CIO-turned-CEO Kevin Hart on developing successful IT leaders

Kevin Hart was named chief executive officer of Segra, one of the nation’s largest independent fiber network companies, following an 11-year tenure as executive vice president and chief product and technology officer for Cox Communications. Hart’s journey from CIO to CEO is a story of intention and grit, with an equal focus on lifting others as he’s climbed. It’s also an example of the unique strengths technology leaders bring to the top job when they combine their technical, operational, and transformational expertise with strategic, innovative leadership to grow the business.

On a recent episode of the Tech Whisperers podcast, Hart, who also served as CIO at both Clearwire and Level 3 Communications, shared his journey to the CEO role and the leadership principles and mindset that have served him so successfully along the way. We also discussed his dedication to elevating those around him by developing and mentoring countless CIOs and technology leaders over the years.

After the show, we spent some more time talking about why he is so intentional about growing leaders, his advice for building a world-class IT leadership team, and how he sustains a high-performance, high-engagement culture. What follows is that conversation, edited for length and clarity.

Dan Roberts: With 50 CIOs who’ve been through the program you put together called CIO University, and the countless other leaders who’ve benefitted from your mentoring and teaching, you have a proven track record when it comes to developing successful leaders. What core values or key pillars guide you?

Hart: First is having clarity of vision. You have to paint the vision — and realize that different people connect with different forms. Some of it’s going to be verbal, but some could be graphical, some could be experiential. It’s about illustrating the vision for people in ways that they can connect with.

You also have to understand what business you’re in, how your company makes money, how people thrive, and how they connect with their communities, their customers, and employees — and then translate that down to individual people’s roles. How do they help the company be successful? Too many people don’t understand what makes your company tick, and that’s a problem. So that’s always been a big part of CIO University, and it’s just my philosophy in general. Get people up to speed, give them a little mini-MBA on how your company operates.

Teamwork is another pillar. Everyone says it, but you have to actually enable it. You have to reward people for teaming. You have to provide them feedback if they’re not teaming to make sure they’re collaborating and sharing best practices, because more likely than not, these functions are interdependent. They’re codependent on one another upstream or downstream. So you’ve got to have a passion for teamwork.

You’ve also got to believe in what you’re doing. If you don’t, then stop doing it because it’s not worth the effort. You’ve got to believe you’re doing something good, and you have to have the passion to do it. Coupled with that is perseverance. You’re going to have some tough days and setbacks. You’re going to have some outages. You’re going to have some vendor failures. You’re going to have some stakeholders who don’t believe you can get the job done. But you have to overcome until you get there.

Honesty and trust are also essential, and you build them by being transparent. Tell people what you know. Tell people what you don’t know. And then go find out what you don’t know. And then go make it happen.

Last, but not least, pay for performance, or help individuals achieve their professional success, because it’s not always about money. Sometimes it’s about recognition, new opportunities, or just feeling like a valuable part of the team.

Those are some of the values that guide me that I share with my team. I’m sure I’m not perfect, but I try to put those into motion, because I think your behavior and your actions speak a lot louder than a poster on the wall.

When it comes to teamwork, what’s your advice to CIOs who have a team they need to turn around? Where do they begin?

First and foremost, as the leader, you have to believe. You have to set the tone around optimism. And you get people to continue to believe when you interject realism: ‘Guess what, folks, we’re not as good as we think we are in certain areas, and to become best in class, we’re going to have to improve. We’re going to have to make investments. We’re going to have to get the CEO of that vendor on the phone once a week until we get that solution put in place.’

You have to recognize even minor victories along the way but not get too distracted, because you’ve got more to accomplish, and there are going to be some steep hurdles to overcome. And you need to get your team and your leaders to believe. Build that strong sense of belief that we can become the best, we can do it, and we’re going to build on our success. Even if you don’t believe 100%, you have to act like you believe 100% until you get there.

Do that and the next thing you know, you’ll be beyond where you set your goals because of that belief, the force multiplier effect of the optimism of the team, the collective talents of the team, and just that passion, perseverance, and winning culture that celebrates success along the way. Because success breeds success.

What are some of the things you do as a leader to make sure people are able to do their best work every day? How do you create that culture and sustain it?

We have a weekly cross-functional meeting with the top leaders in the company where we go through every major function, every major KPI, and we talk about our successes, and we talk about our challenges. I’m able to learn a fair amount from that and ask pretty decent questions and also bring solutions to the team.

I think when the leadership is modeling the behavior, it shows that we are a team. We’re going to do whatever it takes to get to where we need to be, and we’re going to help each other out. That breeds camaraderie and teamwork and a can-do spirit as opposed to people feeling like they need to cover their bases or just look out for themselves.

What motivated you to invest time and money into leadership development and CIO University? What’s the ROI on that?

As every good team leader or coach knows, you’re only as good as the players on your team. If you go back 10 or 20 years ago, a lot of the really proficient technology leaders weren’t necessarily as astute in terms of business acumen, so they got a lot of pushback from CFOs around the cost investments. I thought, why don’t we build a bridge between our stakeholders and educate our teams on things like what it means to hit your quarterly revenue or EBITDA numbers, what it means when you’re trying to generate free cash flow, etc., so that we can walk in their shoes and, in turn, do a better job delivering to benefit them and us.

A lot of it was around communication, personality types, and business acumen. I started getting feedback from my stakeholders like, ‘It’s working. Your team is actually listening and they’re compromising to find win-win solutions that can move the business forward.’

I also created something called the value meter that captures revenue growth, cost reduction, and vendor cost optimization. I had one instance a few years ago that generated $1.4 billion in cost savings, cost avoidance, or revenue enablement. When you sit down with the CFO or stakeholders and talk about the financial problems of the company, and you deliver solutions that contribute to the financial success of the company, that gets their attention. You can only do that if you have a team that understands how the business operates and can communicate, connect, and deliver to benefit the growth of the company. Those are just a couple of examples of how I know that the investment in your team pays off.

You’re also trying to build a great workplace. I’ve taken over teams in the past with engagement scores and employee NPS scores that were below average for the company. Because of the communication skills of the leaders that we were fostering and investing in, those scores, in most instances, had increased to be at par or at the top of the company. Employees like to communicate with their supervisors and be heard and provide input.

Fundamentally, most of technology is about people, so investing in your leaders to help them enable others to rise to the occasion is definitely a worthwhile value proposition.

Your CIO, Rose Chambers, told me that one of your biggest assets is that you listen before speak. Does that come from your consultant training?

I think so. When you show up as a consultant, you’re not there to tell them how great you are; you’re there to help them solve their problems. You’re asking, what problems do you have, what are you trying to solve, and then you can start pairing up your particular solutions or scenarios that might be a fit for what they need. At the end of the day, they’re only going to hire you or engage you if you can actually help them be successful in their roles.

In general, I’m a lot more analytical than otherwise, so I’m trying to listen and process information. I look for patterns and solutions before speaking. I also try to keep in mind that when I, as the leader, say something, people will start to line up around that, and it might not be the best outcome. I’ll caveat things by saying, ‘Here’s an idea. It doesn’t have to be this way, but let’s start with this and then see if we can make it better.’ I want to avoid a situation where people just say, ‘Well, he said this, so that’s what we have to do,’ because I’ve seen that a lot and it doesn’t tend to end up that well.

Dan Roberts: From your vantage point as CEO, what advice would you offer CIOs and IT leaders about how to make the biggest impact?

Now that I’m the CEO, I look at the CIO role and think, wow, that was a lot harder than I could ever imagine it being. When you’re in the middle of it, you just do what you have to do. But when you’re observing the situation, she or he is supporting every function in the company. Everybody wants something, everybody wants it yesterday for low cost or free, and it just doesn’t work that way. So you need to be able to navigate, be a consultant, and put financial priorities in place, because you have to protect your team, too — you can’t just burn them out. You basically have to be an international ambassador of goodwill to try to keep the peace with everybody and keep the progress moving for the company.

At the end of the day, you need to stay focused on, what business problem are we trying to solve? Is it revenue? Is it EBITDA? Customer experience? It sounds like an easy question to ask, but in too many meetings, people have no idea what they’re trying to solve. Ask that question. Get focused in on the solutions, and as a CIO or technology leader, translate the tech talk into business speak. Then be a partner and a consultant and you’re going to end up in a good spot.

For more insights from the leadership playbook of CIO-turned-CEO Kevin Hart, tune in to the Tech Whisperers podcast.

IT Leadership, Mentoring