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Leading Outside the Technology Box

Bill Zebrowski, CIO, Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority (SEPTA)

Leading Outside the Technology BoxBill Zebrowski, CIO, Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority (SEPTA)

I have been in the tech industry for a little over 30 years starting as a technician building AT&T and Compaq DeskPro computers with a whopping 10M hard drive to my current position as CIO for a regional transit authority. I have seen many technologies come and go. I still kick myself for not buying stock in Apple and Microsoft when they were first formed but who knew then.

Anyway, I thought I’d be the last person to give advice on technology leadership but after thinking about it, why not. I held about 10 different positions in technology over the past 30 years and each time was to take on a new challenge in a different business industry. I have always found it interesting going into a new organization and learn about the business I was supporting and how technology fits as a proactive and contributing service that delivers solid results. I also found that was not easy to do. In many cases, I came into situations that ranged from disastrous to hearing comments such as “nobody likes IT and we do it ourselves.” I always looked at these challenges as great opportunities if I can turn things around and build a culture that embodies the goals of the organization fused with technology. That’s what I think I’m good at, turning things around.

The strategy I’ve used when I go into an organization is low key. 

I look at the landscape of the organization, have stand up meetings as I call them (no more than 15 minute meetings) with peers in the organization and get to know them and the business culture and their pain points. Everyone uses computers connected to networks, servers, and the Internet. This is common for most organizations. What makes it different from business to business is what is running on these systems, are they protected, and do they deliver value to the organization.

"Learning the business is critical in helping to frame a technology strategy that is more than just computers and networks"

Once I put this all together, I prepare my strategy and when preparing a strategy, make it realistic. Do not shoot for the moon, just concentrate on achieving lift off and realize the change will not happen overnight. Changes take time and planning, and one of the key leadership qualities are emotional intelligence and knowing who you are and what you can do. Once the confidence sets in and I get buy in on the plan, now it’s time to deliver and present the plan to my peers. These could be the leaders of the different divisions or departments throughout the organization and most times, they are more concerned with their own responsibilities and view IT as only computers. However, each group is a critical stakeholder that can make or break the plan. The delivery to these stakeholders cannot be a technical one talking about firewalls, servers and IP addresses, etc. Rather, a business discussion on how changing the way we use technology can deliver results, positive results that assist each group in performing their goals and tasks more efficiently with proper use of technology. 

In my opinion, the first step is to get your peers to believe in you and believe in the results you are presenting and keep the communication flow active and recurring (so nobody forgets your plan) they may not remember all of the strategy, but keeping communications up, reminds them of that first strategy session where they said “yea, that works.”

The next strategy is your team. No matter how big or small, you have to be prepared to ask them to do more. Some will come on board, some will resist. You have to get their support and measure how much resistance you will tolerate before taking action. At this point, you need to be very careful in balancing your staff who are on board and the ones who are skeptical or negative about the plan. The expression “this is the way we’ve always done it” is the worst excuse, in my mind to tolerate. You can’t accept this, you are the leader of the team and everyone is looking at you as if you are facing the bully at school. What you do and how you handle it will define your leadership and integrity in that organization. It can be a rough situation sometimes; I know it was for me. You have to look at your skill set, attitudes, and communication skills of your team. If there are staff that just won’t support the effort, then you have to make the decision to cut them lose or place them elsewhere in the organization. Otherwise, how will you achieve the goals you set forth and presented to your executive team and/ or peers in the organization? I think that is one of the bigger challenges in the role of leader, you have to make the right decisions and have the right people supporting you or else you won’t achieve your goals.

In summary, depending on where you lead a technology team, whether its transportation, hospitality, manufacturing, or other, take the technology out of the picture for a while and learn the business. Learning the business is critical in helping to frame a technology strategy that is more than just computers and networks. It’s about delivering real results that benefit the organization and builds trust in the technology team you are responsible for.

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