First Advantage is Making All the Right Measurements

When Nick Grecco became CIO, First Advantage’s IT department lacked fundamental, reliable metrics. New tools and a new culture have changed that.

First Advantage Corporation provides more than twenty-three million international background screens annually to more than forty-five thousand organizations and has grown extensively over the past several years. Nick Grecco joined the company as CIO in the spring of 2015, as the IT department was struggling to keep pace due to a high level of M&A activity, the ongoing integration of three companies, and increasing customer demand.

The IT department faced three challenges. The first was basic operational metrics, such as call volumes, capacity management, system availability, and lacking details on technology assets. Discrepancies existed on some reported statistics that didn’t reflect the customer experience, such as uptime and turnaround times. Documentation was also incomplete and unreliable.

“We were measuring all the wrong things,” Grecco says. “Our tracking reports weren’t accurate and the capacity metrics were focused on inappropriate KPIs, like free disc space and CPU and bandwidth utilization. Without appropriate, customer-facing metrics, we couldn’t make meaningful improvements.”

He also focused on the importance of addressing documentation procedures, which included instituting peer review. “Documentation is crucial to a smooth IT operation,” he says. “It’s a lengthy process, but requiring it up front is still much more efficient than cleaning up the mess after a problem is discovered.”

Second, the M&A activity resulted in lost institutional knowledge, staff confusion, and a lack of experienced lT leadership. In fact, many managers had risen through the ranks based on technical expertise, not leadership ability. Grecco also discovered a lack of coaching, mentoring, and strategic planning, which created an environment where every situation became an emergency that superseded structure, procedure, and other company demands. This was compounded by the IT team not having appropriate decision-making resources.

“We succeeded by delivering not only within the timeframe and the budget, but also by convincing our internal clients that sometimes you have to take two steps back to go three steps forward.”

Lastly, relationships with internal business partners were suffering. When Grecco first touched base with other departments to assess their IT experiences, responses ranged from “I don’t care” and “IT handles whatever we need” to “We’re doing it all ourselves because you guys don’t know what you’re doing.” To address these issues, he developed a multipronged approach that clarified business demands and customer needs, and matched IT’s organizational design and performance structure to meet them. From there, he worked with peers to prioritize business outcomes and set realistic expectations. What he describes as “empty promises” were replaced with solid processes and firm due dates.

Next, Grecco replaced the existing management with highly experienced colleagues with whom he had prior work experience at several Fortune 500 companies. They not only brought years of leadership and proven managerial track records, but also “gut-level technical instincts,” he says. This was critical in an environment, where quick decisions had to be made with incomplete data.

The new management team leveraged their expertise and operational muscle memory to develop viable, fast-action plans and backup contingencies. “When you’re trying to move quickly without legacy knowledge, you know there are going to be mistakes,” Grecco says. “But to move forward, making some decision is better than making none.”

The new team developed plans based on their collective experience, along with an appropriate risk mitigation strategy. This approach paid off, and several difficult milestones and aggressive time lines were achieved with little to no impact on the customer experience.

To help build peer relationships and better understand their concerns, Grecco added regularly scheduled communications with internal business partners. This included having some difficult conversations, such as the ones around the migration to a new data center, a process that was scheduled for completion in only two months. In response to the unrealistic time frame, he pointed out how risky it was to the customer experience and outlined a compromise. His seven-month plan allowed for extra quality assurance, clear documentation development, time slippage, and customer testing.

“We succeeded by delivering not only within the time frame and the budget, but also by convincing our internal clients that sometimes you have to take two steps back to go three steps forward,” Grecco explains.

To improve the overall IT culture, Grecco launched an initiative that drew heavily from David Marquet’s Turn the Ship Around. Using the principles outlined in the book, Grecco empowered his IT staff, dramatically increased their engagement, and he was also able to point out needed improvements. Grecco instituted short conversations early in the process that included “skip-level” meetings, which allow lower level staff to give direct feedback to upper level managers—without allowing supervisors’ input, he’s quick to point out. This scenario allows staff to cross traditional boundaries. For example, a software expert might have knowledge about a network specialist’s approach to a problem. The approach has resulted in fresh perspectives, innovative solutions, and increased collaboration.

To help ensure First Advantage’s future success, Grecco maintains a flexible strategy to streamline and support changes in business partners’ desired outcomes as they work collaboratively to meet customer demands. He doesn’t offer predictions, but he is certain that in three years, they will constantly be evolving and moving toward ongoing improvements. “We’ll always be testing our assumptions and solutions, building consensus, and continuing to work more collaboratively with our business partners to better serve our customers, ” he says.