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Morale and understanding the business

Morale and understanding the business

The ability to motivate and give valuable, practical advice are important skills for CIOs, or anyone in a management role, says John Matthews, CIO, F5 Networks.

When you first started out at F5, what were your marching orders? We were about two thirds of the way through an enterprise resource planning (ERP) project that was in grave danger of not succeeding. And my marching orders from John McAdam, our CEO, were very simple: “Make sure that it does not fail.” So I spent my first eight months working with the vendors and the IT team.

Any time you do a major IT project, you have to understand the three legs to the stool. One is the vendor and the IT personnel who are doing the work. Another is the technology. And the third part is the business investment. I’m not talking about the money, but the personnel. So if you’re doing an ERP system and you don’t have the finance guys, accounting people and HR and everybody 100 per cent onboard, it will not succeed.

I spend a lot of time communicating to the business what is going on. And that wasn’t always a happy story of “Oh, that was great, don’t worry about it”. Often, that was a story of “We need more focus from your team, someone to go through these business processes, do the testing to make sure the tool we’re implementing is going to work.”

What kind of skills were you able to bring into this role?

Probably the biggest one was communication. The CIO role is really about understanding things from the business perspective—what it is they think they need— and then looking at the available things out there and helping them choose the ones most likely to help their business succeed.

The second biggest challenge was working on the morale of the IT team; getting them excited about the project again because there was a lot of dissolution as the previous leader had left. There had been some turmoil and people didn’t feel appreciated so I stepped up the profile of IT this side of the company.

How important is communication in your role?

We needed to have better hooks into the business to understand what was driving their needs. And I’m a big communicator guy anyway. I think problems can be solved when you talk about them.

And I did that old trick where there are things IT gets wrong and I’ve got meetings where I’m going to get complaints. My approach is to admit “Yes, there are things we do wrong and we want to do them better. So let’s figure out what we can accomplish right now to build a plan where my customers feel listened to and my IT people feel supported because they’re given a chance to fix things and everybody wins. That sort of open-hearted approach is something I brought to the gig. I think it’s my hippy-dippy Californian upbringing, to be honest.

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