CI&TO Abhi Dhar on embracing challenges and growing IT leaders

Abhi Dhar has had a rich career journey, from serving as chief digital officer of a Fortune 50 company to co-founding a tech startup. In his current role as executive vice president and chief information and technology officer at TransUnion, he’s responsible for all aspects of the company’s technology, including strategy, security, applications, operations, infrastructure, and delivery of solutions that support its global information systems and associates.

Just as notable as Dhar’s career credentials are the quiet calm and genuine humility that mark his leadership style. When we spoke for a recent episode of the Tech Whisperers podcast, we explored his vision around transformation and his ability to operate with a business-first, customer-first, and people-first mindset. Afterwards, he shared some more advice for up-and-coming digital leaders and explained why it’s worth choosing to do the hard things. What follows is that conversation, edited for length and clarity.

Dan Roberts: You’ve been a C-level executive for a Fortune 50 company, a startup founder, and on the board of airline. What are the benefits of these diverse experiences, and how have they positioned you to be a better CI&TO for TransUnion?

Abhi Dhar: You look at business from all different sides and you realize that businesses are just these contraptions that are supposed to generate cash and cover their expenses and create profit and pay back their owners. And hopefully the contraption itself is of value so the owners get more value out of it. That’s capitalism.

When you’re in a Fortune 50 corporation, you realize that it’s this enormous contraption, but it still does the same thing. And when you’re raising a million and a half in seed capital, and you’re trying to build this contraption, it’s still the same thing, just at scale. That just burns an owner’s or a founder’s mindset into you, and it gives context to decision-making. So does being on a board. This whole notion of ‘Somebody’s money created this thing and you owe them something back’ becomes very important.

It also has helped me spot talent. There are people who, when you have a conversation like this, they get it. Then there are people who are just compliant. They’re an organizational component. They’re not mission people. You need them, but they’re componentry, not value creators.

What are some of the challenges startup founders or those working in small companies have when they move to big, legacy corporations?

Big corporations, especially public corporations, have an established business model. You have risk and audit and all of these people trying to make sure that nothing wrong happens. This thing is working, it’s generating money, let’s not mess with it.

A lot of startup founders, when they join a corporation, get frustrated. They’ll criticize it constantly: ‘I can’t do this, I can’t do that, I can’t innovate.’ Yes, it’s a tanker. You were on a speedboat. They’re two very different things. Don’t criticize the tanker for being a tanker. It does something. It creates a value. If we want to change something, let’s be very considerate about it.

You mentioned your ability to spot talent. You also have a reputation for developing talent and growing the next generation, including many leaders who’ve moved on to become great CIOs in their own right. Why is that a priority for you?

At this point in my life, I’ve realized that if you can harness the strange, undefinable characteristics of human beings, when they get fired up and work together, they can do magical things. That’s how great things happen. So that’s what I’m focused on.

The greatest joy I get is when I hear stories about people like Greg Michelini, who was one of the people who asked a ‘mystery question’ during the podcast. There are 20 or 25 people in my career who are now CIOs of large companies, and as I look back, it’s those stories I think about. It’s this person who didn’t think they could do something, and they did it and they’re now a CIO and they look back fondly on what you did. Except you didn’t really do anything; they did it.

The most successful CIOs make ‘people’ the first pillar of their strategy, and it seems like that is deeply engrained in your approach to leadership. How do you make it part of the culture of your organization?

I’ve never forgotten how hard it is to be a technologist. When there is a crisis, when a site is down, when a system is down, when a release is not going right, it feels like the end of the world. It is extremely stressful. And the people who deal with that stress the most are junior- to mid-level executives. These are people with small children. These are parents who are just grinding it out. And sometimes the systems we work on are used by people who are also going through these same things. This is humanity. That’s what we’re doing, and that’s why it’s so important for us to think about the culture and say people are not expendable.

As engineers, if we can’t avoid something that’s going to create troubles for ourselves later on — where we’ll have to jump on a crisis call or do something that would cause a colleague to jump on a crisis call — we shouldn’t do it. I can’t write do’s and don’ts and FAQs about it. But I can appeal to people’s desire to do the right thing and to work as part of a collective.

Your senior vice president of global technology platforms, Deepika Dugirala, has described software development as a creative process, comparing it to “creating a painting, carving a sculpture, writing a symphony or making pottery.” What’s your take on that?

If you look at those people like Elon Musk and Steve Jobs and others who have created an insane amount of value, nobody would argue with you about whether or not they’re creative. The people who become engineers, they’re the fixers and the tinkerers — because they’re creative. They want to make something. If we’re not careful, we’ll kill their creativity. Part of it comes from refusing to acknowledge that they’re engineers. We keep referring to them as IT — not that anything is wrong with IT, but the function of IT is not engineering.

You’ve said that the first time you became a head of technology you wrestled with imposter syndrome and had to prove to yourself that you could actually be the head of technology. How have you dealt with imposter syndrome over the years, and what’s your advice to the rest of us?

Imposter syndrome is a real thing. I used to think, I have to go to all these CIO meetings because now I’m the CIO, and I need to remind myself that I’m the CIO. It’s that constant worry of, am I good enough, can I do this job, what if something happens? Thankfully, I’m sort of beyond that.

I think one way I’ve managed it is that, given choices, I choose the harder thing. And then I’ll think, oh my God, I’m done. But somehow, some way, some force carries me forward. People around me support me and I make it to the other side. And once I’ve made it through, I’ll say, I’m never going to do that again. I’m going to take the easy path. And sure enough, two days later I’m back at it. And I’ll be thinking, why did I do that? There was an easier path! Why would I join a board? Why did I do a startup? Why would I go to a financial services corporation when I’m a retail guy — I don’t know anything about financial services. This is so hard!

But somehow, we make it. And somehow, slowly, that little voice that says you can’t do it starts feeling less important, because now you’ve done it. The most important thing is, if you’re completely devoted to the service that your role is supposed to provide to the organization and overly focused on it, then it’s kind of like you’re not even in it. It’s not about you at all.

You are intentional about pushing people beyond their comfort zones. Could you speak to those across our profession who are climbing the ladder but can’t seem to break through to the next level?

I am an immigrant. I came to the US, didn’t know anybody, and constantly wondered if I was good enough. By happenstance and luck, I ended up in situations where I needed help, so I sought out mentors and they helped me. Because of what happened to me, when other people are stuck and don’t see how they can really progress as professionals, I’m able to spot it.

I remember having this conversation with Greg, telling him he needed to take the job at this Fortune 10 company and be responsible for our pharmacy systems, from a tech point of view and from a customer point of view and from a business point of view. I said, ‘You’re the best of the best. What are you doing running around here being like a bureaucrat? Go do this.’ He was like, ‘That’s crazy. That’s so risky.’ And I said, ‘Yeah, but you’ve got it, man. If I did it, so can you.’

There are multiple people like that, and it’s not because I have some great foresight. It’s just that I made a lot of stupid mistakes, and I can point out to people how that’s going to end. So it’s very important that I do that. That’s also where I talk about ‘flipping the script,’ because a lot of people will say, this is the script. And I keep telling them, no, you’re none of those things. You are this person who can do this by generating this much value because you understand this. Once you provide that clarity to people, they do great things.

The biggest success in my life outside of my family is all these great people. They are amazing CIOs. If they worked for me, and they’re a CIO, I’m telling you right now, I give you my reference: You send them into any battle, and they will win.

For more wisdom and insights from Abhi Dhar’s leadership playbook, tune in to the Tech Whisperers podcast.

IT Leadership