Could you tell me how you got started in IT career and ended up in your current role?
I think the easiest way to describe the early part of my career was as a professional problem solver. I spent over a decade at my first organization and I was basically dropped into wherever we had a gap or an issue. Over the course of seven or eight years, I did all kinds of things – built financial reporting packages, ran a warehouse, launched a product line of lighting – but the pattern was always the same. I would move into a role, create structure and definition, then hire my replacement and move on. I lived so many lives that when the organization decided to do an ERP, they asked me to be a Subject Matter Expert. It wasn’t long after that, I became a Business Analyst and the rest is history. I’ve never moved far from my roots as a problem solver and translator – I think that’s reflected in how I think about technology and in the culture of the teams I build.
What was your childhood dream career and why?
In elementary school, I remember laying on big sheets of paper and tracing the outline of your body – then you were supposed to fill in the outline with what you wanted to be when you grew up. I remember the teacher asking (after she looked at my work) “So you want to be an astronaut?” I said, “No, I want to be a Voltron pilot!” Sadly, it turns out that flying giant, robotic lions that come together to fight world-threatening monsters is not a viable career path.
What is the one habit which you tend to do on a regular basis which has made you successful in your career?
You know, this sounds so silly and basic but it’s so true – Deliver. If you make a commitment, just deliver on it. Don’t make people follow up or wonder, just become someone that others can rely on. It’s so powerful on so many levels – especially as a leader where you don’t have a transactional body of work to rely on, and it’s really about your credibility.
Can you talk about your most recent project which you completed recently, what business results did it achieve, 2 obstacles or challenges you faced and how you overcame it?
We are on the tail end of an ERP implementation, so while I can’t talk about the business results just yet, I can tell you what I expect to happen. We’ve automated a lot of steps in a variety of processes and moved to a “manage the exceptions” model. I’m really hoping that lots of people have more engaging roles because we’re asking them to use their judgment and be valuable to other human beings – as opposed to doing route keystroking. The second thing that I am hoping we accomplish is the reduction of friction between various working groups in the organization. By creating transparency and shared access to data, we hope to align groups towards a shared goal.
Like all ERP implementations, it’s complicated and difficult. For me, personally, I really learned the value of formal governance – of having those project and program infrastructures in place to keep things organized and transparent. That’s not in my nature – I tend to move fast, iterate and tackle things more like a creative project but that’s a definite mismatch with something that has a scope so large. You have to be more methodical because you can’t keep track of everything like you would if it were a small or medium-sized initiative.
What is your leadership philosophy and how do you keep the team engaged and motivate them?
I don’t think I can answer that question without first talking about how I like to build teams that I am a part of. When we add people to the team, we’re looking for two major attributes – curiosity and soft skills. When I say soft skills, I mean things like self-awareness, emotional intelligence, and the ability to influence and build relationships. Technical skills – regardless of role – are table stakes.
Doing that means that we have a group of people that have passions, relationships and are explorers – they want to come in, do new things, and help other people. That gets to the heart of my leadership philosophy – growth and mentorship. I want to find the thing that really engages each employee, give them some guardrails and then turn them loose. Sometimes those interests are highly aligned to their role, and other times it might be a specific technology or theme – so we try to ensure those folks get to be involved in related projects or opportunities. We are always asking, “What gets you out of bed in the morning?” because while we can’t change lots of responsibilities in a given role, we can ensure that you get access to the stuff that really engages you.
With the current COVID 19 situation, what are 2 or 3 key challenges you faced and how are you managing them effectively?
We are a company of relationships. You can see it in our motto: “We take plastics personally.” There was so much unstructured, social connectivity happening in our main office that it’s not until you take that option away that you realize just how effective it was in so many ways. It was a way to socialize ideas, deliver news, get that quick answer, or build relationships outside of the people you normally transact with – and that’s not including the main purpose of building a sense of culture and community.
Research is fairly consistent – your core working group feels just as connected as it did in the office. It’s the secondary and tertiary social rings – the serendipitous run-ins, the emergent “oh my gosh, you watch that too?” conversations and connections that have slipped away and don’t really have a great substitute. How do you digitally “pop by” someone’s desk? A chat? A Teams Meeting?
If you saw someone standing and waiting for the coffee machine to finish, you know that they are available to talk about last night’s episode of your shared favorite show. Sitting at my desk, looking at their Outlook availability indicator is the closest thing I have to try and replicate that – when do I know the right time to drop by? I think that’s the next generation and focus of innovation, more social and collaborative innovation that mimics the random run-ins we had in the office.
With the current COVID 19 situation, can you list 1 key project which was given more attention, the reason for it, and what results did it achieve for your business?
We have a team of Technical Development Engineers that help our clients tackle issues on their shop floor – ranging from resin selection to fine-tuning how to run that particular resin through their machines. It’s another way where we really try to elevate our relationship with our customers – it’s not just about selling resin, but about helping our clients achieve that ultimate outcome, making the desired part in a successful way.
With the pandemic, those visits came to a screeching halt. We had engineers that felt like they could be doing so much more but were hamstrung by phone-based consultations. We had clients that were trying to adapt to new market conditions and needed that help more than ever. So, the Commercial team came up with an idea – “What if we could send some kind of glasses to the client and we could see what they’re seeing and be able to talk to them at the same time.”
The Virtual TDE project was born and it’s currently being piloted. We found smart glasses that met our various requirements and interfaced directly into our Microsoft Teams client. It meant that we could have any number of M. Holland resources on that call to provide feedback and support to the client’s engineer. It was definitely a situation where once the idea surfaced, everybody dropped everything to make it happen as fast as they could. Leveraging IoT, we were able to digitize our service experience which will create new service lines for our company. The implementation is currently in progress with safety as the key principle for the shop floor technicians.
With COVID 19 was there a project which was pushed on the back burner, given a low priority in your company and the reason for it?
I don’t know if there was a project that was put off – so much as roadmaps and future goals were generally pushed out in favor of adaptation and flexibility in the moment.
With teams working remotely now, what 1 or 2 key activities do you do more with your team to increase engagement with the teams?
Before COVID, our team had a monthly lunch, the “Mu-nch” where there were no work conversations allowed. Two people from the team would be in charge of the Munch and they would coordinate ordering food and supplying some kind of activity. We’ve done everything from paper airplane contests to egg drop challenges, to the Werewolf game. It had such a big impact on the fabric of our team culture.
The group was adamant about keeping the tradition up even though we have been working from home – so the current challenge is actually finding web-based activities that 15 people can play simultaneously. Most recently we started using educational games designed for classrooms because they are designed for bigger numbers of participants. It’s not the same, but it has been helpful to maintain the connection with team members that you don’t transactionally interact with on a regular basis.
With remote teams, what activity have you stopped doing or doing less which seems to be less effective in this situation?
Prior to COVID, I got a lot of stuff done by simply walking. If I saw someone that I needed an answer from and they were free BAM! I could cross it off my list. All that’s changed. You’re forced to either chat with them intermittently or save up those questions and then book a formal meeting. So, in some ways, it’s transformed my casual, informal process into something more premeditated. I definitely don’t love that change.
What is the one trend you see in Manufacturing happening now and how do you think companies should adapt to this new trend based on your experience?
I am definitely not qualified to answer this one in detail but I would say, at the highest level, Digital Manufacturing. We have a great team that operates in that space and every time they host a webinar or talk about the state of affairs in the marketplace, you walk away with your mind blown. There are so many opportunities to change what the manufacturing floor looks like – but it has to be done with context. There’s no blanket “you should change x for y” – it’s about understanding what that current piece of equipment is intended to do and then really presenting options that fulfill that same need.
If you want to advise students who are looking for an IT career, What would be the 2 or 3 things you would advise them to follow now to get a job quickly?
In my opinion, being a successful IT Professional is about listening and solving problems, not about technology. The coolest piece of technology is only great if it makes sense for the situation. To me, being in the IT space is about being a problem solver every day – whether you are trying to diagnose a network issue, find a way to code a feature, or document that end-users vision with requirements. All of those are fundamentally creative endeavors with lots of ways to achieve them – and almost none of them are about technology.
The second thing I would say is about soft skills and emotional intelligence. If you are a really skilled Analytics Developer, that will get you a long way – but if you can sit down with someone and have them explain what they are trying to achieve, and you can grasp it, iterate on it, improve it and go on that journey with them – really help them ultimately define their vision, that’s where you become invaluable. And that’s not really about your technical acumen, it’s about soft skills.
What are 1 or 2 key traits or skills you look for in choosing a candidate for the role apart from the technical skills in your interviews?
Curiosity. Are you generally interested in the world and asking questions? If so, you’re going to make your own treadmill of growth if we give you the right environment. You’re going to be able to figure out what to do next, to tinker, and ultimately discover new ideas without anyone directing you to solve that specific question.
Soft Skills. The ability to connect with others, listen (and listen between the lines), be self-aware, build relationships, socialize new ideas, and apply influence in situations where you may not be the decision-maker. Those are critical skills in the life of a person whose job is perpetual delivery of change – because let’s be honest, that’s what technology is – change.
Is there a gotcha you would advise students or job seekers not to do when they do an interview?
There is nothing on your phone that will not wait the 45-60 minutes for your interview to be over. Don’t even bring it inside, leave it in your car. If you can’t focus on something as pivotal as a job interview, what does that tell me about your future ability to focus when your co-workers are trying to talk to you?
Can you list 1 or 2 tips that you have used in your career to differentiate yourself from your peers which have helped you to position yourself and move up the career ladder?
I think doing the work on yourself, reflecting on what you want, why did you interview for this job, what do you like about the company – really coming prepared with those answers so that managers and interviewers can see your thought process and depth. For me, that’s been a lot about treating the technology team like a creative enterprise – that’s fresh, and authentic and not something most people expect to hear when they ask that question. Finding those nuggets that highlight what makes you a different kind of thinker or practitioner are critical.
For folks who are aspiring to become the next IT directors or CIOs, Can you list 1 or 2 challenges the current IT leaders face which prevent them from going up the ladder?
Any time you move from that expert practitioner role into a management role, there’s this sense of “what am I supposed to be doing?” Yesterday, I wrote code or I managed the network – there were tangible results that I wholly owned that I could point to. The second you step into that Director role, your job is totally different. Your job is about enabling the person who took the gig you left open, your job is about charting the course of your team and delivering value to the organization – about connecting your team to the managerial layers above and the strategy. When you go home on a Wednesday afternoon, you do not have anything to show for that day’s work – if you did things right, the fruits of that labor don’t manifest until ten or twelve months from now. There’s an absence of feedback because the nature of the work is longer term, slower moving, and more hypothetical. How do you know your strategy worked? Results. But, between launching that strategy and seeing those results, that’s a no man’s land defined by your own confidence and research. That’s a tough place to be, especially when you used to know exactly how you were doing based on how much code you wrote or how many tickets you resolved.
Can you list 1 or 2 skills that you highly recommend folks to develop or learn which will help them move up?
Spend time understanding the other parts of the business, take that free “how to read Financials” class, dig into the steps of the sales process, be curious about the organization beyond the technology team. Those future leadership roles require that context, require that you not only understand your team’s strategy but also how it fits into the bigger picture.
As the technology and innovation leader at the M. Holland Company, Neil is responsible for establishing information technology strategies, digital organization change, and outstanding user experiences. His multi-disciplinary background includes previous lives in accounting, project management, and investigation while his recent work has focused on building technology teams around cultures of creativity. He received his Bachelor of Arts in Criminal Justice from the University of Illinois at Chicago, and a Master of Business Administration in Operations Management from the UIC Liautaud Graduate School of Business. He continues to have strong ties to the UIC campus, where he mentors a cohort of high performing students as part of the Business Scholars program.
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