IT PROfile— Dave Zitur, CIO and COO (Travel Leaders Corporate, LLC)

IT PROfile— Dave Zitur,
CIO and COO (Travel Leaders Corporate, LLC)

Dave_ZiturHow did you get started in IT?

I was a Finance and Economics major, and I began my career with EDS. That’s back when Ross Perot was still around. I got involved in a program called the Accounting and Financial Development Program.

To complete the program that you had to pass the Systems Engineering Program that EDS had. Basically we went through three different rotations, of four months each, in the Accounting and Finance areas. After a year we came back and we were also required to go through the same technical courses that all the Systems Engineers and all the Programmers had to do.

It was very rigid. It was a 10-week course, and it was just a death march. They weren’t really testing how much you knew—they were testing your perseverance; your ability to work hard and get through it. That got me involved with the IT world. I’ve been involved with IT ever since then.

Afterwards I came back to Minnesota to work on the National Car Rental account. EDS had just signed a 10-year outsourcing deal with National Car and they didn’t have any folks in Texas that wanted to go north—they thought it was a frozen tundra! I was from Minnesota so I raised my hand.

When I went up there, my job was really just to be in charge of accounting and financing for the account. But I worked there for five years and by the time I left I had half the accounts operations reporting in to me—including all of the network, all of the telecom, all of the help desk, and some of training and development. I had about 100 of the 200 people reporting in to me. And ever since I’ve been involved with IT and Finance both.

Did you always want to fill leadership roles?

I enjoy leadership, I enjoy developing people and I enjoy directing folks and making sure we achieve the overall objectives.

How can an individual performer start to move towards a leadership position?

For me, even when I was an individual performer, I looked for opportunities. My philosophy on this is—you control your own destiny. Other people can help you in your career, but you control it. You have to make the decisions and then you either accept what’s given to you, or you do something about it.

You can work for 40 hours a week, you can get by, and you can do a good job. But if you want to move up and do more you may have to put more effort into it. You may have to work 45-50 hours. You may have to volunteer for projects. You may have to be proactive and tell your boss: “You know I was taking a look at this and I think if we do things differently we can do a better job”, and then you have to make things happen.

When you start doing that, and you’re performing, and you meet and exceed your manager’s expectations—that’s where you’re given opportunities. As long as you continue to do that people will be looking for you to continue to get increasing levels of responsibility.

This has been true with every company I’ve ever worked with and for.

What is your general leadership philosophy, and what skills do you think are important to develop as a leader?

  1. You have to treat people as individuals. Doing so builds respect and trust. And if you have respect and trust with your staff, you can do a lot of good things.
  2. Leadership is not for everybody. Some of your best technical people are not going to be great leaders because they may not know how to relate to people.
  3. If you’re a leader, all your people’s problems are now your problems.
  4. You have to build a team.
  5. You have to have a vision of where you’re taking that team.
  6. You don’t need to have everyone on your team like you but they have to respect you. They respect you through your Say/Do ratio. The things you Say, you better Do.

How else can an IT leader keep their people satisfied?

You keep people happy and motivated by giving them work that challenges them, and by creating an environment where mistakes are OK. I use new projects as a way to grow people. I’ll let them make a few mistakes, and my job is to just make sure they don’t make any really big mistakes.

What are some of the biggest challenges you’re seeing IT face today?

Credibility, and this question: “Is IT really important?”

What are the most important skills for IT success right now?

I’m not going to go down the “You need to be a Microsoft Engineer…” technical route. I think your soft skills are going to be the most important factor. IT and the business are blending together. If you only understand IT and you don’t understand the business you only have half the knowledge you need to be successful.

You also need relationship skills— you need to be articulate and you need to be able to sell. I don’t care if you’re in IT, Marketing or Finance—you’re selling all the time. You’re trying to persuade people to do things in a way that makes sense. And after you do, you have to be able to work with your stakeholder to make sure the project gets done.

If you started your career over tomorrow, is there anything you’d do differently?

Early on in my career I moved up fairly quickly, and I had a really good mentor. One time he told me: “Dave, you’ve got a deficiency here that wasn’t taken care of as you were going up the ladder, and you really need to take care of it.” And I was thinking: “Oh, there’s no way… that’s well beneath me.”

But he was 100% right. You need the building blocks. But people are sometimes so forward thinking about: “I want to get to that ladder! I want to get to that next rung!” they forget that their foundation is not 100% set. There are certain skills they still need to develop. But as they climb the ladder they forget about these foundational skills. And once they reach a certain level all of a sudden their lack of certain foundational skills becomes magnified because those skills are now absolutely needed. The person’s reached a level above their competency, and that’s where people burn out and leave.

In my case, it was accounting skills. I was going up the finance chain but I didn’t have some of the accounting. My mentor told me: “Your next step should be more of a lateral move. Get more experience with accounting. When you do move up, you’ll not only have the finance skills but you’ll also have the day-to-day skills of handling the budgeting, closing the books, journal entries and everything else.”

Across my career, I’ve served as the CFO and CIO, and I’m currently COO/ CIO.   I can truthfully say that a turning point in my career was the advice to get my fundamental business skills in place.  I give the same advice today to my managers: “If you want to get ahead in IT, you have to have those core business skills.”

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