Leadership Lessons from Kurt Nicklow: Keep Perspective

On 3/31/2014, I experienced one of the largest IT outages of my career. I remember the specific date because it was just before my birthday and I had plans to hang out with my girlfriend (now wife). Shortly before I got ready to leave for the day, I received a phone call from our IT Operations department. One of our store-facing systems was offline.

I’ve worked in IT for a long time and have yet to see any situations as urgent an outage that impacts a store. This felt like it would be an all-hands on deck situation. There weren’t many people left in the office at that time. I yelled to my friend Kurt to see if he had seen any alerts or was aware of the issue.

Kurt and I started to dig through system logs. We were trying to identify a root cause of the problem. We quickly found out that critical software was uninstalled from a server. The log message included a technicians name. I gave the tech a call on their cell phone.

The technician ran over to my desk. They were testing a future upgrade. The tech wasn’t aware that the testing would impact our production system. They were obviously very upset.

Kurt and I began troubleshooting how to resolve the issue. We quickly realized that the best course of action was to complete the upgrade. We started to contact other impacted teams so that we could share our plan. The team all agreed that this was the best way to proceed.

The technician that inadvertently caused the problem was still fretting about the issue itself. Kurt and I took a few moments to remind the technician to keep perspective about the situation. Although the issue was store facing, it was relatively small in scope and a manual process had already been implemented at the stores as a stop gap. The world would keep spinning.

Was this a big deal? Absolutely. However, Kurt and I both realized that we shouldn’t spend too much time worrying about the impact of the issue. We needed to keep perspective and focus on the problem.

We eventually fixed the issue by proceeding with the upgrade. I could see the relief on the tech’s face after we received confirmation that the testing was successful. We knew that we would need to make some changes to ensure this would not happen again. Until then, we knew that the world would keep spinning.

Leadership Lessons from Karen Rizzo: Don’t Leave People Waiting

In 2018, I was promoted at IGS and assumed responsibility for our technology support team. The team was dedicated and had great attitudes but they were struggling quite a bit. They weren’t able to keep up with the amount of tickets/requests that they received from our coworkers. In short, people were waiting.

When I was previously managing the IT Infrastructure team at IGS, our requests/tickets usually came from a select group and typically we didn’t receive more than 3-5 per day which made it was pretty straightforward to gauge customer satisfaction. The requests to the technology support group came from the entire organization and we often receive hundreds per month. I wasn’t quite sure how to keep a pulse on how the team was doing.

Around that time, I met with Karen Rizzo (Contact Center Director at IGS) to ask her for advice on how to gauge customer experience for large volumes of transactions. Karen recommended that we send out a short survey after each completed ticket. She felt it the survey should be short enough that people would be willing to fill it out but long enough that we could collect some key data.

We landed on the following questions…

  • Was your issue resolved?
  • Did you feel like your issue was handled with the correct urgency?
  • Would you want to be assisted by this technician again?
  • Do you have any additional comments?

The survey was incredibly helpful and allowed us to quickly gauge customer satisfaction. However, Karen’s best advice had to do with the fact that we often left our customers in the dark too long while we were working on a particular problem. Even if we had the best of intentions and were handling other critical issues, the customer had no idea. Karen told me that when we leave people waiting, they tend to assume the worst.

Karen gave me a really helpful analogy about what it’s like to wait without any information. She told me a hypothetical story about sitting at the restaurant waiting for food. You naturally get frustrated when it takes longer than you expect for your meal to be delivered. You’re always a lot more patient and understanding when the waiter stops by every few minutes to share an updated status and offer some water.

Based on Karen’s advice, we adjusted our processes a bit. We realized that we would likely always have a backlog of tickets to work through. We decided to make sure that we touched base with our customers every few days to let them know that we still were still tracking their issue/request and provide them with an updated ETA. We also gave them the opportunity to escalate if needed.

This simple procedure helped us in a number of ways. We were able to self-prioritize our tickets which let us limit the amount of Work in Progress (WIP). By doing less, we were ultimately able to do more. After just a few months of following Karen’s advice, we were able to significantly improve both the quality and quantity of our work while continuing to keep a pulse on customer satisfaction.

Leadership Lessons from Wes Key: You Break it, You Buy it

I started working with Wes Key when I joined IGS in the spring of 2016. We both clicked right away since we shared a lot common interests including music, food and technology. Wes brings a lot to the table including business acumen and most importantly a passion for mentoring others.

Wes has helped build up a lot of green team members throughout his career. He has a unique ability to own the responsibility of their project work while ensuring they get all the credit/success. He does have one steadfast rule while encouraging them to find balance in risk vs. reward of a technical change. His main rule…you break it, you buy it.

What Wes is articulating with his rule is the need to instill a sense of ownership at the point where a team member’s training wheels are removed. This can help give a level of comfort to someone who is uncomfortable with a particular change or project. If you’re the one to take a chance without supervision, you’re the one responsible for owning that change and ultimately finding the resolution. If you don’t feel comfortable, make sure you get some help and a second set of eyes.

Even as I stepped away from day to day technical responsibilities, Wes maintained his “you break it, you buy it” rule for me. I needed to own the work I was completing as opposed to just being hopeful that someone would ultimately clean up my mess if I had to step away to focus on my leadership duties. It ultimately caused me to take a step back focus on providing strategic leadership as opposed to interfering with ongoing technical work.

Wes’ rule has helped individuals transitioning to careers in IT build confidence and make immediate contributions. We still leverage this mindset on a daily basis and will for years to come.

Leadership Lessons from Jim Williams: How to “Borrow” a Team

In 2010, the organization I was working for was in the middle of a large phone system cutover. Our system had reached its maximum capacity. We had decided to consolidate with our parent company in an effort to save costs. We had hundreds of custom call tree configurations for our clients. The conversion effort would be incredibly complicated.

Our parent company had selected a 3rd party contractor to configure the call trees based on our documentation. We were provided with access to the system to test the configurations less than a week before go-live. It was immediately apparent that we were in a really bad spot. The call trees didn’t come close to matching our documentation. Our customers wouldn’t be able to reach us on Monday morning. I remember my boss (Jim Williams) saying that if the configurations were code, they wouldn’t even compile.

We came up with a process to work with the contractor to correct the call flows. I would centralize all issues that were reported by our team and feed them one by one to the vendor. The contractor was quickly resolving our issues and it felt like we were finally making some progress. The testing efforts quickly became the bottleneck in the process.

At the time, I was only 2 years out of college and basically froze. I didn’t know what to do. Jim stepped in and came up with a great idea. He solicited volunteers from other areas of the business to test the hundreds of call flows. Even our executive team jumped in to help!

All of our testers volunteered to work through the cutover weekend to help us with final validation before go-live. Their efforts meant the world to me. I was so inspired seeing team members drop everything and give up their weekend to help out with our project. It really felt like one big family.

All of the necessary corrections were made in time and our cutover was completed without any significant issues.

Leadership Lessons from Dr. John Hoag: Focus on the Industry

When I was ready to graduate from Ohio University in the summer of 2008, I knew I would be starting my full-time internship at Nationwide Children’s Hospital immediately following graduation. My degree had focused quite a bit on theory and I was worried that I was a bit unprepared when it came to practical technical skills. I debated which technical certificate to study for in the few months before I started at my internship. I knew I had to learn something but I couldn’t quite figure out what.

My professor, Dr. John Hoag, asked a few questions related to my predicament. His advice was for me to actually spending my time learning about health care and hospitals as opposed to just focusing on technology. Dr. Hoag’s advice still holds true today. Technology constantly changes. By focusing on your industry, you can help build practical solutions and serve as a business partner as opposed to simply being a technologist.

I’m currently a member of the most talented IT department that I have ever been a part of. When I think about our most valuable employees, they often have the most institutional knowledge about our company and industry. This has enabled these team members embrace technical change while still keeping a focus on the organizational mission/vision.

Since stepping into a leadership role, I have found it a bit overwhelming to see the technology I used to support rapidly change before my eyes. I’ve deliberately chosen to keep my knowledge of these changes at the surface level and focus on expanding my knowledge about our organization and the energy industry. I hope that this will help empower our team members to focus on technology execution while I work to set the tone for our overall strategy.

Leadership Lessons from Leonard Luck: Don’t Walk Past a Mistake

As far back as I can trace, my ancestors have been entrepreneurs. My Great-Grandfather (Joe Luck) sold boots to rubber factory workers in the early 1900s and eventually started a business that still exists today. His son, My Grandfather, owned/operated that business from the 1940s until he sold the business to his brother in the early ’80s. While working for my family’s small business in high school, I had the opportunity carry on the family tradition and learn from my Grandfather.

My Grandpa often visited the store owned/operated by his sons in Columbus, Ohio. It wasn’t just a chance for him to catch up with family but an opportunity for him to teach others about the principles that made him successful. My Grandpa was meticulous about every detail of the stores. The man never walked past a mistake.

Even the way the shoes were organized in the stock room was important to him. My Grandpa used to pull random shoes out of their spot in the wall to see how the wrapping paper was organized inside the shoe box. If didn’t look brand new, he would hand it to me to fix. If the customers knew we were willing to cut corners there, where else would we cut corners?

It’s no secret that the pair of shoes you’re buying has probably been tried on before. However, if the shoe box is disorganized and the paper is torn before you try on your “new” shoes, you tend to lose a bit of confidence in the process despite the obvious.  My Grandpa felt that each box should be treated as if it was a prized possession and even the aesthetics of the inside of the shoe box was an important part of our process.

I try to carry this mentality to this day. If we’re handing out a gently used laptop to someone on their first day of work, it won’t give that employee a lot of confidence in our abilities if the laptop is still covered in stickers from its previous owner. Even though the aesthetics of the laptop have almost nothing to do with the system’s performance, it’s important to give our customers a sense that we take pride in everything we do. What corners do your customers think you’re willing to cut?

Leadership Lessons from Mike Luck: It’s Just Not What You Know…

When I was in Middle School, my Dad took me to an OSU football game. It was pouring outside. Fortunately, we ended up running into a friend of mine that invited us to wait out the rain at their covered tailgate. Towards the end of the tailgate as the rain began to stop, my Dad took the opportunity to share an important lesson with me…it’s not just what you know, it’s who you know.

I graduated from Ohio University during the collapse of Lehman Brothers and struggled to find gainful employment. I really wanted to make it “own my own” and refused to ask for help. I applied to hundreds of entry-level jobs without even being granted an interview. I eventually realized that nobody truly makes it on their own in the way that I envisioned. It truly takes a village for anyone to progress in their career.

It was finally apparent to me that I needed help. I reached out to my friends and family to discuss the fact that I needed to find work after college. My Aunt Cathy immediately responded by letting me know that Children’s Hospital in Columbus, Ohio was hiring interns to complete a project. I applied to the internship and thanks to my Aunt’s help, my resume likely made it to the top of the stack.

I eventually was hired as an intern at Children’s Hospital. I gained valuable experience that I was able to parlay into a full-time role at a health care company at the conclusion of the internship. If I hadn’t been willing to ask my Aunt Cathy for help, I likely would have been unemployed for a significant amount of time despite having a college degree. As my Dad said, it’s not just what you know, it’s who you know.

Leadership Lessons from Ben Burgett: Tell a Good Story

I started at IGS in March of 2016. It was a really exciting time in my career. It felt great to join a company that had recently won a “best places to work” award. That being said, there was a lot of work to do from a technical and personnel perspective and I was a bit anxious to get started.

I decided to begin by collecting information about each team member about their primary concerns. Overwhelmingly, they cited a lack of system redundancy and disaster recovery processes. All of our systems operated out of our primary data center in Dublin, Ohio with our backups stored at a nearby colocation facility. We didn’t have near enough capacity at the offsite facility to restore our critical systems. This was clearly less than ideal.

Working in IT Infrastructure, we often have to strive to have our best work go unnoticed. Our team could have implemented a robust disaster recovery program without anyone knowing it existed. That being said, it was clear we needed to focus on copying our systems and network to a geographically redundant data center.

We researched and tested solutions over the next few months. We felt we landed on a robust solution that would help our organization recover in the event of a serious issue. We felt the solution was pragmatic. We weren’t spending unnecessary funds but also weren’t cutting corners. Unfortunately, the solution still had a hefty price tag.

I had no idea how to sell this investment to our Executive Team. Even though we had a formal “project charter” process as a mechanism for this type of project, I wasn’t sure exactly to present it to the group. I started to put together a slide deck but didn’t feel great about it.

I ended up reaching out to my coworker Ben Burgett. Despite the fact that Ben worked in a completely different area of IT, he was always my primary sounding board for anything that was user-facing. Ben reviewed my pitch deck and tore it apart. He told me not to overthink it and just tell a story about how we discovered this problem, talked about our research and then presented our solution. If I used storytelling to make a compelling argument, nobody would bat an eyelash at the cost.

Ben also advised me to make the problem personal to the Executive Team. For example, how would this risk impact them if it came to fruition? He ended up advising me to tell a story about what would happen to the executives if we encountered a disaster TODAY and then what it would look like if we implemented our solution.

I ended up completely reworking the slide deck into something I felt confident in. I started my presentation by presenting a hypothetical disaster involving the destruction destroying our building and collocation. The “fake” disaster concluded with me calling the executive teams to notify them of the problem and state that I was not confident WHEN or IF we could bring our systems back online.

I quickly transitioned into talking about when we identified the problem and our research process for identifying a solution. We talked through different types of DR solutions and why we selected a “warm site” using cloud technologies. We also discussed our testing process and why we felt comfortable with the solution. As Ben predicted, by the time I got to the part of my presentation where I discussed the cost of the solution, nobody questioned the need to make the investment. The team began implementing the solution shortly thereafter.

Although Ben no longer works at IGS, I still pick his brain often about how to approach a particular situation and greatly appreciate all of his advice.

Leadership Lessons from Brian Wrobel and Robert Schmidt: Show Up

One evening at 10:45PM, I received a phone call from a colleague. Before I even answered the phone, I knew it was bad news. My colleague’s first words were to ask if I was sitting down. OK, it clearly was very bad news…our file server experienced corruption and we lost access to the data.

This particular system had already identified as a risk to the organization. We knew about the system’s fragility and were working to improve its reliability and redundancy. We knew that any issue affecting this system would bring our company’s productivity to a halt. In short, this was as bad as it gets.

I arrived to the office at around 11:15PM. I made a few phone calls and notified the IT department of the issue via email. By 11:30, I saw a familiar face. It was Brian Wrobel. He had a bag filled with energy drinks and candy. He pulled up a chair to my desk and made it clear that he was here to support us in any way he could. Brian wasn’t going to leave until we did.

By midnight, I saw another familiar face. Robert Schmidt arrived with another bag filled with candy and energy drinks. He also made it clear that he was in it for the long haul. Both Robert and Brian serve on different teams within IT. The problems we encountered weren’t directly theirs to solve. It would have absolutely been sufficient if they simply offered us positive vibes and well wishes from their homes.

Robert and Brian stayed with us throughout the night. They offered guidance, support and encouragement. Their actions minimized the impact of the issue and allowed some of our critical business processes to complete. Even as the sun started to rise and the reality of the situation set in, they maintained their positive attitudes and offered continued support.

Before this outage, I honestly don’t know if I would have followed Brian and Robert’s actions under similar circumstances. So many times throughout the day we see opportunities to help and support others but let those opportunities pass. Brian and Robert have inspired me to be not just a better coworker but a better person. I may not be able to pay them back but I will absolutely try to pay it forward.

Leadership Lessons from Cindy Hom: Celebrate Success

I graduated from Ohio University in the summer of 2008 which was just a few months after the collapse of Lehman Brothers. Despite having a degree in a cutting-edge field, I really struggled to find full-time employment. After applying to hundreds of jobs, I was hired by a medical care management company called American Health Holding (AHH) as a Technology Support Analyst.

I had a difficult start at AHH. Even though I had obtained my degree from OU, I was unprepared for the workforce and lacked some of the key technical skills required for my entry-level position. Since I was making minimal contributions to the team, I struggled to establish meaningful relationships with my peers. My confidence was shot to the point where I wondered if I even had a future in technology.

I attempted to make up for my lack of experience by having a strong work ethic and positive attitude. I was able to leverage the customer service skills (and patience) gained while working for my family’s retail store in high school to provide a solid experience for my internal customers at AHH. I may not have been able to have been the fastest to find a solution but I always tried to convey a sense of empathy and urgency. I finally felt like I was finding my place within the organization.

I received a call from our Vice President of Sales (Cindy Hom) about 6 months after joining the company. Her laptop hard drive died while she was on the road. I tried to resolve the issue remotely but was unable to fix the equipment. I quickly configured a replacement laptop for her and overnighted the workstation to her hotel. I didn’t think much of the situation at the time. I was just doing my job

AHH was family owned business. It started with just a few people in the 90s and grew to over 450 employees by the time I joined the organization in 2008. Our CEO (Michael Reidelbach) made an effort to get to know each and every one of the 450 team members. There are only so many hours in the day and I hadn’t had a chance to meet Michael and a majority of the other Executives despite working at the organization for a few months.

This all changed when I received a random email from Cindy. She was so impressed with laptop replacement process that she felt compelled to email Michael and the rest of the Executive Team. Michael and the other members of the senior leadership team replied to the thread to thank me for getting Cindy back up and running. The email probably only took Cindy a few minutes to write but the gesture meant the world to me. As I mentioned earlier, just a few months I had been wondering whether or not I belonged in the field. I finally realized that I was exactly where I was supposed to be.

I often try to remind myself of the email that Cindy sent. The simple act of letting someone know that you appreciate them and their efforts has a lasting effect. What might seem insignificant to you might mean the world to someone else. Take a little extra time and be more like Cindy.