Leadership Lessons from Ben Burgett: Get Back on the Horse

One of my favorite interview questions is to ask the candidate about the most difficult technical outage that they have been a part of. I learn a lot about the individual based on how they describe their response to the situation. On occasion, the individual asks the question back to me. I always have the same response. The most difficult technical outage I have ever been a part of was when my organization’s file server crashed.

In short, we made changes to a core system in an effort to improve it’s reliability. Everything was validated and the system ran without issues for two days straight. Suddenly, backups started to fail. We restarted the server and it never came back online.

The team and I came into the office at 10pm to congregate and troubleshoot the issue. We worked through the night to mitigate the impact of the issue. We ended up rolling back our changes. After being awake for 36 hours, I finally went home.

I was upset about the scope of the outage and took it especially hard. The lack of sleep didn’t make things any better. I told myself and others that I would need to work my butt off to repair my reputation. I was devastated.

After I slept for a few hours, I woke up to a voicemail message from Ben Burgett. He told me a few things that I needed to hear…

First off, Ben didn’t feel that my perception wasn’t based on reality. Ben thought that people within the organization knew the outage wasn’t caused by negligence. The impact was minimized due to the quick actions of the team. The overwhelming consensus was, “stuff happens, that’s awesome those guys stayed overnight at the office to fix it”.

Ben didn’t want me becoming hyper sensitive to all of my actions because I assumed that people thought I needed to right a wrong that they likely weren’t even thinking about. He said that this attitude usually causes more issues than the original problem itself.  He thought that people knew where my heart was and that I had a good track record.

The last piece of advice that Ben had was for me to understand my emotions. I really needed to think about why I was going through them. By gaining a deeper understanding of my emotions, I could try to channel them into something positive. I still reference this advice often.

This situation reminded me of an experience I had when I was in high school. At one point, I wrecked our family’s vehicle. Fortunately, nobody was hurt and the car was in good enough shape to drive home. My Dad made me drive the car home.

I thought at the time that he was just being difficult but he was trying to teach me a valuable lesson. Sometimes when you fall off the horse, you need to jump right back on.

Leadership Lessons from Steve Muskopf: Pay it Forward

A few years ago, I was promoted to Director at IGS. Despite the fact that this was an ultimate career goal of mine, I wasn’t sure where to start and how to shift my mentality. I decided it made sense to reach out so someone who had been there before.

I reached out to Steve Muskopf who at the time was a Director of IT Solutions Delivery at IGS. Steve was well respected by his team and business partners. We were peers in the organization but didn’t know each other all that well. Since he had transitioned from a tactical role to strategic a few years prior, I thought he would be a great person to chat with.

I had just hoped that Steve would have a few minutes to grab lunch and share some tips. Instead, he spent a lot of time prior to our meeting preparing a list of helpful guidance. We had a very great dialogue about Steve’s shift from a tactical role to a position that’s more strategic. Not only did I learn a lot from our conversation but I often think about the list that he shared with me.

I think the most important thing I learned from my meeting with Steve was to make sure that I take the time to mentor/help others. Steve didn’t have to take the time to help me out. He simply did it because it was the right thing to do. I don’t think I will ever be able to pay Steve back for his help but I will absolutely try to pay it forward.

Here’s the list that Steve shared with me during our meeting…

  • Remember to delegate – don’t be critical to the day to day operation
  • Don’t be the keeper of information – share it so you aren’t dragged into tasks that could be handled by others
  • Setup time just to think about what you want to accomplish and what has to happen to get there
  • When asked to build out a new process/feature, ask yourself if you would be doing/creating this “thing” if you were setting up a new system or company
  • Always think about business value and longevity of something new
  • If you are doing the same thing every day, question it
  • Involve others in an idea so they can help champion it
  • Don’t force things on the business – truly listen and see how you can achieve both their goal and yours
  • Look for ways to get new perspectives – move people around to stretch them and challenge status quo
  • Ask lots of questions – throw out stupid ideas. Be curious about everything
  • Find someone who disagrees with you and get their perspective

Leadership Lessons from Rob Moyer: Own it

I met Rob Moyer at Ohio University. We lived in the same dorm our Freshman year and stayed friends throughout college. We ended up reconnecting after college as we ended up in similar industries. I was an entry-level IT professional and Rob was an IT recruiter.

In 2010, I was promoted to IT Supervisor and lead a team responsible for IT Infrastructure and Technology Support at American Health Holding. I was assigned a large project to replace our company’s phone system and had to temporarily increase the size of my team. I wasn’t sure where to start so I gave Rob a call.

Rob had built a solid network of entry-level talent that would jump at the opportunity to gain some practical experience. Rob sent me a few resumes. I reviewed them and scheduled some initial screenings. I remember being really nervous about the interviews despite the fact that I was on the other side of the table for the first time in my career.

I ended up hiring one of the candidates. I felt good about his interview but not great. He had a solid answer for every question I asked but something didn’t feel right. I ignored my gut and decided to make the hire.

I don’t remember when I thought there was a problem after the candidate started but it couldn’t have been more than a few hours. I wasn’t able to find them at their desk for hours at a time. When they were at their desk, they were usually reading a book despite the fact that there was plenty of work available for them. Unfortunately, things got worse before they got better.

His second day, he didn’t show up to work. I ended up giving him a call to make sure everything was OK. A few hours later, he let me know that he was experiencing car issues but would be in tomorrow. Something didn’t feel right.

His 3rd day of work, he let me know that he wouldn’t be able to make it in due to continued car issues. His recruiter Rob Moyer offered to drive him to work the rest of the week but he declined. Looking back, I wish I had just asked him point-blank what was going on and what I could do to help. There was clearly something preventing him from wanting to perform the job.

I ended up giving Rob a call. Not only was this my first hire. This was Rob’s first consultant placement. We weren’t sure what to do.

After a few more days, Rob and I both came to the consensus that we had to cut our losses. We both would have to explain to our bosses what happened. We needed to be transparent. Rather than deflect blame, we decided that we would own the issue as well as the resolution.

Rob committed to me that he would find a replacement by the end of the business day. Sure enough, he sent over a rock star candidate that lacked formal experience but had great communication skills and a passion for technology. We ended up hiring the replacement candidate who did a great job throughout the project.

I learned a few things during this transition…

  • Trust my gut especially during the interview processe
  • Be transparent
  • Own your mistakes and be the one to fix them
  • Only work with strategic partners that act with integrity

Leadership Lessons from Connie Luck: Find the Opportunity in Every Challenge

It’s easy to get discouraged if you specialize in Information Security. If you walk around thinking that your organization is completely secure and that you have it all figured out, you’re probably doing something wrong.

On a Sunday morning while I was out of town, I received a phone call from a team member at IGS. Without going into too much detail, we had experienced a significant outage due to circumstances that were beyond our team’s control. My boss was out of town and would be on an airplane for several hours. My head was spinning and I didn’t know where to start.

This clearly was an “all hands on deck” situation. My Wife (Connie) and I quickly packed up our things and jumped in the car. I started by calling team members within the IT department to ask them to come onsite so we could begin to address the problem. I also delegated asking someone to handle communication with the business. Fortunately, it was a Sunday so the downtime only impacted a select few but we had to ensure that the problem didn’t bleed into Monday.

Connie could obviously sense that I was frustrated. She forced me to take a step back and think about the situation.  I needed to fix my attitude by the time I got to the office. She reminded me that there is opportunity in every challenge. In this case, this was a chance for me to step up.

Our team started to work on tackling the problem while Connie and I drove back to Columbus. I reminded myself that my attitude was contagious before getting out of the car. I helped the team get organized and then got out of their way as they addressed the issues. The group had a very positive attitude and solved the problem in a very short amount of time.

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?