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Brian Padden: Successful IT leaders are enablers and problem solvers

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Brian Padden of Dairygold meets with THINK Leaders to talk IT strategies and challenges at the CIO Leadership Exchange in Paris, France.

On a misty fall day in Paris, Brian Padden walks through the hallways of the Maison de la Mutualité, an elegant Left-Bank exhibition space and theater built in the 1930s. Padden is attending the CIO Leadership Exchange, a private annual event for CIOs and senior technology executives hosted by IBM. He moves like a rugby player, swift and strong and confident, through the lively crowd that has gathered from all across Europe in the French capital. They are here to discuss the challenges that face data-driven leaders as the world adopts such technologies as the Internet of Things.

The rugby player analogy is fitting as Padden coaches rugby in his spare time when he’s not heading the IT department of Dairygold, an Irish manufacturer of dairy and food ingredients. Before Dairygold, he directed IT operations for the virtualization giant VMWare in the Asia Pacific, EMEA and Canadian regions. Before that, he managed teams at Motorola Ireland in Motorola’s heyday in the early 2000s. Jovial and energetic, with kind eyes and a calm yet powerful demeanor, Padden is passionate about building teams that bridge technology practitioners and business leaders, a mission that he had made real at VMWare, and is now bringing to a very different company. We sat down in Paris to discuss how tech executives can follow Padden’s lead and work more closely with business executives to avoid silos that impede communication or even innovation itself. Here is a lightly edited version of our conversation, in which Padden shares how encouraging IT teams and their business colleagues to collaborate more closely can speed innovation—
and scale it.

Given how rapidly IT is evolving, what is the most important skill you coach your team to develop?
It’s flexibility, really. To me, even more important than hiring for certain skill sets, or more effective than prescribing what skills my team should develop, is making sure we work with tech people who understand the whole personal, emotional intelligence side of things. It seems counterintuitive, but tech people need to work with customers and stakeholders and understand their prerogatives.

Before, we thought of IT here in one place [opens left hand], while the biz is there in another place [opens right hand]. That sense of separating the two—and the technical skills and the people skills, respectively—needs to dissipate. I coach my team to avoid thinking, “How do we as IT interact with the business?” That’s not right. IT and the business should be hand in glove. The siloed approach doesn’t work any more. Everyone needs to think like a tech person, while also thinking like a business person. Most important is thinking like a person. Having empathy is key.

It’s better for business if you have strong emotional abilities…
Yes. Conflict disappears, within reason. So while we as tech leaders have to vet our team’s tech skills, we could work toward being less concerned with our teams’ absolute tech expertise, and instead make sure we’re leading teams that are made up of people that have the right fit within a company. Naturally, there has to be technical competence, that’s a given, but we do much better when that is couple with people who are emotionally intelligent also.

How important is storytelling as a skill for technical executives? It seems like it’s a proficiency that we keep hearing about from non-marketing leaders, perhaps counter-intuitively.

You have to be able to speak the language of the business. There is no point saying, “We are introducing Platform X, which will give us this functionality.” That does not help, really. The tech speak will get lost. Instead, we need to offer a way to lead to a clear understanding of what a tech platform does. What does a new type of technology mean for the business? What advantage does it offer? Whom does it threat? It’s key to address the benefits and the risks straightaway in the vernacular business language. There is a saying that is especially true for tech executives: “if you’re explaining, you’re losing.” Psychologically, you’ve got to be clear from the beginning what value you are bringing to the table and not lose people in complicated explanations.

What concrete structural changes have you made at VMWare and now at Dairygold that have improved how IT communicates with the business?

Well, one big change is to try not to say “the business” [laughs]. I can give a really clear example of how IT leaders can improve a specific situation: how to address when people want to use a new type of device or technology that isn’t currently used within your company, but is quite popular and is getting a lot of media attention.

First, realize that you will always have people in your company who will want a new technology before anyone else does. Then, try not to see that as a threat. Structurally, I’ve found that it really works to embrace that reality. Address the fact that it will happen. Then, create an official early adopters group to explore if there is a strong business case to use the new tech. Structure it; communicate that using this new tech is research. If you don’t, you’ll find lots of employees saying yes to vendors who are happy to sell eager people the tech here and there. Make it clear that anyone who wants to be involved in using this new tech can opt in to this official group. Get buy in from all executives and declare it a program. Finally, let everyone know that if they do not use the new technology within the program, they are off the official radar, and their use of it is not compliant with what the business wants to do.

Think back, say five years. Before, IT would deny any sort of BYOD, bring-your-own-device movement. IT departments and executives would just authoritatively say, “we’re not going to do it!” And we stuck heads in the sand. It’s much better to bring people into the fold—and go on the journey together. Why? Then it forces everyone to be aware of the tech trends, both inside and outside of your company, and the benefit, where it exsists, and it doesn’t always, can be realized in a structured fashion.

Telling people they can’t use something doesn’t work any more. They will any way, so you may as well figure out how they can and your business can benefit from their use of it—like considering their use of it research into new tech trends. This also allows you to protect your business.

What are your three biggest priorities right now as the head of IT at a food manufacturer?
This is going to sound obvious, but it’s really a top priority: ensuring that we’re looking at our balance sheet and ensuring IT is focusing its energy on areas where we want to be making the most money as a company. In the past, IT was often considered “back office” functions before all others, but today, I’m guiding the IT department toward having a role in making key decisions that will affect productivity and sales.

I am also really prioritizing security and education about security. These are always ongoing priorities. For the next 10 years, security will always in the top three priorities for any company, no matter what the industry. You can never be fully covered in terms of having the perfect security strategy and the perfect way to educate your company and your customers about security. Security technology and safety online and digitally is always changing, and it can be a challenge for everyone to understand that it is a company wide.

Third, I’m also prioritizing what’s known as “bi-modal IT.” The two modes are about:
1. Traditional and stable, record-keeping IT and
2. being agile, trying things, having almost an R&D element to IT that will succeed or fail quickly.

The first is about ERP (enterprise resource planning, business-process-management software) systems, which are systems of record. The second is about IT going above and beyond an internal focus on occasion, developing apps for customer use for example. For some organizations with “Mode 2” thinking, you are asking the organization for an R&D budget so that you can “try things” which is completely alien to organizations that are not in the tech industry, and even to some who are. I believe the successful IT departments of the future need to do both well.

You’ve been at Dairygold for two years. In that time, how have you applied what you accomplished at VMWare and Motorola to change the perception of IT at a non-tech company?
At Dairygold, I’ve been working to help my colleagues see IT as an enabler versus a blocker. Now, we work with business executives who read an article about a tech trend or go to a conference and hear about an application or a platform, and say “oh, we need to use this!” Instead of talking about the tech, I ask executives to explain the problem they want to solve.

The other change I’ve been working on is establishing that simply delivering a project is a given for IT, and that we must also deliver value! We now measure more on that value, versus just successfully delivering the application or platform. For instance, I’ve read that something like 60% of all CRM projects “fail”—maybe no one uses them after IT deploys them. IT departments can get vilified if they don’t ensure that everyone understands the expected value of the project. What if an IT department helped install a CRM, and not everyone used it, but the value delivered by those who did use the platform was high? The value—that’s the real measurement. But that value measurement metric must be discussed and agreed up front, it most be locked into the business case. Is the value a certain number of users who have logged in regularly and recorded customer interactions, or is it 20% more engagement with customers with a €200K uplift in sales?

How is the role of the CIO changing then, as IT is changing?
Delivering data in the right format to right people—that is what IT has always been about. Today, Big Data, for example, is a ubiquitous buzzword. Your CEO comes to you as a CIO or head of IT and says, “I went to a conference and heard this buzzword…what is our Big Data strategy?” The best-case scenario for the CIO of the future: be ready and able to speak to the buzzwords before the conferences your CEO attends, versus reacting afterward. In that scenario, your CEO is at the conference nodding his head, as he has an idea already what is being discussed and how it fits, or doesn’t fit, his organization, while his peers may be frantically taking notes.

Finally: CIOs and IT leaders need to really think of users first. If tech isn’t usable, it won’t be used! You can gather the richest information, the richest content, the richest data—but if users can’t interact easily there, there’s nothing to use. End users expect that same level of usability and on demand availability of functionality as they get at home. If they want a productivity app on their personal device, they can get it within five minutes or less. While organizations need to have a reasonably standardized approved list of applications for most functions, most end users demand the same level of availability of software both in terms of delivery of the package to their device and its availability.

Unfortunately, when employees step over the threshold into work, in some cases they are getting a lower level of service in that workplace than they are at home. That is not to be disparaging on internal IT departments, the majority do an outstanding job. It’s just to point out that this is where IT has had to change, the benchmark for delivery is now, where appropriate, to attempt to mirror the consumer experience.

Photo and graphic credit: Elizabeth Wood/IBM


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