For our My CIO Career series, Samprathi, CIO at Vontier, explains how listening and building relationships creates successful and collaborative problem-solving teams.
When Raj Samprathi recently announced that he was leaving his CIO position at environmental solutions provider Enviri after five years, he made sure to thank his team members by name. “I am grateful for the opportunities and a chance to work with an amazing group of people. A special thanks to my team who made my job easier,” he wrote in a note posted for employees.
For Samprathi, now CIO at global industrial technology company Vontier, such outreach is more than a pro forma gesture. Taking time to recognize others exemplifies the values he has cultivated as a leader – values such as authenticity, empathy and trustworthiness. He sees such qualities as essential to empowering teams, building relationships and supporting enterprise success.
Samprathi believes that he also has much to gain from those around him. “I like to hear collective feedback rather than believe that I know all the answers. I always like to hear people’s experiences and the journeys they are taking, because I know sometimes there is more than one right answer to a problem.”
In this Nov. 2, 2023, interview with The Heller Report conducted two months after he started as CIO at Vontier, Samprathi expounds on how his approach to starting his new role – emphasizing that the time he spends learning, listening and building new relationships – builds on his 25-year tenure in IT.
Mary K. Pratt: What brought you to your new position?
Raj Samprathi: Vontier is a global industrial technology company focused on transportation and mobility solutions, and this sector is going through a full transformation shaped by electric vehicles and new technology, with sustainability being a core driver for this transformation. I am quite passionate about technology and sustainability, so it makes sense for me to move into an industry that is focused on these.
I also was impressed with the company’s leadership team’s vision and strategy – Vontier wants to change the way the world moves – and how they are solving problems.
They are looking to drive the right culture and the right outcomes to achieve long-term sustainable growth. They are making culture the core element of this transformation and are engaging people to solve problems. That resonates with my leadership style and my values. I feel for any organization to really achieve transformation and long-term sustainable growth it must create a culture focused on problem-solving. I have always been a problem-solver – most technologists like solving problems – and I saw this as an opportunity where I could add value to an organization.
Can you describe your strategy for starting this new position?
I bring three elements to starting this position, elements that are based on my prior experience.
The most important element is learning the business. When I say learn the business, I mean learning how the business makes money, what drives revenue, and what makes the business successful. I cannot create an IT vision or IT strategy without understanding the business and the business strategy.
The second element is around people, because people are the ones who make a company successful. So I focus on meeting as many people as I can. It can be a challenge today, because with Covid a lot of people have moved to meeting on video. I believe it is important to meet people on the ground at the sites, where I can get to know them and share my personal brand with them.
The third element is communication. Because I am new, it is natural for people to wonder what is going on in my mind and what I am going to do; they speculate about what can happen. I tell them that it would be easy for any IT leader coming into a new position to look at the environment and say, “I know what we need to do. I know what needs to be fixed.” But I realize that what worked for me at a previous company might not work here. So when I meet people, I say that I am not coming in with preset notions. People seem to appreciate that I am saying, “Help me understand, and let’s work together on figuring out what we need to do.”
What is your strategy for achieving your objectives?
There are three principles that I have.
One is building trust. I build trust by focusing on short-term wins to build credibility right away within the organization. That establishes my personal brand as dependable and trustworthy. That trust is foundational, because once I have established trust, people believe that I am trying to help them and that I am here to support the collective success of the organization.
The second is making empathy a building block for creating the right culture. This is about having an authentic leadership style. In other words, being transparent about who you are and what you want to do. That authentic leadership style is very important for building relationships with stakeholders and empowering teams so they feel that they can take risks.
And last is using influence versus authority. So instead of telling people “we need this system” or “we need this investment,” I share my opinions to rally the organization around what we need to do in terms of investments and priorities. I developed this idea during my career in consulting because consultants are accountable for achieving objectives but do not have the authority to compel the required work.
What other lesson have you learned during your prior experience that also shapes your leadership style?
That would be the importance of being seen as a trusted advisor.
The CIO – or any leader, really – needs to see themselves as supporting the organization’s success versus his or her department’s success; I say, “You can be individually correct, but collectively wrong.”
As part of this, I have learned that as a leader it is important not to get defensive when hearing feedback from customers or stakeholders. This goes back to having empathy, being a good listener, understanding that there is a common goal, and recognizing that at the end of the day we all are successful when the overall organization is successful.
What experiences led you to the CIO role?
In consulting, where I had worked early in my career, it was more important to get the job done on time and on budget, and there was less of a focus on how teams got there.
But my boss, who was also my mentor, helped me look at my approach in a different way. He taught me that while it is important to get things done, it is also important how work gets done. That helped me transition from being a manager to being a leader. A manager is somebody who gets things done and is more short-term focused, while a leader creates a sustainable culture and enables continuous success.
He also helped me understand the value of trust-based relationships and empathy.
I would not have become a CIO if I had not transitioned my work style; that transition from a being a business operator to becoming a leader helped me get to where I am today.
As someone who has recently left one job for another, how do you know when it is a good time to make that move?
To me, it is about working my way out of the job. I start to look for a new opportunity when I feel my team can do my job. I left three prior positions after five years, which is what it takes to really build and empower a team.
What skills do you think aspiring CIOs should focus on developing?
The first is communication skills. CIOs spend a lot of time with people who really do not understand what CIOs do for a living. So aspiring CIOs need to be able to take a complex problem and explain it in a very simple way. It really is an art.
Second, I think CIOs need to be very good salespeople. Everybody wants better systems but sometimes they are not as willing to give CIOs the money for them. So CIOs must be able to sell their ideas and help others understand why they should fund those ideas.
And third, aspiring CIOs must stop seeing themselves as technical people and instead see themselves as business leaders. A CIO has a team to do that technical work. I know if I were still very technical, I probably would not have become a CIO.