Mentoring tips and leadership advice for building a diverse IT team

Mentoring tips and leadership advice for building a diverse IT team

Date: Jan 10, 2013

Royal Philips Electronics, a Netherlands-based company known globally for its health care offerings, lighting, grooming products and flat-screen TVs, has much more to offer the world than revolutionary toothbrushes. The IT team behind the company's consumer staples -- particularly, its executives' focus on mentoring and leadership -- is a big part of the Philips success story.

In this video Q&A, filmed at the Gartner Symposium/ITxpo 2012 in Orlando, Fla., Maridan Harris, a vice president of IT at Philips, sits down with SearchCIO-Midmarket.com editor Wendy Schuchart to share mentoring style and leadership advice that can aid CIOs and other IT heads in building a diverse, dynamic IT team.

Read the full transcript from the interview below, and watch the video, to learn how Harris is making mentorship and leadership strides in IT and the interview questions she asks to ensure good IT hiring.

What is your primary philosophy with mentoring and encouraging people to be their best?

Maridan Harris: I think it's about focusing on your strengths. You should spend a lot of time looking at what it is that you do well and trying to do those [things] better.

I was intrigued recently: I was listening to a speaker, and he coaches a team, and he does some things where they were trying to learn how to do something because they didn't do it well. They focused on this thing that they weren't good at, and then they used that in the game, and that doesn't go so well because now they're focusing and using things that they're not really good at. The skills that they were good at -- when they did focus on those -- they were able to really step up and do a much better job.

That's one of the core philosophies, to focus on the things you're good at. Acknowledge what you're not, and obviously improve those, but really focus on the things that you're good at.

How did you get started in the IT field?

Harris: I have no idea. I was raised in Silicon Valley, and I think that that was just kind of what happened, you know? You started doing things and there were tools that helped you do things. I started programming, I think I was probably like 11 or 12 years old, in junior high, and it just kind of evolved. I didn't look at it as IT; it was just stuff, and stuff turned into IT. Now, I'm in IT.

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If you started programming at a young age, were you interested in math and science when you young?

Harris: Yes, definitely. Math, science and sports -- those were the things. Not so much the history person.

It's interesting that you talked about sports. They found a high correlation between womenwho are engaged in sports at a young age, and people who are in leadership, IT or otherwise. Would you agree with that?

Harris: Absolutely, I think that's very true. I find that a lot of young girls that are participating in sports do really well with the relationships that they work in, and they seem to have some of the jobs, and school [success], and hobbies. I coach, actually -- I'm still a volleyball coach. I coach club, and I coach ages 16 to 18, depending on which one it is that year. Yes, some of the smartest girls are these girls that are in sports. But learning how to work on a team, the natural leadership abilities come out.

Is there anything in particular that women bring to the table in strengths that would help balance an IT department that a CIO might be missing with an all-male team?

Harris: I think that if you have any one given characteristic -- whether it's all men, or all women, or all of the same culture -- you'll miss out on the diversity that brings you different solutions that you wouldn't have otherwise.

By making sure that you do have some women, people of different genders, people of different backgrounds and cultures, especially building in today's global world, you won't know what you're getting into, you won't have that problem-solving capability without having the diversity on your own team. Yes, I think you very much need to have a variety of different people on the team.

Are there things happening that you're seeing in corporate culture that would perhaps discourage women from excelling in leadership or moving into leadership roles in IT?

Harris: I don't see anything that's discouraging. I actually see there's a lot of encouraging things going on. I mean I have more women applying to positions and being part of my team than I have had in years. I mean, it's increased, at least where I'm at, in my field. We've offered more flexibility; we've got more mobility out there. That's also helpful regardless of who you are -- it will just attract more talent. Some of our talent comes from women, as well as from our male colleagues. I think the flexibility and looking at diversity as a benefit is helping everybody.

What interview question do you love asking your job candidates, and what does that tell you about them?

Harris: You know, you ask them the normal questions about what your biggest challenge is. What are you most proud of? And what is it that you want to do later on? What is it that inspires you? And it's interesting to hear what inspires them, what they're proud of, because that tells you what motivates them, and whether or not they fit, if they've got the same kind of drive as the team you're trying to place them with.

If there's somebody that is an innovative thinker, they're creative, they're not so structured, you fit them in with groups that that's complementary to. If they're somebody that's fast moving, and you have a group that would need that type of personality, then you fit them into that. So, it just kind of depends on how you're creating your team, because not only do you want the diversity and the genders and the cultures, but you also want it in the personalities and the characteristics.

Every interview is a little bit different. I actually don't do so much of an interview anymore; I do more of a meeting and just trying to figure out who they are and who I am, and if it's going to fit and what type of teams they'll fit into or what type of customer would they work best with.

What was the best piece of career advice that you've ever gotten?

Harris: I had an old boss of mine tell me to "be true to who I was, and focus on my strengths." Be who you are, because if you spend a lot of time trying to pretend you're something else, it's never going to work. You have to be who you are.

Now, that doesn't mean you don't improve yourself, or you don't look for opportunities to learn and make things better, but you still have to be true to who you are. You find a company or a team or a group of others that fits who you are, and then you do great things together.

Are there any professional groups that you participate in that maybe pertain to women or IT?

Harris: I do work with WITI [Women in Technology International], and we have a group at my own company, at Philips, which is called "Winergy," which does diversities. I'm also a member of that, and through the alums that I'm still associated with.

When you think of how CIO's and IT directors will be measured in terms of success in the next three years, how do you think that's going to be different than the way it is today? What do you think is going to be changing for CIOs in 2016?

Harris: I think that there's a lot of stuff that we measure today that's more operational type of things: availability of your application, availability of your data center, how fast you solved which ticket, those types of things. I think what we're looking at in the future is going to be, how much value did we bring? It's really a value-creation kind of measurement.

It's really not an IT measurement. It's more of a getting together with your partner that is a CMO and implementing your marketing program, and whether or not that marketing program is successful, you're both measured on the success of that. I think it's about how much value you bring.

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