The Grill: Maridan Harris, VP of IT at Philips North America

Tech work can -- and should -- be fun, says this IT leader and expert motivator.

The enthusiasm that Maridan Harris has for her job, and for technology in general, is clear after talking to her for just a few minutes. Her philosophy: "You should love what you're doing or find something that you do love." The vice president of IT at Philips North America in Andover, Mass., which develops lighting, lifestyle and healthcare products, Harris welcomes opportunities to share her ideas on how to build teams that enjoy work as much as she does. She spoke recently at a Women In Technology International panel on the need to balance execution with a need to have fun at work. Here she offers more of her thoughts on the topic.

What's your role in ensuring this balance in your team? Everyone has something different that motivates them. I like bringing in improvements that help people do their jobs better or get them information to do their jobs better. I like seeing people's faces light up when I bring in something that makes their jobs easier. I find it fun to give people tools that help them do what they do better. And I think that IT people get excited when you use products that they created. So I've always believed that they need to know they're making a difference or leaving a legacy. But when you're working with an internal IT group, they're not so close [to users] that they know how something gets used. We use an agile environment, so they work closer with the business, they know their product is going to be used, and they get to see it used.

How else do you motivate IT people? It's important to celebrate success. Acknowledging people's accomplishments is extremely important. It's great as a leader if I do it, but when the business and the people using a product tell someone [that his or her work] was fantastic, that means a lot more.

You've talked about delivering operational excellence and high performance. How do you define and measure those in your IT organization? Operational excellence is the ability to take things into a steady state while still being able to improve them. You have to have the stuff working to have a foundation of trust. And you have to be predictable, deliver on your promises and do what you say you're going to do. The more motivated and engaged your team is, the more high performance your team is. Then you have to set goals for yourself, and they have to be stretch goals. You need to strive for improvement.

What do you mean when you talk about focusing one's personal positive power? It's taking all that positive momentum you've got and using it. It's taking your positive energy and focusing on those strengths. I do some coaching for a volleyball team, and I look at what each girl brings to the team and I put them in positions where the skills they have are used the most. I wouldn't make my best passer my middler or hitter. So it's [understanding] the diversity of the team and playing to their strengths. Rather than making everyone good at everything, take the people who have certain skills and make them great and improve what their strengths are and not focus so much on what they're not so good at. If you look at IT, you don't need a person who is good at every single technology. You get the people who are really good at the skill set you need, and whatever their skill is, that's what you put them in there for -- and then continuously develop them.

Does that make people feel pigeonholed? We give a lot of opportunity for change and growth. People who want to move from one area to another can do that. When you're learning new skills, that's also a motivator to help you grow. And the more you get exposed to, the more you can decide what you want to work and focus on. But I don't think you can be everything to everyone. You have to learn how to do the things that are interesting to you and move up in that work. It doesn't mean you don't have breadth in your skills, but it does mean you have to have certain competencies.

You're in a multicultural, global organization with many layers. What skills are needed to be successful in moving across departmental levels? Open-mindedness is the biggest, and a willingness to learn. It's more attitude than anything else. You have to be able to put yourself out there, take a chance on something and be open to learning different things.

Can this be developed? You can't make anybody want to learn. But you can encourage it. You can be open to people making mistakes. We end every project with a lessons learned. You have to have the ability to make mistakes, learn from them and move on. Otherwise, you'll stifle all creativity.

What are the key skills an IT manager needs to be successful in this type of organization? You have to be someone who values the diversity and the creativity that comes from different viewpoints. You have to want a team that comes from different backgrounds, different places, [because] you want all these different ideas. And once you have that, you have to be open-minded. You have to listen, because each idea will lead to another.

How can IT workers aspiring to management cultivate these skills? It takes some risk. You have to decide you want to do it. You have to decide you're OK with putting yourself out there. It's like anything else: If you're not exposing yourself to some sort of risk, you're not exposing yourself to opportunity.

-- Interview by Computerworld contributing writer Mary K. Pratt (


Copyright © 2013 IDG Communications, Inc.

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