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Illinois CIO Hardik Bhatt Aims To Accelerate Government In Springfield (Really)

January 23, 2017

 

In our previous post, Hardik Bhatt shared how he transitioned  from the private sector with Cisco into public service with Governor Bruce Rauner’s administration after thinking he’d left it all behind after his earlier role as CIO for the City of Chicago.

As the Illinois State CIO, he is laying the foundation for success with plans like his 75-day transformations. Our Leading With Courage℠ conversation picks up with Bhatt charting a course to build upon his early wins and achieve even more.

 

VALUE DRIVERS: You’ve talked about being on an accelerated journey to achieve several goals, which I’m sure surprises some people in the context of Illinois state government.

 

Hardik Bhatt: Yes, in order to stay on that accelerated path, I brought in key players from outside the government and promoted key players from inside. It is an outstanding team  that's going to take this organization to the next level.

 

You made some changes even with your own role, correct?

 

Yes. I’ve been thinking about the next wave of transformation that we need to deliver. A few weeks ago, I strategically stepped off of the daily operational role that I was playing for the last 18 months and had Mike Wons, our state CTO, step up. He's running the daily operations for the department, and doing an excellent job.

 

We’ve accomplished a lot and have momentum, and there’s more that we need to do. We need to get some basics on track. We need to focus on making procurement and HR easy. We need to get the right talent in the door so we can become a smarter state. With a solid foundation, we have our leapfrog launch pad set. Remember, transformation isn’t about catching up to today. Our goal is to be a leader for the future. 

 

Yet, our impression of government is that there are so many rules and you don’t just fire people. How do you move forward without experiencing derailment due to sticking with under-performers too long?

 

It is difficult to  fire people.

 

So you're dealing with key positions filled by some blockers that aren't going to change. How do you face that? And how do you avoid sticking with someone too long in this kind of environment?

 

When I started, I asked my managers to ensure that everybody was performing to the optimum level. If they weren’t, sure, we could write them up and start building a case, but often times it can be someone who is in the wrong position. After all, maybe they're doing something that they don't like or something that’s not their strength. So what if we move them into doing something different?

 

I'll give you an example. In the City of Chicago, we had an individual who was leading our technology reporting. As I was setting up a technology high school, I reached out to all my managers and said, "Does anybody want to volunteer to help me with this?" She volunteered and she excelled. So while she did reasonably good with her original work, here she managed to pour her blood, sweat and tears into this new assignment. In fact, she eventually ended up becoming part of the school and left the city job.

Sometimes you find these passions by accident or individuals get drawn toward their natural strength when given a different opportunity than what they have now.

 

I talk about this in Being A Leader With Courage. We found employees that stay too long that we called “termites.” The longer they hang around, the more damage they do. Then there are “covert change killers” who aren't going to change and behind closed doors are undermining you.

Then there are pure “underperformers” who simply don’t have it. Then there's a class that we call “disruptors” who are the square peg in the round hole. They can be classified as one of these others by some, but they're just doing the wrong job and they absolutely excel when you get them into the right environment.

We provide some tools on how can you identify one type of person from the other, but getting rid of them can be very difficult if that’s the ultimately the route you need to go.

 

When we were getting some of these initiatives off the ground, there were detractors and non-believers who said, “We can never change.” But one of the things we did was communicate significantly, externally and internally. I actually ran a blog, where I put good news out – any news out, really. In March, we also ran a whole month of what we called March Madness, in which we had one to two blog posts of good new per day.

 

Blogging became a team sport, with many contributors as a way to give my team the recognition they have earned. In doing so, we highlighted successes internally and externally, and truly generated interest and excitement.  

The significant issue that you find in any organization is an emphasis on communication. People don't know what's going on. However, inside our walls, everybody knows what we’re doing, and now want to be a part of it. I frequently get so much advice from people along the way who say, “Oh, you’re trying to do that? Talk to this person."

 

Since we’ve been traditionally so far behind in Illinois, this effort was a fresh wave of change for other people to see. We heard, "Oh. Illinois is talking about what's happening? Things really are starting to change there."

 

Is there a lot of sharing that goes on among the states?

 

Definitely. One of the key collaboratives is NASCIO, the National Association of State CIOs. It's a non-profit organization that works to get states talking. I have learned from and shared with many states. I always talk with other change leaders inside and outside government.

Besides sharing knowledge from the outside, how are you accelerating things from what you’ve learned internally?

 

When I started my listening tour with the business stakeholders,  I started tracking the age of our technology. I actually found the oldest technology was from…1974. That’s when we came up with a mantra of “45 in 4.”

If our journey to modernization starts from 1974, and January 2019 is when the Governor’s first term ends, we’ll make an innovation or transformation journey of 45 years in just 4 years. That is an exciting vision for people to jump on board with – that we’re going  to cover 45 years in this very accelerated journey.

 

How did you define the steps in that journey?

 

Step one really is improving the business of IT. I deliberately used the word “business” because I’ve wanted to make people understand that this is going to be run like a business organization. It's not a government organization.

 

Step two is improving the business of the State using IT, including customer service and everything else IT touches.

 

From there, step three, we have to ask ourselves, “Where is there an area where we can leapfrog other states?” As we looked for and acted on these areas, it energized our organization.

 

Now I’m using the same framework to show our progress. For example, we can easily show that in 18 months, we’ve progressed 20 years. Over the next 24 months, we’re going to progress 25 more years – and we can do it. It’s about using a clear vision, strategy, structure and communication.

 

 

We hope some of the ways Hardik Bhatt is approaching transformation is giving you plenty of food for thought on how you can transform your own culture too. But remember, it’s not just about ideas and catchy slogans for change – you have to implement it too.

Fortunately, our Leading With Courage℠ Academy can get you rolling in less than two days. By following the link above, you’ll see how our program helps you develop the capability of your emerging leaders for bigger roles and responsibilities. Start grooming the next generation of leadership and making real change in less time than you ever thought possible with the Leading With Courage℠ Academy.

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