IT is best from the outside in

Cathie Kozik, CIO of PSAV, talks about building a high-value team and career

Before her senior IT roles at AT&T, Tellabs, Motorola, Hub Group and now PSAV, Cathie Kozik had worked outside IT. She had roles in customer service, engineering, and supply chain, which she considers essential to develop the perspective required to shape IT for maximum business success. She is currently CIO and senior vice president of event technology services firm PSAV.

How did you prepare yourself for the role of IT leadership? By not coming from within IT. I’m not being flip. I have come to believe that having many sets of business experiences to draw from is essential to managing and leading any IT organization. I was in various organizations for 15 years before I found myself in IT.

I made an offhand comment one day about how my department’s engineers were having to do IT’s work and asked rhetorically why IT couldn’t seem to do their jobs. There had to be a better way. I got called on it and basically dared to define that better path, that different approach.

Are you saying that if someone can lead any business function they can probably succeed in leading IT? No. You’ve got to have the technical chops and understand the care and feeding of the IT beast to understand what new possibilities for efficiency and even new markets tech innovation makes possible. 

What’s not as productive is to love technology for technology’s sake. You have to find a way technology can enable the business to be more efficient, effective and able to access new markets. The value of IT is its ability to streamline the processes of how work gets done, and how people and departments work together.

Being in IT, we’re in a unique position to say to a peer, “I think I can help you look at things in a new way, or bring a new process or approach to make you and the company more successful.”

I advocate genuine involvement with other facets of the business. I encourage my people to do tours of duty outside of IT as well as moving them around to different IT functions, to find the places where they catch fire and grow best. I want them to understand how the business makes money,  and to find a way to stay close to that. This is how to keep the focus on what matters most.

What are some learnings about yourself and your career? Embrace what you are afraid of. You’ll learn so much about yourself and how to be of more value, and have a jolly good time doing it. Every time I got past my own mental barriers, it turned out to be something good.

Can you give me an example? Yes. I had an opportunity for an international role. I had young kids and was concerned I wouldn’t see them. It turned out to be very manageable, especially having a very supportive spouse. The kids and I were both happy, and they got the benefit of international travel themselves.

What are the principles guiding your leadership approach? I can sum it up with these four points:

  1. Treat people well regardless of where they are in the organization. I learned this from people I admire most. The chairman of a company I worked at treated every employee he encountered the same, whether factory floor sweeper or executive. He  always made time to listen. Treat people well, even if you have to make tough decisions and deliver tough news. They’ll know you didn’t do it in an uncaring or unfeeling way.
  2. Join a team that shares your values. Otherwise you will be out of sync, and I haven’t seen that work well. Know yourself, your value and your values, and work in an organization that aligns with that.
  3. Be yourself with your team. They’ll sense it if you aren’t. People want to work with someone who genuinely likes themselves, not someone just spouting the lingo.
  4. Learn from everyone. Look for the minority point of view. From the person driving the parking lot bus to the technicians on the production floor. Don’t be afraid to ask stupid questions. There is no such thing as a stupid question. You want to understand the company from as many perspectives as possible.

What do you do to set a leadership example for your staff? I do firmly believe a leader’s most important job is developing other leaders and talent in the organization. It is more important than managing projects. It is more important to spend time, ask pertinent questions and challenge people to think in different ways.

As for setting an example, show the team that you seek and accept feedback. People can’t develop unless they get meaningful feedback. Set up a cycle of feedback. A lot of organizations are uncomfortable with giving and receiving feedback, so set the example. Embrace feedback about yourself, and give it.

How do you determine if someone has leadership potential? What do you look for? How do you help them grow? I look for people who …

  • reach out and do more than is asked of them or expected
  • have a positive view of life
  • start with yes and find a way to make it work
  • actively seek to improve themselves
  • have intellectual curiosity — ask a lot of questions
  • focus less on title and more on results

This is a person I need to pay attention to. They have the intellectual curiosity to make themselves better. It is not necessarily someone who comes to me and says “I want to be the CIO,” but someone who demonstrates to me they can be the CIO.

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