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Viola Thompson advocates for Blacks to advance to the C-suite in technology

Photo credit: Randy Fling for Steed Media

Viola Thompson, CEO and president of Information Technology Senior Management Forum, has a passion for technology but an even greater passion for the advancement of Black professionals. As president and CEO of ITSMF, she is an advocate for the increase of information technology and technology platforms. She believes that technology connects people and ideas, nurtures and transforms future leaders and invites new perspectives needed for innovation. Thompson is not only an activist for technology but a representation of Black professionals at senior levels in technology. It is her mission to increase the number of Black professionals in the technology field by creating a space for collaboration and innovative thinking. Thompson is a definitely a sister with superpowers set on making a difference in our community.

Please describe your role as CEO.

As president and CEO of ITSMF, I am responsible for ensuring the organization achieves our mission, remains financially sound, and experiences healthy growth; while remaining true to our core values of nurturing and developing leaders. We believe that information technology and technology platforms connect people and ideas; nurtured leaders can transform future leaders … mind, body and soul; and diverse leadership invites new perspectives needed for innovation.

What is the mission of your organization?

Our mission is to increase the representation of Black professionals at senior levels in technology, to impact organizational innovation and growth. We do this by developing and nurturing these dynamic leaders through enrichment of the mind, body and soul.

How do you approach business challenges?

Over my 25 years in corporate America and 13 in the nonprofit industry, I have learned that there are many ways to approach a business challenge as there are often unique elements to consider with each one. However, one consistent approach that I have followed is to invite others to the table to discuss our options. As a team, we must understand the scope, depth, breadth and impact of the challenge on the people we serve and on the business. This knowledge will help guide us towards our options and then a resolution. Once that decision is made, we work to minimize the impact of the change on others, build a comprehensive communication plan and monitor and measure the results.

How do you evaluate talent you are hiring and what are the skills that you are looking for in today’s marketplace?

Talent is evaluated based on the diversity of experiences and the expertise of the candidate. We value individuals who are confident but have experienced failure and learned from it. The energy they bring to the environment is a key component. We look for individuals who know how to build teams that are supportive, inclusive and diverse and who create an environment that nurtures everyone’s full potential.

What are the top three benefits of being a member of your organization?

That’s easy! It’s being a member of an organization that is focused on expanding your core leadership competencies as a technologist; helping you navigate the nuances of being a professional in a pool that only represents 6 percent of the technology workforce; and the number one benefit is having a second family who is fully dedicated to and supportive of your individual career and personal achievements in a safe and trusted environment.

How do you utilize technology to give yourself business advantages?

This is an ongoing area of opportunity for our organization. We leverage the normal protocols for a nonprofit (website, social media, podcasts, event app).  And, we are exploring ways to increase our digital footprint in 2018 to incorporate streaming into our quarterly symposiums; asynchronous learning for our leadership development curriculums; and a customer relationship management solution to support flexibility and growth of our partner opportunities.

What are three main programs that your organization provides?

As an organization that excels at learning and development, our pinnacle programs are delivered through our Global Institute for Professional Development. There are three distinct Academies delivered through year-long curriculum-based programs that provide leadership development, education, tools, and each in immersive and supportive environments. The Management Academy is especially for mid-level managers who are anticipating and preparing for growth within their organizations, our second offering, The Executive Academy is especially for senior-level executives as they navigate complex internal cultures, and our newest academy, EMERGE is especially designed to support and nurture professional women of color and their unique experiences.  The participants receive either formal mentoring by senior-level professionals or executive coaching, depending upon the academy. We are proud to have our academies led by faculty with advanced degrees and 20-plus years of experience in corporate America and academia.

Since 2003, we have graduated almost 500 professionals in our leadership programs, and 80 percent of them have received promotions or an increase in job responsibilities; most within 12-18 months of graduating.

What are the two key factors for career success in the IT field? 

Two key factors for career success in the technology field are relevancy and community. It is important to ensure that your skills remain relevant to the industry and to the business you support. You must understand your business operations and then creatively challenge how technology can advance that business’s goals and contribute to your company’s overall success.

Secondly, you must be connected to a community. A community that can be your lifeline to information, best practices, and expertise. This network will be invaluable throughout your career and is one of the reasons ITSMF was founded 21 years ago.

Name your three favorite business books for insight and inspiration?

Empowering Yourself: The Organizational Game Revealed by Harvey Coleman

Leaders Make the Future by Bob Johansen

Step Out on Nothing by Byron Pitts

If you were giving a speech about skill sets that will be needed in the future to remain relevant to 500 workers at a retraining seminar, what would the title of your speech be and why?

The title of my speech would be, “NBITT: The Next Big IT Trend.” One lesson I have learned in this industry is that it is constantly evolving.  There are routinely innovative solutions being engineered that will deliver results in a faster, more efficient way. Therefore, you must read to stay on top of or at least be aware of what will be the next big IT trends. I would also encourage the workers to develop and/or sharpen the skills that enable them to adapt to this ever-changing world; be agile so they can think and understand quickly; and finally, nurture their creative and critical thinking so that they can see the vast possibilities and opportunities that are available.

Describe your leadership style.

My leadership style is to create space for collaboration and innovative thinking. I try to encourage participation from everyone because it is sometimes the reserved person who holds the most innovative ideas. I am also a nurturer. I care very deeply [about] the people I work with and their career goals. I have mentored and continue to mentor women and men along their career continuum.