What are the key attributes of a successful leader? Today’s episode of Mayfield’s CXO of the Future podcast will feature a conversation with Vijay Panati, Deputy CIO for the Los Angeles County Probation Department. Our focus will be on the people aspect, and just how important it really is to the CIO function.
Listen to the podcast here:
Vijay believes that people are who they are because of how their experiences shape and prepare them for current and future roles.
“My family ran a business which allowed me to interact with, and learn from, people from an early age. I interacted with a variety of people, ranging from workers in a factory to executives in various organizations, and developed an incredible passion for working with, and helping, people. When I say I’m a people guy, it’s not a cliché. I truly care about people and sincerely want to help them improve their experience.”
Vijay came to the U.S. and initially worked toward a Degree in Computer Science at USC full time, but very quickly decided to work full time and study part time. He got his first job as an IT support technician at USC. This was the beginning of Vijay’s IT career as the tech guy who came into the office and went behind desks to set things up. It was an amazing experience – enabling Vijay to learn the basics of technology from scratch. He quickly rose through the ranks and went on to become the MIS Manager for the USC Viterbi School of Engineering, supporting multiple departments and labs.
From USC, he moved on to Toyota – first as the Information Security Lead and Architect for Toyota Financial Services (TFS), where he was responsible for the information security application portfolio supporting all of TFS. This role was his introduction to managing a mission critical set of applications where downtime was measured in minutes – a great experience in a pressure-sensitive environment.
After four years at the job, he was promoted to the Information Systems Business Manager role at Toyota Motor Sales and led the Asset Management unit. His team was responsible for the entire IT lifecycle portfolio for TMS. Even though he wasn’t directly involved in any vertical lines of business, his role gave him visibility and influence on the spend of a Fortune 100 organization while ensuring that it was the right spend. After Toyota, he joined the County of Riverside, where he started out as an IT Manager for a small department and then transitioned into a senior IT Manager role supporting the Enterprise Application Solutions Division at the Centralized IT department supporting the entire County
In his current role as Deputy CIO for L.A. County Probation (the largest probation department in the country) he directly oversees infrastructure and operations, business applications, and data management while providing peripheral oversight over information security, PMO and administration.
The key takeaway Vijay has from his career is that he wouldn’t be successful in his current role if it were not for all of his prior experiences. The learning to note here is that it’s always important to make the best of each role that we get and leverage the lessons to move productively ahead.
The Path from “Tech Guy” to CIO
Vijay credits his path from an entry level position all the way up to Deputy CIO on his determination to do his best in each role, and to do more each month than he compared to the prior month. He developed core skill sets in technology and recognized that being able to deliver against objectives is ultimately what’s important. Vijay attributes much of his success to the leaders and mentors who gave him the opportunity to grow.
“I was in a very junior role when I began my career, but I had incredibly good mentors and great bosses who saw the spark in me and provided that opportunity to grow. There is a line in the book The 5 Patterns of Extraordinary Careers that says something along the lines of ‘People with extraordinary careers don’t claw their way to the top. They are carried there.’ Regardless of how hard we work, we need to have those right people supporting us in our journey.”
The other component of success is just having the drive and the desire to do more. There were times when people would say to him: “Hey, you’re just a tech guy.” And his response to that always has been: “No, I want to do more.” Vijay believes that anything is possible if we truly, and fully believe in something and work for it.
Leadership, as Vijay sees it, ultimately comes down to caring about people.
“When people seek my help with tools and technology, I say ‘Let’s talk about you first.’ It always comes down to people. You have to care about the people that you support. Once you have the hearts of the people on your team, everything else falls into place and you can focus on building the right processes to support them. I’ve had individuals come to me, for example, complaining about something not working and being unhappy. In those situations, I work on figuring out the underlying root cause of that discontent. When I dig in, I frequently learn about underlying pressures that no one was aware of, and then we are able to have a much deeper conversation and learn what that individual truly needs. I know there are lots of moving parts in any major project or problem, but I honestly believe that just about every problem can be broken down to a simple fix, a simple issue, a simple resolution. The conversation should be truly open and transparent. It’s not about getting my way as a leader; it’s about understanding people’s problems. And solving those problems”
Vijay’s empathetic style of leadership proved very valuable during the COVID crisis, a time when many companies suffered from ‘The Great Resignation.’
Some of his team members were offered promotional opportunities elsewhere but decided to stay, on account of the great environment—the freedom and the trust engendered within the unit. This is key, because in government organizations, keeping good people on board continuously can be a challenge given the vast opportunities for those folks in the private sector. The credit for this environment goes not just to Vijay, but also to his leadership above who share the same values and drive to provide a safe and innovative environment.
Vijay’s learning has always been that companies have to embrace and reward failure, plain and simple. In one of his prior roles, the organization awarded folks for leading, innovating, and achieving a positive outcome. When somebody did something good, everyone celebrated. But rewarding only the explicit positive outcomes is insufficient and unfair.
Vijay nominated a team member who implemented an idea that failed. It was a simple idea. They came to him first and said, “Hey, I want to try this and think it will help the organization.” They tried implementing their idea and failed. BUT…They still got the award for doing the right thing. There was some initial skepticism from some members who wondered why “failure was being rewarded” But Vijay’s response to that skepticism was “This person had the right intentions, did the right level of due diligence, and they failed. So yes, I’m rewarding ‘failure’. But what I’m really doing is rewarding the successful effort that, in this particular instance, did not lead to a desired outcome.” This was a very positive learning moment for the team – it reaffirmed their faith in doing the right thing and gave them confidence in taking calculated risks. Everyone learned in a tangible way that it’s okay to fail. Going forward, this helped the team become more willing to accept, and take on, measured risk which usually resulted in positive outcomes for the organization. So, a simple nominal reward to a team member for “failing” led to continuous positive outcomes not just from that team member, but from the rest of the team. That’s the power of rewarding “failure”.
Working with Startups
Startups are in a very interesting phase where every decision needs to have a relatively quick outcome, especially if they’re burning through cash:
- If startups want to be successful, especially if they want to come in and serve the public sector, they have to be laser focused on very specific outcomes. They need to have a tool that will help an organization fix a particular problem. And it should be what Vijay calls “chunkable.” You take one piece at a time, so if you have a solution that solves multiple problems, don’t go in trying to solve all the problems. Going in with one specific problem is the successful approach. Find that initial success with one little use case and then you can move forward from there
- Be laser focused on the value to the customer. It is great to see the incredibly deep passion and enthusiasm that founders exhibit when making presentations about their product. That’s all well and good. But if that product can’t be quickly tied to how that organization can get value, it just won’t work out. This is often very hard to digest, especially for startup founders who put their blood, sweat and tears into their product. They get very passionate and see clear value (in their eyes), but they need to make sure they articulate that value in a meaningful way to the customer.
- People first. This can’t be stressed enough. Focus on the team and the people who support you. Focus less on “I want to be a manager” and more on “I want to help my team and my company succeed.” When people know you really care, the care comes through. That’s the essence of empathetic listening. That’s putting ourselves in the other person’s shoes. If you support team members without pride or arrogance, those team members will work wonders for you.
- Develop core skills that will be of value to the organization. This could be technical skill sets and/or softer skill sets. But always remain passionate about improvement.
- Look beyond the next role. Vijay tells the people he mentors “Don’t tell me about your next job, tell me about the job after that. Life is a journey, and we’re looking not just for that next step. Focus on the ultimate goal, not just the next milestone.”
- Find mentors. It’s extremely important to have good mentors – not in terms of someone who can give you a job or a tangible physical benefit, but something deeper. It’s about people who can support you, give you confidence, and help you develop meaningful skill sets. Find mentors not just directly in your field but in areas far outside your direct career path.
- Embrace calculated risk taking. Don’t go out and buy lottery tickets, but do make choices that will help your team move forward with some measured risk. And learn from the decisions. It is generally ok to make a mistake as long as it isn’t repeated and the lesson learned from that mistake benefits you in the long term.
- Don’t forget to reward failure. Remember, you are actually rewarding the intentions and the effort behind the failure.
Vijay Panati is the Deputy CIO for the County of Los Angeles Probation Department, the largest probation department in the country. He has been serving in this position since December 2018. He has direct oversight over Infrastructure & Operations, Business Application development, and Data management along with peripheral oversight of the Information Security office, PMO, and administrative functions of IT. In his role, he leads key strategic initiatives driving the department’s IT posture into the 21st century and developing a workforce that is prepared for future challenges.
Prior to Los Angeles County, Vijay has had successful stints in key leadership positions at Riverside County, Toyota (Motor Sales and Financial Services divisions), and the University of Southern California. This varied breadth and depth of experience in all facets of IT in various industries gives Vijay a unique perspective and expansive expertise in solving business problems that are focused on driving customer value while optimizing cost and effort. He holds a Bachelor of Science Degree in Computer Science from the University of Southern California.