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The Smartest Thing CIO Phil Bertolini Ever Did

Deputy County Executive and CIO of Oakland County, Mich. Phil Bertolini talks about the importance of building and maintaining a team.

Editor's note: In this series, Public CIO set forth to find answers from several of the nation’s top CIOs who have served or currently are in state, local and federal positions. These firsthand accounts are about how establishing partnerships, trusting and letting go, investing in people, and assessing situations have all been instrumental to smart decision-making.

Building and Maintaining a Team

As a parent, I strive to teach my children that they will be successful not simply by being smart but because they work hard. I was raised in a blue-collar automotive home where my parents taught us that a strong work ethic would get you somewhere…being smart helps you along the way. When I was asked to write this article about the smartest thing I have done as a CIO, I pondered over whether I should focus on a smart decision or something I worked really hard at. I chose to share something I worked very hard at: building and maintaining my team.

When I first began my career at Oakland County Information Technology 12 years ago, I had the good fortune to be what many organizations label “a known commodity.” Most of the IT team members knew me from my role as the administrator of Equalization or the property tax assessor, and from how I interacted with them as a partner that consumed their IT services. 

On my first day, I met with the entire staff and began to share my philosophy on how we would move forward together. I stated that I believed that “technology is the easy part and getting people to use the technologies we build is the hard part.” If I remember correctly, I could hear crickets chirping because the room went dead silent. They were not too fond of my comments. I knew I had my work cut out for me if I was going to transform my team into a partner focused organization. I realized that success within our organization would be possible if we had a team that understood our vision and pushed us forward.

We began the transformation by building a strong management team that harnessed various individual strengths into collective strengths. We created strategic plans and master plans that clearly outlined our future direction and managed the expectations of our partners in the government business units. We trained our internal staff on strong project management methodologies and ITIL standards. We continued to provide value to the organization by driving new innovative programs to meet our partners’ needs.

Our successes were piling up, and then in 2007, the economic depression hit Michigan. We were faced with making structural budget reductions like pay reductions, benefit reductions, capital spending reductions, just to name a few. Our team began managing the crisis forced upon us by the economy while still trying to be innovative. The good news is that we fared well through these tough economic times. We continually balanced our budgets and did not have to lay off employees along the way. Now, in 2013, our latest challenge is the recruitment and retention of qualified IT employees. We are once again back to building or rebuilding our team.

Recently, we were having our weekly steering committee meeting when the discussion became very contentious. We were caught in a struggle to manage our limited resources while still trying to deliver a quality product. Tempers flared and we began to dig in for a long fight, a fight we did not need to have. These heated discussions reminded me that I had to step back and remember what made us successful in the first place, the people. 

We need to focus on our team and the people we serve by providing professional development, by providing a quality workplace, by making innovation the top priority and finally by remembering the words I used in our first staff meeting, “technology is the easy part and getting people to use the technologies we build is the hard part.” 

If I were to make that same statement to a full staff meeting today, the attendees would applaud the remarks because the smartest thing I have done as a CIO is to empower our team to be successful by providing enabling technologies to our partners. It wasn’t just a smart decision; we worked hard to make it a successful decision.

Visit this link for more in our "Smartest Thing" series.