**This ongoing series profiles exemplary business leaders who believe in leveraging technology as an accelerator to reach a heightened level of betterment.**
One of the first things I notice when I enter Erin Darmetko’s team area and office is it is decorated like a safari. When I asked her why, Erin proudly describes it as a theme to inspire and motivate an empowered and collaborative approach to a key project they kicked off. Immediately, this signifies to me—even though this is our first meeting—that she cares tremendously about the softer and human components of leadership, like her team’s well-being and team culture.
As Amica’s Information Systems Officer, Erin is responsible for overseeing the company’s project management office which includes the project delivery team, project and program managers, and compliance, audit and risk teams. She is in many ways responsible for helping the business and IT collaborate, yet she is as excited to talk to me about leadership as she is about technology rollouts.
Erin and I sat down to talk about everything from how technical folks can sharpen their soft leadership skills to why trust and change management go hand-in-hand. Here’s a look at our conversation…
To begin, can you tell our readers a little bit about your day-to-day responsibilities as Information Systems Officer at Amica?
I was promoted this past March to Information Systems Officer and became responsible for four sections of our project management office: project portfolio and delivery, enterprise architecture, compliance and administrative services. I focus on a number of things, specifically how to become more efficient and flexible in our completion of work, how we hire and train our staff, and how we can introduce the necessary processes to keep everything running smoothly.
Right now, a big focus for us is our Agile rollout and implementation across the department, and then hopefully the entire organization. In January 2017 we saw an opportunity to become more agile in our projects when we set out to modernize Amica.com and our digital presence. Historically, we had been a waterfall shop and very linear but in spearheading our web project we saw an opportunity to try something different and turn our old approaches on their head. As part of our digital program, we created dedicated teams, established product owners and brought in scrum masters.
The first six months involved setting up the program and getting team buy-in. We started developing the new web presence in July of last year and we have come a pretty long way since then. We have seen major progress in terms of incorporating new features—from policyholders being able to pay their bills online to being able to quote accurately in real-time. We have also been able to think outside of the box with the rollout, instead of marching to a plan that was set months ago, because of the nature of Agile.
You have been at Amica for more than 15 years, starting as an IT Associate, working as a BA, project delivery manager and most recently Information Systems Officer. How has your career evolved over the last 15 years?
I started as a software developer intern at Amica when I was in college, which is what I went to school for, and I did that for two to three years before I realized that is not exactly where my passion lies. I like talking to people more than I like talking to computers! So, I switched over and became a Business Systems Analyst which is really the bridge between the developers and the business side. I knew the code and the technical side, but I could also listen and speak the business language in terms that developers would understand and communicate back and forth to help build requirements and make sure we were delivering what the business was asking for which is not always the case. There is often a big game of telephone that gets created.
I did that for about five years and then I took over as the Customer Management Application Section Manager. We were going through a major upgrade at the time I came into the position, rebuilding our customer application and repository from the ground up. I did that for two years and then became the Integration Competency Center Section Manager, overseeing our architects and lead integrators. Then I spent two years as Project Delivery Manager, which involved overseeing all the project and program managers and project portfolio. In that role, I focused on developing the product portfolio with business leaders across the organization and then making sure our project managers could deliver on the things we said we could do. Now, I am Information Systems Officer and I figure I have about two more years before I move into something else again! One of the most exciting parts of my job is that I have seen nearly every side of what we do here in IT.
When I look at my career, I think the motivating force for me in terms of why I have embraced so many different roles and opportunities is that I don’t get complacent. I did seek out a good number of the opportunities that I have had. For instance, when I took over as the Customer Management Application Section Manager, I had never even touched that system before but the spot opened up and I still went for it. That was one of the first times that has happened in our department at Amica—where someone in a different area comes in and takes over. I’ve always been willing to take on new challenges. It’s easy to say you don’t know something but you need to trust that you can handle the situation. For my entire career, if there is a move I can make that I think is interesting, I will go for it.
You have been honored—most recently by PBN in Women to Watch—for being able to successfully apply your technical expertise and interpersonal leadership skills throughout many company projects, including upgrading Amica’s web presence, as we discussed. How important is it for today’s IT leaders to balance hard and soft skillsets and what role does that play in helping them more successfully influence their organization?
It’s hugely important, especially the interpersonal side of it. I have been out of the technology realm per se for a while now; I don’t code anymore. But I know enough to understand what they are doing and always try to dig in to see what is happening, what are those features and how do they connect. I will choose to sit in on the meetings, even if I feel a bit uncomfortable. For today’s IT leaders it’s about understanding both sides—the technical and business—and trying to navigate the connections between the two worlds.
To balance the soft and hard components of leadership, it’s also about active listening and using the skills you have as a developer. Developers always ask “why” and like to dig into the technical side of things but you can do that on the people side too. You can take those skills and move them over if you look at things through a different lens. I think there is a great deal to gain by giving developers the opportunity to work with business leaders, the people on the other side of the house, and exposing them to the different aspects that make up what they are doing. It allows them to close the loop on what they are working on and understand how it affected the people using what they created. We are very good at that here from the customer side, as we have a lot of customer stories and feedback that come in. They are very generous with their compliments and their information sharing. But it can be harder to see that on the technology side and helping our developers see how a system they wrote helped another person. I think it’s incredibly important to try to draw those human connections for the team.
With pressure being great for today’s IT leaders to serve as change agents, what advice do you have for successfully ushering change?
For me it’s about staying me. I am quirky and I like to approach things differently. For example, when we have our first round of portfolio prioritization using our strategic drivers, we had a room full of senior business executives and it was March, and I figured let’s take a March Madness approach to this to see which drivers would really bubble to the top for us. So I made a big chart of brackets and we went through and pitted the drivers against each other and played it that way.
It’s about keeping everything relatable and also realizing you don’t know everything. It’s about really listening to everything that is being said and not just brushing it off. I think a lot of times as you get more and more removed from the weeds, it’s easy to just dismiss why things are done a certain way.
We have started a movement here at Trilix, educating on the importance of workplace excellence. How would you define workplace excellence?
To me, workplace excellence is about engagement and not just between employees but between employees and customers; it’s embracing that big picture mentality. When you get to a point where everybody is just doing their own thing and not really appreciating or noticing all the other work going on around them, that’s when you start to get into trouble.
It’s also about being willing to keep things a little more fluid than rigid; having an open mind across the staff—from leadership all the way to the entry-level workers; and being willing to try new things and evolve because being stagnant is the kiss of death. Everything is changing, and having a commitment to evolution and change is what makes an excellent company and an excellent place to work.
What shapes your beliefs about excellence in the workplace?
For me, the quest for excellence comes out of just wanting to help. By nature, I am a competitive person, and I don’t like to sit back and just watch things happen around me. I like trying new things, and feel there is a lot that can be learned through reading about the experiences of others. That’s a motivation for me. I firmly believe that change is good and failure isn’t bad. Though no one wants to be the person who failed, it’s incredibly important to look at it as a learning experience, as cliché as that may sound. I might not get it right every time or hit the home run, but it’s about taking that chance and growing from it regardless of the outcome.
What advice would you give leaders on how they can be more effective in their role?
Strive to learn and try to see the big picture. Every story has two sides and the truth is usually somewhere in the middle of what you think. Be open to admitting that you don’t know everything and give yourself permission to make mistakes, too.
What is your No. 1 goal for you and your team as you look forward? What opportunity do you feel is ahead?
Organizational change is the biggest opportunity and challenge we face ahead. We have made a lot of great progress with Agile and some recent rollouts, but it’s imperative to stay diligent on everything we have accomplished so far and guard the foundation we have built. It’s also about making sure that the people around us continue to be part of the change. They can’t just be along for the ride but rather out there driving it with us. We are cognizant of maintaining the trust that we are building and protecting it.
On the personal front, I am focusing on continuing to find that balance outside of work. It’s easy to get caught up in everything you are doing and take on the world at work—and then take that work home with you. Some people have the ability to compartmentalize those two sides of their lives, but for me there are times when work comes home with me, and times when family is on my mind at work. I am trying to make sure that I am recognizing and respecting the boundaries between family time and work time, but not being too hard on myself when I can’t strike the perfect balance.
Check out other leaders profiled in this series!
- Q&A with Dave Marble
- Q&A with Tom Pesaturo
- Q&A with Darlene Morris
- Q&A with Kathy Webster
- Q&A with Bill Wray