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The Strategic CIO: Building a Successful IT Team

Does your IT organization work well in teams? Are you hiring the right people? How do you prevent employee attrition? Do you have the right leadership style to drive employee success? Why is this important?

In today’s complex business environment, IT organizations work more closely with the business than ever before. The pace of change is increasing at a rapid rate. As a result, IT personnel must respond to the demands of the business more quickly than ever before. This is especially true for a business experiencing explosive growth.   So how does the CIO of a startup build a winning team of IT personnel who support and enable a business forecasted to double in size every few years?

OptionMonster group was founded in 2006 by Jon Najarian, Pete Najarian, and Dirk Mueller.   As successful professional traders and respected investment experts, they realized people needed a “disciplined investment process   to manage their money.” With an aggressive business plan, the founders recognized success required an innovative and strategic CIO who leveraged the skills of the IT organization to drive the explosive growth the founders projected.

Sanjib Sahoo was hired in 2006. With a successful track record in financial services through the use of his expertise in real-time trading systems and technology, and architecture management, Sanjib was the perfect candidate. But what made him stand out above all the other candidates was his approach to building an IT organization the founders needed to achieve their projected success.

When speaking with Sanjib one begins to realize the passion he has for building a team of IT leaders. And the results reflect his success. The employee attrition rate was less than 3% in the past 6 years and performance uptime of OptionMonster  applications is currently at 99.99%. How has he accomplished this?

I’ve met Sanjib and it’s easy to understand the underlying principles that drive his passion for building IT leaders. These can be summarized in the following four principles:

1. Develop a culture of creativity that drives innovation and personal growth

2. Build an organization of strong leaders

3. Focus on quality over quantity

4. Provide an environment to retain employees

 

Using these basic principles Sahoo developed the following framework as his model for building an IT organization of leaders. Sahoo presented this at a recent CIO Summit:

 

Phase 1 creates the foundation. Phase 2 enables him to grow the organization. Phase 3 leverages the competencies and skills of IT personnel to optimize performance. An underlying set of enablers provides the governance necessary to build a successful leadership-based team of IT professionals. One of the IT Director’s says it best:

 

“I feel my leadership skills and willingness to lead teams have grown here at optionMONSTER. The way I have taken on more and more responsibilities with getting more and more involved with the team has given me confidence to take on more management tasks, which I was not sure was my forte before. This steady additional level of responsibility pushed me to make sure that my team performs at its best at all times. Today I feel more comfortable to take on more management tasks“ – OptionMonster IT Director

 

Phase 1 – Foundation Phase:  The foundation Phase focuses on developing: a Flat Organization, hiring strategy, inclusive management style, and tough love.

Sahoo started with a flat organization to level the playing field. He used a well thought out hiring strategy to on-board the right talent with a unique screening and interview process.  Sahoo’s inclusive management style utilized an open door policy and coaching to build an effective team. And finally, he incorporated tough love that kept the team focused on the work that needed to support the business.

“Morale on our technology team has never been higher, and we are extremely  excited about our products and the services that we provide. We have a culture of “whatever it takes” to meet many difficult challenges that we have overcome “. – OptionMonster IT Engineer

 

Phase 2 – Growth Phase: With a flat organization in place Sahoo had clear visibility to identify talent  within his organization. He could identify the skills exhibited by each person and the gaps that needed filled. He helped educate his organization with the business knowledge IT personnel needed so they could focus on the business outcomes required to achieve the ambitious growth goals. He then proceeded to cross train his personnel to achieve a broad skill set within the IT organization which had both the technical skill and business acumen to support the business.

My experience at OM has taught me to ask many questions to lead the team to the desired outcome. Not only does it build better team work, but the solutions are more robust and the risks are mitigated quicker. The team environment here and the vision of leadership from top has made me more comfortable as a leader and handle people much better in a challenging environment ” – OptionMonster IT Team Leader

 

 Phase 3 –  Optimization Phase: Building the right competencies and skills enabled Sahoo to identify the leaders he needed. Choosing the right leader   is important, but gaining the acceptance of leaders within the team is critical. Through an open communication process and inclusive management style developed in phase 2, the IT leaders earned the trust and respect of their team members. But managing teams is a challenge; every team faces conflicts at one time or another. How conflict is managed is a critical success factor for high performing and well motivated teams. Training IT personnel in conflict management enabled the teams to deal with issues and disagreements constructively. Sahoo also recognized a key to  successful IT organizations is overall vision development.

To help his IT organization never lose sight of the business goals, Sahoo incorporates varied communication techniques from one-on-one sessions to town hall meetings which inform and educate his IT organization on the company vision. Providing IT personnel with 100 percent visibility of the company’s strategies and performance enabled the IT organization to stay focused on the business needs and business outcomes required to maintain the rapid growth of OptionsMonster.  People management is the skill gap most prevalent in IT organizations. IT personnel are trained in technology skills but not necessarily in people skills. They learn and practice the science of information technology through education and work. But the soft skills of managing people by developing listening, communication, and teaming skills is more of an art. So to help his leaders manage their teams more effectively, Sahoo provided coaching, mentoring, and people management training to build this skill area.

“The open and agile culture at OM has brought out a tough attitude in me with a no fear attitude to face critical issues. Working with great minds has increased my knowledge and confidence and my hard work has been acknowledged always and has helped me grow more and strong as a leader” – OptionsMonstor IT Team Leader

Enablers- Building an effective leadership based team is no easy task, and Sahoo utilized a set of team-based enablers to aid him in his journey.   At a recent CIO Perspectives Summit Sahoo identified the following enablers he used to build his leaders:

 

  • Non-political open door environment
  • Open review process (supervisor, manager, peer reviews)
  • Periodic 360 degree reviews for leaders
  • Innovation committee and mapping to product plan
  • Create passion and motivation within every level of the team
  • Create communicational and inclusive management style

 

Summary

OptionMonster has grown rapidly. In 2008 it launched tradeMONSTER, an innovative brokerage featuring slick tools and trade executions, which is now ranked #1 by Barron’s for Technology and best for Options Traders in ranking of online brokers.

Sahoo was instrumental in making this happen. His success is a great example of how to build a leadership-based organization which drives business success. His 3 phase approach is simple but effective, and requires a lot of commitment and support from the executive leadership of the company.

The quality I admire most about Sanjib Sahoo is that he never speaks in the first person. He is always talking about “we” because he views himself as an integral part of the team and is not afraid to roll up his sleeves and work side by side with his team members.

 

“As technology leaders, we have a big responsibility of bringing upcoming leaders not only for the interest of ourselves but for the industry as a whole. This story highlights what we have been able to achieve with a different approach for creating leaders and different motivational approaches taken to retain talent in a high stress environment. Hope this approach helps all of you to get a new perspective!“ Sahoo at the CIO Summit

Keep on the lookout for Sanjib Sahoo. He is the new wave of strategic CIO’s who will lead IT organizations to create customer value, increase margin, and enhance shareholder wealth. I have a strong feeling you will be reading a lot more about Sahoo in the future.

Author  note:    if you’re interesting in assessing   your IT organizations strategic maturity score, please see my previous AITS column – What-is-your-it-organizations-strategic-maturity-score?

Phil Weinzimer is president of Strategere Consulting working with clients to develop business and IT strategies that focus on achieving business outcomes. Previously Mr. Weinzimer was Managing Principal-Professional Services for IT Business Management at BMC Software. He has also held Managing Principal positions in the Professional Services organizations for ITM Software, CAI, and Sapient.

Mr. Weinzimer has written a book concerning customer value entitled “Getting IT Right: Creating Customer Value for Market Leadership” and has a forthcoming book, “The Strategic CIO: Creating Customer Value, Increasing Revenue, Enhancing Shareholder Wealth”, will be available in 2013.

Mr. Weinzimer can be contacted at pweinzimer@strategere.com

About Phil Weinzimer

Author and president of Strategere Consulting working with clients to develop business and IT strategies that focus on achieving business outcomes.

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