Managing teams near and far

Like most executives, Steven Jones strives to surround himself with top talent. But for the CISO, that talent could be hundreds of miles away.

Memphis, Tennessee, boasts the home of the King of Rock and Roll, Beale Street’s blues clubs, and outstanding barbecue joints, among other things. It is not, however, a nexus of IT workers like other southern cities such as Atlanta, Raleigh-Durham, or Charlotte.

When you’re an IT manager in a mid-sized city like Memphis, the formidable challenge of finding top-notch IT talent faced by organizations everywhere is compounded by having a smaller local pool of potential candidates from which to draw. For Steven Jones, CISO for Memphis-based First Horizon National Corporation, a creative approach to recruiting, retention, and management practices counterbalances that handicap. Allowing employees to work remotely, providing flexible working hours, and promoting a culture of balanced work and life have made all the difference for Jones. He’s convinced that these management approaches produce happier, more productive employees.

There’s so little unemployment in IT risk and security, just finding the right people is a challenge in any location.”

A bank holding company whose subsidiaries include First Tennessee Bank National Association, First Horizon had $1 billion in revenue in 2013. With the threat of costly cyber attacks looming over the entire industry, data security is a top corporate priority, with a data-security skills shortage amplifying the risk. “There’s so little unemployment in IT risk and security, just finding
the right people is a challenge in any location,” Jones says. “Information security is really getting to be specialized in a lot of different areas, whether it’s identity management, threat management, vulnerability management, or governance. All of these disciplines require very different skill sets.”

Still, Jones is quick to sing Memphis’s praises—home to an NBA team and many parks and recreational opportunities, for instance—but he understands that not all the talent he needs necessarily wants to live there. So, of the thirty-seven people in his group, seventeen live and work elsewhere. Eleven are based in a satellite location in Maryville, Tennessee, which is in a different time zone and an eight-hour drive away, while the remaining members are scattered across four other states.

Even though Jones has a fifteen-year track record as an IT manager in financial services, this is his first experience managing a group with remote workers. As such, trust and communication top the keys to making the work arrangement successful. One can’t expect inexperienced personnel to thrive in a work-from-home environment; it’s much easier to have faith that seasoned professionals will manage their time effectively and perform as expected with less guidance. Most of Jones’s remote employees previously worked at the headquarters in Memphis or at the company’s Maryville location, had a track record of consulting with First Horizon, or were colleagues of First Horizon employees. These known quantities added confidence to the virtual team concept.

To overcome the potential sense of isolation or lack of context in discourse, workers have access to multiple channels of communication. Regularly scheduled teleconferences and videoconferences help to make up for the lack of face-to-face meetings. Text and instant messaging allow for impromptu communication. Jones also encourages anybody in the group to give him a ring on his cell phone whenever an issue needs his attention.

The quality and frequency of communication, particularly from managers, is critical. First Horizon provides extensive training opportunities for managers to learn and implement best practices in communication and other leadership skills. To gauge how well the group is doing in this area, annual surveys include multiple sections regarding the effectiveness of communication within the company as a whole and by group managers. “Scores are taken very seriously,” Jones says.

First Horizon’s remote working strategy and communications capability faced a formidable test in a recent yearlong project to develop an automated access review solution for internal banking applications. The initiative took on identity management for about 100 applications involving hundreds of thousands of permissions. With strict audit and regulatory compliance parameters, hundreds of people had a hand in the effort. It became one of First  Horizon’s most successful IT projects. According to Jones, it’s proof that a data-security work group can meet an ambitious challenge no matter how far-flung its members may be.