The Grill: Steve Romeo

This IT leader drives hard bargains in the boardroom by tapping into his soft skills.

CIO and author Steve Romeo is a big believer in so-called soft skills. In his mind, it's the ability to listen, communicate and collaborate that makes all the difference to a CIO's career success. Sure, technical knowledge is a must. So is business knowledge and a thorough understanding of one's company and the competitive landscape in which it operates. But it's a technology professional's soft skills that will ultimately yield the biggest payoffs.

At Breg Inc., Romeo says, his soft skills ultimately won him a seat on the orthopedic manufacturing company's executive steering committee. And those soft skills enabled him to persuade Breg's executives to expand into the software-as-a-service business, offering physicians a Web-based inventory management system called Vision. Three years after its launch, Vision continues to be a steady source of revenue growth for Breg. Earlier this year, Romeo authored a book titled The New Technology Paradigm: Transforming IT With Passion, Courage, and Collaboration, which was published by his new company, Blue Lizard Press.

When did it first become apparent to you that soft skills are so important for a successful career in technology? In my first job, as a help desk support administrator at a high school in Illinois. I noticed my counterparts weren't really paying attention to the people they were providing equipment to. I took that as my first lesson in IT, and I changed my style and approach. I began to listen to what users were saying, what challenges they were having, what potential capabilities I could provide through IT that would really create an impact for them.

IT people have traditionally been characterized as geeks, nerds -- people with minimal social skills who prefer to work alone. How accurate or misguided is that representation today? I think this really has shifted in the last five to 10 years. I've seen a departure from that attitude, especially in the leadership role. But there's still a strong perception that IT people are those individuals who work in the back room and lack the ability to communicate.

In my book, I talk about the need [for IT professionals] to look at body language and to understand not just the verbal cues during a conversation, but also when it's appropriate to interject your ideas and when it's appropriate to just listen. I'm now a professor at California State San Marcos. The bulk of my course is on interpersonal skills. It's a three-credit course for people going into technology jobs.

How did you learn your communication, collaboration and other so-called soft skills? My mentors taught me. One mentor in particular, Roger Lane, has had a phenomenal impact on me. His specialty was working with small businesses to make them more successful. He paid attention to how CEOs made their people feel with their body language and voice patterns and whether they were good listeners. It was when I applied all of those skills that Roger taught me to my job that everything kind of clicked and my own career accelerated. The opportunities that presented themselves were phenomenal, not only in my own career, but my opportunities to help others reach their potential.

How do you train or otherwise help develop soft skills among your own staff? I take my staff to meetings I'm leading or participating in and before we go in, I give them a homework assignment to tell me after the meeting about what they saw me do. What did I do to break the ice on a particularly tough topic? How did I build rapport with a particular individual? By taking each member of my staff through that process they see the value of being a better listener and the value of improving their own communication skills and most importantly, their people skills. The No. 1 component I work on with them is presenting in front of an audience. Everyone has to sell something at some point and what's important is understanding the audience's mindset so you're not speaking in IT terms and instead speaking at a level that the audience is willing to listen to. Once they grasp that skill, I find they're much more successful in their jobs and the business accepts them more as thought leaders in the organization.

As a technology professional, how did you acquire your competitive knowledge of the orthopedic manufacturing business, and how did you apply it to launch Breg's SaaS-based Vision application? First I spent a lot of time with the sales force inside our organization. I wanted to understand what they knew about our competitors and how our products matched up with products of the competition. Talking to the sales force is something that IT people typically don't do, yet it's really important to understand the competitive landscape. After that, I tried to understand our own strategic and tactical plans in terms of what we were doing this year and next year relative to IT. I then gathered the courage to approach our executive team with the idea for an inventory management solution that was so different from what our competition was doing.

That has been the biggest, most pivotal moment in my career -- establishing that I can not only be the IT leader but a business leader as well. I think this is the critical role CIOs need to step into today. We need to leverage technology to drive top-line sales.

Is the most direct way to do that through business knowledge rather than technical expertise? Absolutely. If I had only brought my technical knowledge to that first meeting to introduce this product, it would have never happened. I would have been speaking bells and whistles and our business team would not have been interested. Using business knowledge and soft skills I was able to convince them that not only was it an appropriate investment, but they also brought me onto the leadership team. I now report directly to the president of the company, not to the CFO or to an operations leader. The president views me as a strategic business leader and its because I took the time with my soft skills to learn the business.

And where does Vision stand today? Has it indeed increased top-line revenue for Breg? Vision is a Web-based application that helps orthopedic clinics manage the flow of their inventory of braces, crutches and injected drugs. Traditionally, clinics have done this manually on paper, and they can lose up to $70,000 a year in inventory if they're not efficiently managing it. Our solution gives them a tool based on a computer and a handheld unit that allows them to check inventory out, assign it to a patient, print out appropriate paperwork and do all the internal reporting, and then access our business intelligence online through the Web portal. We've taken the application to the point where the orthopedic clinic needs it to run their business. We're up over $350,000 year-to-date in revenue from subscriptions to the Vision service, and we're adding about 15 new physicians a month to the platform.

How has it changed the perception of IT at Breg? We've gotten to a strategic decision point where we're investing a lot more money in the platform. We're hiring more people to develop the code in-house, we've moved Vision into the cloud, and we're actively pursuing new features that will continue to differentiate the product way beyond where our competition is. It has blurred who we are as a business. Are we a manufacturing company or are we a services company? We do it all now.

Do you foresee the day when more IT departments are revenue-generators as opposed to strictly internal service organizations? I think there's a huge potential today for IT departments to generate revenue, but it takes strategic vision, it takes execution, and it takes alignment with the business. And it all goes back to soft skills. I definitely feel the potential is there if the IT organization understands the business and can find that lever to pull that will create a product or a service that will differentiate the company from its competition. If those pieces fall into place, you've got a winner.

Copyright © 2010 IDG Communications, Inc.

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