digital leader. To me, the partnership between business and IT is constantly changing based on the business needs and the maturity of the business.

Q: Why is alignment between business and IT so important to the customer experience?

Ekta: If you don’t have the right platforms in your technology stack — “the plumbing” — connected, you cannot deliver a frictionless consumer experience. If your infrastructure — how things are talking to each other, the data sets you’re mining, and how they’re surfaced to the business for insights — aren’t connected, the business doesn't have what it needs to grow and measure business performance. The very basic foundation has to be in place before the business can truly start measuring whether their strategy and tactics are working. The business cannot do that without a solid alignment with the technology team.

Q: How does the IT operating model at your company drive alignment with your stakeholders?

Ekta: It depends on how you set up your IT organization. For me, the people that I hire are almost embedded with the business. I have a person who knows the supply chain, but then they also know the technical side. They are the product owners of the platform that serve the supply chain. The people on my marketing team grew up in digital marketing, but now they’re embedded with the brand, so they want to make sure they are aligned with what the business’s needs are. What data needs to be stitched? What insights are they looking for?

It’s about having an IT organization that’s in sync with the business side to ensure they are lockstep on every single different department: what are their goals, what are their strategies, what insights are they looking for, are they looking for optimization, are they looking for growth, are they looking for savings? We must know what they are looking for so we can be totally aligned.

Q: When it comes to coming up with new ideas or fielding requests from teams, do you have a formal process for that? Or do you go to your business units with ideas?

Ekta: It works both ways. What I love about e.l.f. is that we are very different. I report into the marketing head, because we want to send a message that digital is very important, we are investing in digital, and it is very much aligned to the business. As I think about the nature of that organization, I attend a lot of key business meetings where ideas are generated, where we’re thinking about what we are going to do 18 months out, what products are launching, and how we want to launch them. That gives me a lot of fuel to start thinking about what the needs of the business are.

On the flipside, we have lunch and learns, others can send me an email anytime, and we have a Slack channel where they can put ideas. We want more and more ideas from everyone, not just a select group of people.

Q: What would your advice be to a tech leader in a business that hasn’t achieved alignment or perhaps doesn’t value the role IT can play in making key business decisions?

Ekta: The first thing that I always say is self-reflection: have you as an IT leader evolved? Have you seen the shift that’s happening around you, that technology leaders are not just there for the sake of technology but for enabling business? Have you been keeping up and learning more about the business and trying to make an impact, or are you stuck in this traditional IT role that is all about governance?

Once you reflect on it, what tactics do you have to take to change your perspective? To me, that’s the hardest part. That comes with a lot of soft skills. You have to build relationships. You have to spend time to understand the business — not just what are you doing from day-to-day, but how you are serving their strategic needs.

Third, sometimes you just have to have the courage to stand for things that you know are going to help and enable the business, even if you don’t think your voice is going to be heard, so that they can see you as an enabler versus someone who is going to be a roadblock.

Q: What are some of the main barriers that exist between IT and the business in companies that don’t share alignment?

Ekta: At the very top, is there a voice that’s a strong proponent of why technology is an enabler. That’s number 1. If that leader is there — your cheerleader — you can leverage them to amplify why this role is so important.

Second, has that leader done a good job of bringing the business along the journey of why certain things are needed? Are they using storytelling to show the business why technology is not just about the “plumbing”? It’s much more than that. That, I think, is another barrier: the leader’s ability to show the business impact and that IT is about more than security or infrastructure.

The third thing is — and it’s more external — the role of an IT leader has changed. There is a lack of education and awareness. You hear so many different types of CIOs: CXO, CDO, CTO, CIO, Chief Customer Officer...you name it. It’s about educating leaders that it’s not about a specific title. It’s about what IT can bring in terms of capabilities to drive what the business is looking for.

Q: If you were at a company and one main goal was to build alignment between IT and the rest of the business, what are some of the questions you’d ask to understand their goals and how you could help them?

Ekta: I think it’s showing them what IT is doing — the projects and the challenges. The second is to get them comfortable with being more transparent with what’s going on in their department or their project. Oftentimes it starts with me playing back what we’re working on, then saying, “Hey, this project we’re working on, how can we collaborate? How can I help you? What will make your life easy?” I think that opens up a good dialogue.

A third is showcasing wins we’ve had that have served the broader needs of the business. It’s very much a servant-leadership type of role that’s no different than me serving our customer who buys from us. My internal customers are the ones I need to be satisfying, as well. 

For example, at e.l.f. in 2017, we decided to go with Salesforce to build our broader digital ecosystem. I would say that in the past, our ability to launch new features for our customers and truly improve our customer experience was limited. With Salesforce, we’ve actually been able to improve that greatly. The things that used to take months now take weeks because we have a solid foundation. That’s number one. It’s allowed us to build and connect so many different things around the digital ecosystem and gather data that we can now harness to offer an awesome consumer experience that’s fueled with personalization. I think that has been a solid win for us and continues to drive our growth.

To learn more from Ekta, catch her in person at the Customer Success Keynote: Your Path to Succeeding with Salesforce at Dreamforce 2019 or via livestream on Salesforce Live.

Copyright © 2019 IDG Communications, Inc.