Filling Your Professional Toolbox: Communication, Cohesion & the ‘Soft Skills’

Jill Yarberry-Laybourn Issue 14 - Nov/Dec 2014, Technology Leave a Comment

Strasburger & Price LLP CIO Joan Holman sheds light on the cross-functional application of customer service skills

It seems common among a number of Chief Information Officers (CIOs) that they didn’t necessarily set out to become information technology (IT) leaders. With a little luck here, an opportunity there, all mixed in with a love of problem-solving, however, voilá, a CIO is born!

Well, it isn’t actually quite that simple, but there seems to be a pattern involving a willingness to work hard and a desire to have a positive impact on their business and team, as is the case with Joan Holman, CIO at Strasburger & Price LLP.

‘Soft Skills’ with Lasting Effects

Holman made her start with a small investment company in an administrative role. Later, she attended a Fidelity Investment “cattle call,” and fortuitously was sent over to the group handling their online trading software.

“It was fairly cutting-edge, so I went there and worked on their phones,” Holman said.

While in that role, she gained a huge appreciation for the customer service end of a business, or the “soft skills” she continues to put to good use today.


Filling the Toolbox

Then Holman went to Ericsson, which had more than 100,000 internal users worldwide, affording her the opportunity to see the “other side from the technology perspective.” Holman was given opportunities to work on a number of global projects, and she learned “how you can use technology and put all those pieces together to have an impact on the organization.”

With other companies, she acquired a number of additional skills to fill her IT toolbox. At Safety-Kleen, they “moved away from homegrown applications to deliver business processes,” so she developed an understanding of how the business worked and how IT supported those functions. Then Holman moved on to “yet another industry and market,” a life sciences company called Sigma Aldrich, where she honed her leadership skills and successfully managed direct reports based in 15 countries.

Today, she is applying her vast skills and knowledge at Strasburger & Price, a premier Texas law firm.  While Holman has been on board just beyond a year now, she has seen the IT Department increase its value to the firm in a number of ways.

Using the Tools in the Toolbox

Holman’s first order of business at Strasburger & Price was applying that fundamental understanding of and appreciation for the customer service end of IT.

“The revenue comes from the attorneys working,” she noted, so her goal was to make sure they had what they needed. Holman knew from conversations with attorneys that they weren’t getting the level of support they felt they required.

“Our role is to help them to be able to work when they need to and how they need to,” Holman said. “Part of the challenge of working with attorneys is we need to accommodate and be flexible to work with their schedule.”

To accomplish her customer service goals, Holman promoted one individual who had strongly demonstrated such skills to manage the Customer Service Group, which included both the help desk and leading those individuals who were out supporting attorneys in the field. Another strategy Holman developed and executed for improving customer service was minimizing the ticket backlog from the 200 to 300 range to the present average of 20 a day when the department is fully staffed.

Although the feedback has been positive, Holman knows the work isn’t done. “Customer service is ongoing. It isn’t a project, it’s a mindset,” she said. “We are always going to do everything we can to deliver excellent service. To get that embedded, you are never done.”

Open Lines of Communication

Communication has been a critical component not only to improving customer service, but also to increasing IT’s value to the business. Part of that communication piece is providing consistent and accurate information so “people know what is going on,” according to Holman. “In the absence of information, people make it up, so I would rather tell them what is going on.”

An increase in communication between IT and end-users has been essential, as has communication between IT team members themselves.

“One question I always ask and expect an answer to is, ‘What will the impact be on our end-users?’ Is it going to be a five-minute outage? How do we minimize impact? If it is something new on their [the attorneys’] desktop, how are we communicating that? How are we providing education and training if needed?”


Day-to-Day & Beyond

The next order of business for Holman was—and continues to be—innovation. In order for IT to innovate, they have to understand the business.

“The more we understand it, the more we can identify the potential opportunities for technology to assist the business,” Holman said.

She believes IT has two sides, with the first being keeping the day-to-day functions operating. “If you are not getting your email, you don’t need to worry about anything else.” The second side is seeing the bigger picture of what is happening and thinking about where the business, along with IT, can go. Part of that innovation process is collaboration. By having conversations with the attorneys, they may discover “opportunities to bring in IT solutions that can be a benefit to our firm and our clients.”

Holman’s innovative thinking and planning doesn’t always include the latest and greatest. She admits, “It is next to impossible to stay up with [new technology]. Otherwise, I could be doing that 24 hours a day without actually accomplishing anything.”

Instead of just looking at new technology, Holman and her team look for ways to maximize the technology they already have. “I don’t believe the innovation has to necessarily be a brand-new tool set,” she said. “We ask how we can use our existing resources more creatively to bring value.”

Learning From Every Experience

Holman’s path to IT and to Strasburger & Price hasn’t always been predictable, and she wouldn’t have it any other way. She wasn’t afraid to take on new roles she hadn’t considered before. And now, Holman advises up-and-coming career seekers to open themselves up to novel experiences.

“You can always learn something from every experience,” she said. “Sometimes you learn by stubbing your toe or falling on your knee, and sometimes you learn from everything going well.”

It is clear Holman has the characteristics of many successful CIOs. She is creative, flexible and energetic.

“Success is a very personal measure,” Holman said. “It is really being of value, and that value is recognized. When we work cohesively, people are enjoying their work, having fun and providing value.”


Jill YarberryLaybourn is a freelance writer based in Colorado.

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