How Taking the Indirect Path Can Lead to a More Fruitful Career

Frederick Jerant Executive Features, Technology Leave a Comment

Clark Hill’s CIO, Steve Ratliff, shares how taking opportunities that gave him a broader base of experience has paid off

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“Friedman Williams provides Temporary, Contract, Consulting and Direct-Hire staffing in Information Technology geared towards clients nationwide with large candidate pools in most local regions across the country. We are honored to be named as one of Steve Ratliff’s strategic partners.”
-Jonathan Friedman, Managing Director, Friedman Williams

Legendary Major League Baseball star Yogi Berra famously said, “When you come to a fork in the road, take it.”

In 1996, Steve Ratliff found himself at such a fork – and his choice taught him a lesson that he applies to this day.

At the time, he was the director of customer services for NPRI, Inc., a software company that supported the call-center industry. “We were a small company, about to be swallowed up,” he recalled, “and I had been looking for other opportunities. At the same time, I was hearing repeatedly from call-center companies that were trying to fill various positions.

“I knew the industry well and had many contacts, so I decided to form GateSource Partners,” a nationwide executive search firm.

“We were obligated to gain a better understanding of many companies, and their various parts,” he said. “Not just their IT concerns, but how their chemistries worked together to meet strategic objectives, and how it all fit into the marketplace.

“It’s easy to develop a narrow focus, but I found that it’s better to learn about the broader economy, and how the whole marketplace works,” he said.

Just six years later, the telecom market crashed – and Ratliff eventually dissolved the business. “It’s the nature of the environment. When the market goes flat, then really drops off, you have to make some tough decisions.”

And they were tough. Cut costs? Or try to ride it out? What to cut – employees? Tracking systems? The complex phone system? If I cut staff, what are my criteria? And how will all of this affect relationships with clients?

Ratliff’s big takeaway was this – rip off the band-aid. In other words, “Try to be clinical and objective, and then make your decision. Don’t belabor the process. Do what you must to minimize your losses,” he said.

8Z5Y7620Back to the IT field

During the next nine years, he was a consultant to Executive Compass LLC (Detroit), EurotaxGlass’s Group (Zurich) and Solera (Madrid), and served  a six-year hitch as  senior director –  global price and specifications data factory (GPSDF) for R. L. Polk & Company in Detroit.

It was a unique role for him – leading teams of researchers in over 20 countries, and eight data suppliers located in Europe, Africa and Asia. Their mission? Collect the specs for over 200,000 vehicles scattered across nearly four dozen countries on six continents.

The international focus was an eye-opener. “I realized that America sees the rest of world through its own lens,” he said. “We’re very objective-focused: determine a goal, set a date for completion, and hit it.

“But other cultures are different, and what works in Detroit might not work in Portugal. For example, much of Europe is more family-focused; in the Mediterranean, people tend to start work later – but they also stay later. And it took me a while to learn how to navigate those differences, still get the job done without offending anyone.”

Ratliff told of a German team leader who, when asked to put in a bit of overtime, simply refused. “He normally had dinner with his family at 5:30 every day, and structure and stability was very important to him. I soon learned to give more-advanced notice in situations like that one.”

He also found that, by involving the staff in formulating the solution to a problem, their sense of ownership made them more willing to be flexible. “That was a great leadership lesson,” Ratliff said.


Time for some changes

When he joined Clark Hill PLC as its chief information officer in 2011, he became responsible for all technology infrastructure, hardware and software applications, technical training, and help desk operations. His team also supports the operational needs of the practice groups and administrative staff.

Ratliff determined that corporate growth would likely soon outstrip its IT department capabilities.  “It was a small team, focused on responding to needs, rather than pursuing strategies,” he said. “I knew that had to change if we were going to keep up.”  His broad base of experience and history of not only managing the tactical operations, but of thinking strategically was a good match for the challenge at Clark Hill.

Some of his proactive approaches included:

  • Service level agreements for the help desk: the IT staff prioritizes each request in terms of scope (does this affect just one person, or the whole company?) and impact (is it an inconvenience, or is it hampering a core function?) before acting.
  • Introducing a formal project management methodology: analyzing a project’s scope, determining a plan, and sticking to it (in other words, no “scope creep.”)
  • A Change Control process for any changes to infrastructure or applications: “Keeping these records lets us evaluate what we’ve done, and can give us a head start on solving future problems, as well as minimize the impact of changes on business operations.” Ratliff explained.

He also reorganized the IT function into defined infrastructure, applications/project management and user-experience groups. Ratliff compares the structure to “swim lanes” in a pool: you stay in your assigned lane, but the water in the pool constantly crosses those boundaries. Likewise, “We’re a small organization so, even though people have been hired for a specific set of skills, they’ll sometimes have to step outside their primary roles.

“A problem might have more than one cause, or the root could be hard to determine. When people work across arbitrary boundaries, you find answers more quickly. That’s why I never want to hear ‘that’s not my job.’”

He adds that, although the department is still maturing, “The management team has been very supportive of us, and believes that Information Technology is critical to success of the organization by working with firm leadership to overcome challenges and capitalize on new opportunities.”

Outside the office, Ratliff has coached his two youngest sons’ recreational basketball teams, and draws parallels to his business life. “There’s a group of individuals with different skills and experiences, but with a common goal. Success depends on everyone’s contribution; they aren’t always equal, but they are always important,” he said. “And as they see each other’s strengths and weaknesses, they learn to balance each other. Over a period of time, the coordinated team will always outperform a group of self-centered individuals.”

Steve Ratliff’s career has spanned numerous fields – IT, recruiting, automotive research – and he’s not shy about suggesting a similar path for IT professionals.

“The most vertical path – going from group leader to manager to director – isn’t always the best. I think you do yourself a disservice if you don’t take opportunities that will give you a broader base of experience.

“When I was a recruiter, I realized that the more I knew about my clients’ businesses, the more I could help them. And the same thing holds for IT. If you don’t understand other fields, you won’t be able speak the ‘language,’ and you’ll be viewed as a poor business partner. And it really is all about helping a business attain its goals.” ♦

Technique Vs. Mindset

8Z5Y7572Two of Steve Ratliff’s mentors have made lasting impressions on him. And while most mentors demonstrate specific techniques for attaining success, Ratliff’s taught him mindsets – concepts that you can apply in practically any business or industry.

Tom Schehr: Believe in your vision/impact your colleagues

“Be patient and think strategically. Too often, we focus on a specific accomplishment, and rush to get there. But you can attain some significant things over a longer term if you go about it in a structured manner, building a foundation for long-term success.

“Part of that structure is building a shared vision among your staff. Don’t just tell people what do; explain how their actions will benefit themselves and the company.  When they’re invested in the firm’s success, they’ll also increase the capabilities of the organization.

Sid Vaidya: being a disruptive force.

“Over time, our routines can turn into inertia, and you’ll find yourself cruising on autopilot. That’s why it’s good to shake things up once in a while.

“One simple way to do this is to assign the ‘least likely’ person to a task – and make sure everyone else is poised to offer their support. You might find a ‘diamond in the rough,’ someone who can be developed further than you thought.”

Steve's Key Partners:
Friedman Williams (Staffing & Consulting services)Optomi (IT Staffing Services) | Windstream Communications (Voice and data services)

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