CIO Spotlight: Erik Bailey, Anaqua

What are the CEO's top priorities for you in the coming year? “We are aggressively growing in 2021, both in terms of internal headcount as well as our client roster… this growth requires constant re-evaluation and optimisation of our processes”

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What does good culture fit look like in your organisation? How do you cultivate it?  If you ask anyone working at Anaqua what the best part of the organisation is, odds are they will say, “the people.” The Anaqua culture is as strong as I’ve ever seen in any organisation that I’ve been a part of, and we actually have a team (the Anaqua Culture Team – ACT) to help ensure we don’t lose it! The way I have described our culture (for example, in an interview) is as follows: It’s Friday evening, and you have the responsibility of finalising a release that is about to go out to a client. Just as you are about to leave, you notice a small error – probably not one that the client would notice, but an error, nonetheless. Do you let it ride (since no one is telling you otherwise, and the client probably won’t even see it), or do you sit back down, fix the issue, do a new build, repackage, and then (and only then) ship it out to the client? Our culture is built on choosing that second option – not because someone told you to, but because it’s the right thing to do. We have identified five key areas for our culture: Collaboration, Diversity, Agility, Passion, and Innovation; everything we do is aligned to at least one of those (and often many).

What roles or skills are you finding (or anticipate to be) the most difficult to fill? I find that the hardest roles to fill are those that need to be deeply technical (whether engineering/development or hosting/operations) *and* client-facing. The value that these individuals bring is enormous – not only do they solidly contribute internally, but they are also a critical part of our external presence, bringing instant credibility to the sales and implementation cycles, and also being able to translate real-world requirements and constraints into actual implementation. Someone who can easily pivot from facilitating a design session to actually implementing the resulting business rules can add tremendous value to a team (note that while certainly true for IT, this is also likely true for non-technical fields), increasing efficiencies while ensuring that the solution actually does meet the client (or internal) need. In a world of increasing specialisation, there are still places for generalists!

What's the best career advice you ever received? Use active listening. Everyone loves to hear their words echoed back to them, and the power behind a statement beginning with “What I hear you saying is …” can’t be overstated. Building deep and comfortable rapport with others, whether internal to the organisation or external, is a key factor in career growth, and it has been very valuable for me personally.

Do you have a succession plan? If so, discuss the importance of and challenges with training up high-performing staff. Empowering, delegating, and mentoring are critical for future planning and growth. As tempting as it may be to simply do it yourself (especially if it will be faster/easier), it falls into the classic “fish vs. teach how to fish” trap. High-performing staff may excel at their current role, but in order to grow they need to be knocking at the door to *your* role. Much like training camp for sports, where the highest-paid player isn’t necessarily guaranteed the starting role, everyone should have in mind whose job they want to grow into. This can (and should) be an actual discussion point with the high-performing staff; while it may be awkward if the answer is simply “yours,” it can be a great springboard to a goals discussion (“OK great – what areas of growth should we focus on so you can do my role?”). No one is in a position forever, so almost literally mentoring yourself out of a job is actually smart succession planning.

A big challenge comes from those who may say “I don’t need anything more; I’m happy where I am.” While it is tempting to let this lie, it will likely cause issues because few people want to do the same thing forever. The key is to foster growth and advancement *before* they are needed, setting the stage for future opportunities that may not have even been considered previously. Choosing two or three key characteristics that have allowed you yourself to succeed and working with your high-performing staff to develop those characteristics in themselves, can be immensely rewarding. Not only will the staff grow, but often improvements can be made in your own performance, just as a result of increased attention paid! The net is a win-win not only for each individual but also for the company as a whole.

What advice would you give to aspiring IT leaders? Don’t wait to be told to do something – just go do it. Learn a new skill. Hone an existing skill. Be hungry. Don’t take the easy way out. Listen carefully but have the confidence to make a bold statement where appropriate. And find a mentor to emulate (whether or not they know it!) to give you something to strive for.

What has been your greatest career achievement? I have never focused on traditional measures of career success, even though I have achieved many of them over time (leading teams and projects, progressively more senior titles, etc.). Rather, I focus more on the value I can bring to the organisation. A common thread in many of my roles is that there is a hard problem that needs to be solved (a skills gap in a role/department that needs to be filled, a deeply challenging technical problem that needs analysis and remediation, an important presentation that no one else can do, etc.) and I am asked to step in and lead the effort. Sometimes this is a small project for only a few days or weeks; other times it is a completely new title and department for several years. A sustained record of success is hard, and while certainly I have not been perfect, I am proud of having built a reputation of being able to step in and make a real difference no matter the role.

Looking back with 20:20 hindsight, what would you have done differently? It is often so much easier to perform a task yourself than work with other staff to guide and teach them to do it themselves. While it feels great in the moment to be the one to implement the solution to a problem, it actually doesn’t matter who does it – all that matters is that it gets done. Sharing the wealth, building skills in the team, and enabling everyone to have a turn in the spotlight – those are keys to overall success. If I had to do things differently, I would focus more on mentoring and empowering other staff, giving them more of a chance to share in the successful conclusion of the work.

What are you reading now? I am a big fan of the book Ready Player One and have watched the movie many times. My wife surprised me with Ready Player Two recently, which I hadn’t even known about, and I am enjoying the trip back to the 80’s!

Most people don't know that I… Facilitate a sexuality education curriculum called ‘Our Whole Lives’ for middle school youth (I have also led it at the K-1 and upper-elementary levels). This goes far beyond biology into important topics such as gender, body image, healthy relationships, consent, bullying, and disability. Knowledge is power, and open discussion of these topics, where nothing is off-limits and every question will receive an honest and factual answer, is so empowering for our youth.

In my spare time, I like to…Cook! I love grilling and smoking meat (pulled pork and brisket are my two favorites), but I’ll cook just about anything. Chopping veggies, mixing sauces, and watching the magic of meat cooking over an open flame – that’s how I love to spend a few hours on a weekend!

Ask me to do anything but… Cold call. I have such respect for sales staff who can turn a name on a list into a client just by reaching out in just the right way; it is something I don’t think I could ever do.

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