How CIOs can survive, and thrive, at hypergrowth businesses

All IT leaders need to balance business growth, current needs and future demands when creating an IT strategy, but at companies in hypergrowth mode CIOs need to shift into overdrive.

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The audit, tax and consulting firm of RSM US LLP has had three consecutive years of double-digit growth, so when CIO Troy Cardinal develops his strategic vision, he says he must have a plan for keeping up with the company’s unprecedented rapid growth.

To date, that has meant growing his IT group from 170 in mid-2014 to 220 people today and devising a project portfolio that increased about 50 percent year-over-year in the past few years.

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With a focus on the mantra “people, process and technology,” Cardinal says to cope he has partnered more closely with his counterparts in human resources to develop recruiting, retention and performance development plans. He says this ensures he can bring in new talent as needed quickly and that he can develop existing staff to meet rapidly rising demands.

Cardinal says he’s also had to fine-tune processes to guarantee that he and his team can quickly deliver new capabilities – such as a new unified communication system and mobile apps – to keep pace with needs arising from regular business needs as well as those tied to the company’s hypergrowth.

“There’s no doubt that the growth mode we’re in creates and solves a lot of problems for us,” Cardinal says. If his company (formerly called McGladrey LLP) wasn’t growing so fast, many projects would have evolved more slowly, he adds.

CIOs across the spectrum say they’re dealing with a rapid pace of change in their IT departments. And, indeed, many are hiring staff and getting budget increases to meet rising demands for new technologies and functionalities. However, CIOs at rapidly growing companies are contending with that scenario – and all the pros and cons that come with it – on overdrive. That, they say, requires a different leadership and management approach to successfully navigate.

“You have to keep one eye on the growth and one eye on the run. We’re doing that, but it takes some work, and it takes a commitment of time,” Cardinal says.

How to handle IT challenges with strategy

Cardinal has several strategies to handle the challenges.

First, he is leveraging his outside partners more strategically “to help us get smarter, faster.”

“The biggest challenge for us is that we’re constantly learning new things, and there are some things you can learn naturally but there are other things you have to surge and learn. That’s where we developed important partnership with strategic third parties,” he says.

Second, Cardinal set up his IT department as a bimodal shop with operations on one side and innovation on the other working in agile mode and using a scrum methodology to bring speed to its efforts.

Additionally, Cardinal says his team re-evaluated its processes, adjusting them to add agility and speed without adding unacceptable risk.

“I’m always looking for ways to do more faster,” Cardinal explains. “So as we have grown, we’re starting to see some of the established processes get in the way. You create, say, 20 checklists, but after time you don’t need 20 anymore. You learn that you didn’t ever need five of them, and another five we can now do without. So we have opportunity for streamlining.”

Similarly, Cardinal says he has his team streamlining technology deployments and using those deployments to simultaneously improve business processes – efficiency at its finest.

He explains: “It’s so easy to pick a solution because you think that solution is going to fix everything, and then you form the technology, you customize it, to fit the business. But we have to be more plain vanilla and go with just straight implementations of those technologies and recognize that the technology allows us the opportunity to transform parts of the business.”    

Making efficiency priority one

Other CIOs say that they, too, focus on bringing efficiencies to their IT strategies – a focus that’s smart for any IT leader but critical when facing constant growth and significant increases in demands for IT.

“One thing we’ve done is ask: how do we continue to accelerate our IT investments and be more efficient without just adding headcount,” says Mike Peterson, senior vice president of IT and CIO at CHG Healthcare Services, which added about 250 employees in 2015, bringing its total up to about 2,000 with plans to add another 250 or so in 2016.

Peterson cites, as an example of his strategy, the fact that his network and operations team has only grown by one in the past several years because the team has become more aggressive in using tools to automate processes. That then frees up staff time to do more strategic, higher-value work that supports the company’s record growth. “I think it’s just smart IT,” he adds.

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