8 CIO Leadership Lessons for Enterprise Success

03/26/2015 09:58 am ET | Updated May 26, 2015

In the digital era, growing business needs for accelerated innovation aimed at improving company growth, operational inefficiencies and the customer experience, is rapidly changing the role of Information Technology (IT). Successful IT leaders must ensure functional relevancy by positioning IT as the driver of digital business transformation. Here to help guide CIOs as they brave the new digital economy is our recent CXOTalk guest and one of the best and brightest CIOs in the world, Brian Lillie, CIO of Equinix, a global data center platform with 103 data centers around the world that protect and connect the digital economy.

Brian Lillie, CIO of Equinix

Lillie shares that the secret sauce of Equinix, besides having highly reliable state-of-the-art data centers, is that they have an interconnection fabric with close to 150,000 interconnections which are cross connects, either physical or virtual, where their customers connect to each other to move forward digital commerce.

As an enterprise CIO for the past seven years, Lillie is focused on helping Equinix grow, scale and be efficient and successful as a company by connecting with customers in a more meaningful way. And that's not just through technology; it's also through communicating best practices.

Building on the four pillars of excellence (operational, transformational, innovational and organizational) Lillie gives advice to CIOs to ensure not only their success, but the success of their company as well.

8 CIO leadership lessons and enterprise success:

1. Start with a foundation of excellence - Lillie says that his role can be broken into four parts. The first and foremost is sustaining operational excellence. "You don't get the right as the CIO to do much innovation or maybe some of the fun things like spending time with the customers, until you get the operational excellence right," says Lillie, who always tells his team that sustaining operations is job number one. Next is transformational excellence which is all about figuring out how to transform business process and business systems to support a scaling, growing global company. The third part of his role is innovation excellence which Lillie believes is a mindset and the structural piece is creating an environment where people can innovate and not fear failure. The fourth element, which according to Lillie, underpins it all is organizational or talent excellence. Lillie says that organization is critical and that talent is everywhere; you just have to go and find it and inspire it.

"We have been able to attract real talent because of a clear vision around transformation and innovation that says that we're serious about it. We've got to be operationally sound because good people want to work in a place where they're surrounded by other good people, where they get to work on cool stuff, where they get to innovate and where they get to feel like one person can make a difference." - Brian Lillie

2. Map to business value excellence - With a focus on making sure IT investment thesis and priorities are very well aligned with the business strategy, Lillie uses the Deloitte enterprise value map to ensure they don't lose sight of driving and delivering enterprise value and results -- a map which he highly recommends to other CIOs. "When we do IT initiatives, and we don't even call them IT initiatives, they are business initiatives that are IT enabled, I work with the CEO to lay out the strategic priorities for the year or the next couple of years, and when I lay out the IT priorities, they map to and are embedded in those initiatives," says Lillie. At Equinix, IT is the enabler and a clear partner to the business in achieving the strategy that they set out and all the way down to every engineer on Lillie's team gets to see and are able to speak to that mapping.

3. Connect the dots for functions - Lillie speaks about how the CIO has the privilege of having a helicopter view of the enterprise, and how that privilege come with the great responsibility of helping to connect the dots for functions: "In our role, we're very fortunate to work with and support all functions, all regions of all countries in the enterprise and with that privilege comes the responsibility to speak up and step up. You see this function over here talking about something that another function really needs to know about and what you find is that maybe those functions don't know or haven't been talking. And so with this helicopter view, you get to connect dots for functions and help spread the best practices in the organization. I think it is our responsibility and duty to do something with the information that we get."

4. Build a bottom layer of trust - Lillie credits the fact that he has one of the most open and collaborative environments that he has ever worked in to the fact that they have a basis of trust. He says, "I think if you have trust it's amazing what can get done. You know, trust equals speed, trust equals sharing. Trust equals the ability to connect the dots and be open to ideas." Lillie is sold on the notion that they are all on one team, and that he'd rather work together, regardless of whose idea it was, to solve a customer problem or compete well and hard with a company they're competing with rather than compete with each other. "I think this sort of openness and dot connecting goes so much further than trying to outdo one other. It's just so much easier and better to be kind."

5. Influence culture from the top - Lillie attributes the success of his team to the company that they are a part of and the culture that was started by the founders. The founders have since passed way but the spirit of openness, collaboration, friendship and kindness that go hand-in hand with hard work have not. One of the early hires, Peter Van Campe, or "PVC", is still actively involved as the chairman of the board and sits right across the hall away from the CEO and they talk about everything. Lillie says that as more people come on board it becomes harder to keep that start-up culture so you have to nurture it. As the "keeper of the cultural flame for IT", to Lillie culture is everything and he says it can either be a competitive advantage or it can be a cancer. For Equinix it's a competitive advantage.

6. Make culture top-of-mind by putting it in writing - When it comes to the practical steps that need to be taken to execute this view of culture, Lillie says you have to be consciously competent, that is, you need to be aware and alert and take it seriously. He quotes his good friend, Ralph Loura, the CIO of HP who says, "It's not about slideware or slogans on the wall, it's about how our people behave."

Lillie's advice when it comes to putting in a process around culture is to make it top-of-mind by writing it down and defining the norms about what's okay and what's not okay. Equinix CEO, Steve Smith, says leaders get the behavior they tolerate. Some of the behaviors that the Equinix culture promotes is the concept of a loyalist framework that encourages employees to be as invested in each other's success as they are in their own. They also have operating norms such as, "grant trust", "assume positive intent" and "talk to each other and not about each other". "These are all small statements that really mean a lot and I think if you really live by them and then call people out when they don't, it starts to build a culture that is reinforcing. It can be somewhat aspirational because it's hard and nobody is perfect, but it creates a place where trust lives and where you have trust you have speed, sharing, openness and collaboration," says Lillie.

7. Hire for competency and cultural fit - When bringing in a new candidate for consideration, they clearly need to have the competence in the field that you need. "You can't just have a team of nice guys and gals that aren't competent, right?" jokes Lillie. To help evaluate existing employees, Equinix uses a two-by-two quadrant that measures an employee's ability and results against the way they are living up to the values. When evaluating new employees, they use a combination of the competency axis, along with questions around hypothetical scenarios and real examples from their previous experience that help to reveal the character of the candidate. In addition to the obvious attributes of teamwork, collaboration and openness, Lillie is looking for the passion to drive and work hard because those are the kinds of things that they do at Equinix, so it's a really important question in how they hire.

8. Set aside some money and vote with your feet - For a CIO drive to innovation in the most effective and efficient manner with the results that are desired, Lillie recommends setting aside some money, if possible, so that people can work in areas where there may not be a fit today but there could be some future relevance to the direction you are going.

The other thing Lillie recommends is to set aside some of your time, what he calls "voting with your feet".

"It's not what you say, it's what you do. If your calendar is jam-packed with meetings only up, with vendor meetings or with meetings that have nothing to do with innovation then you are sending a message that it's not important to you. So vote with your feet. Carve out some time to spend with your team and focus on innovation," advises Lillie.

At Equinix, the individual contributor engineers created an innovation process called Spark-a-thon where ideas are like sparks and they are sparking ideas all the time. They're coming up with ideas, and although some will go nowhere, some will very much go somewhere, and some will be potentially game changing. "I think you'll be surprised at what you can do that does not take a lot of money, people or time. It just takes attention, you just need to care about it because it just matters," says Lillie.

You can watch the full interview with Brian Lillie here. Please join me and Michael Krigsman every Friday at 3PM EST as we host CXOTalk - connecting with thought leaders and innovative executives who are pushing the boundaries within their companies and their fields.