Barbara Wittmann: Taking The Road Less Traveled To Make IT Simple, Sage & Strategic

The Most Admired Women Leaders in Business, 2022

When the IT leaders of the future learn to consider people over technology, they become responsible influencers and change-makers.

“The IT Leader of the future is looking at people first, not technology,” says Barbara Wittmann, the CEO of IT Zeitgeist, who is on a mission to make IT simple, sage, and strategic.

An award-winning author, and one of the Top 10 Emerging Women Leaders of 2021, she brings over 25 years of experience and a proven track record of developing sustainable IT strategies, aligning people and technology, and building successful businesses.

Making IT simple, sage & strategic

“I embarked on my entrepreneurship journey in 2006 to build an IT Consultancy that brought rapid innovation to Retail Clients in Europe, delivered through a tight knit and powerful team,” Barbara recalls.

Zeitgeist, which means “the spirit of time,” hints at her German heritage. “I picked that word because there is nothing static in IT,” she says. “IT Zeitgeist makes IT Simple, Sage & Strategic. That means I support companies worldwide to adopt and change to the spirit of time using digital transformation and adopting new IT leadership traits.”

Following is the explanation of what she means by Simple, Sage & Strategic:

  • Simple – Teaching clients and their team to translate complex Technology into Business Value to bridge the gap between Business & IT
  • Sage – Leveraging existing wisdom in the organization, team and leadership and bringing in many years of experience being an Entrepreneur, Executive Coach and Consultant
  • Strategic – By syncing Business and Technology roadmaps to best support business growth and customer experience

“Working for SAP before I started my business checked the box of being part of one of the biggest worldwide software players,” says Barbara. “When I started my business, being ‘part of something bigger’ meant establishing a unique culture for my employees and a differentiating value proposition for my clients. It changed over time and evolved into empowering IT leaders to steer towards a sustainable and ethically sound digital world.”

Taking the road less traveled

Barbara’s career did not follow a straightforward career trajectory, as she started her career in Sporting Goods. “I have always traveled the path less taken,” she recalls. “I was passionate about riding and racing MTBs and became a bike mechanic and salesperson. I was successful in racing MTBs for a while and soon outgrew the bike shop I worked at near Munich.”

After that, Barbara went to Los Angeles to learn how bikes are manufactured and spent time on a welder and lathe. “I have always been very handy and always wanted to understand how things work,” she says. During this time, she also started racing MTB Tandems.

Instead of changing herself to fit in, she focused on what she loved about racing – riding in uncharted territory, being in the zone, becoming one with the trail, the companionship amongst racers, being proud of finishing together, and letting winning take a backseat over community and adventure.

“We had so much fun being the outliers and turning heads.” she says “I stepped back and found a solution to my problem by literally inventing my own racing category. In hindsight, this experience shaped me as an entrepreneur and encouraged me to take the path less traveled. It also reframed the common belief from winning comes at a high cost to winning can come easy if you dare to show up differently and do it as a true Team.”

“Two roads diverged in a wood and I – I took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference.”

~ Robert Frost

Barbara’s next stop was overseeing purchasing for a bike manufacturer in Munich, Germany, and she traveled to Taiwan frequently to source products. “From there I spent several years living in Switzerland and selling RockShox Suspension forks to large bike manufacturers all over Europe,” she recounts.

When working for RockShox, Barbara helped implement a new ERP system, and became the Key User for Europe. “I loved how software can make processes so much easier and decided to change sides,” she says. “I applied for a Consultant Training at SAP’s Retail division and got accepted. They loved the fact I had so much practical experience vs. a university degree.”

Barbara hit the ground running, leading an innovation project right out of the gate where more experienced colleagues were telling her it was not possible. It became a great success and even turned into a standard product.

“From there I was hooked on how to bring innovation into existing processes, “she recalls. “I changed within SAP to the Headquarters in Walldorf and became part of the Business Process Renovation Team, an Innovation Team of the Office of the CEO.”

Barbara worked alongside SAP founder, Hasso Plattner, and her name is on multiple technology patents with the SAP Innovation Team. They piloted new methods like Scrum and Design Thinking to speed up innovation, and have set the foundation for standards that are now used company wide.

“We acted as an incubator within a large corporation, which gave us a lot of freedom and yet some limitations, as we were part of a massive company,” she says. “I liked the incubator feel, the dynamic, and was wondering how this could be implemented in a small consultancy. That’s when I stepped out of the safe haven of SAP and started my own company.”

Building a unicorn of the industry

Barbara soon found that being a Boutique Consultancy in a competitive market was not an easy task, and the monetary compensation wasn’t enough to find and retain top performing employees.

“I focused on building a ‘family-like’ company culture,” she recalls. “We took trips together, jointly shaping the future direction of the company, as well as creating an impact in larger community.

They named the company, “The First Violin,” hinting at the fact that it only takes one person to harmonize an entire orchestra and its conductor. This all-woman company went on to become the unicorn of the industry, earning a reputation as out of the box thinkers, optimizing processes, building innovative solutions and harmonizing projects that were in trouble of failing.

“We built a client list of retailers and sporting goods companies throughout Europe over 10 years and added a custom software development company to the mix to provide a full service to our clients,” says Barbara.

However, in her search to build a different company, culture, and sense of leadership Barbara did not find inspiration in current management literature. So, for inspiration, she turned to pan-cultural wisdom and based her company culture and growth on the age-old dynamics of a tribe and village.

After building her company on these principles, she went on to publish an award-winning leadership book outlining her journey. Meetings in Moccasins, published by Balboa Press, went on to win the Beverly Hills Book Award in the Business Entrepreneurship & Small Business category, a recognition that Barbara considers her biggest yet.

Starting a new phase of life

“Nature has always been my biggest source of inspiration and it became a habit to visit inspiring new places several times per year,” says Barbara. “On one of those trips to Death Valley, I met my future husband. After flying back and forth for way too long, we decided to build a life together in the US.”

In 2016, having built 2 successful IT companies in Germany, Barbara moved to the US for love. “I had to decide on what to do with my companies in Germany before embarking into a new phase of my life,” she says. “To many people, the easiest thing would have been to sell to a partner. While that sounded logical, upon closer review, it did not really fit the culture and togetherness we had built.”

So Barbara took the unorthodox step of involving her employees in the process. “After all, we built it together,” she says. “It turned out that all of my employees were at the point where they wanted to travel less, start a family, and grow roots after a nomadic consulting life.”

As an employee-buyout was off the table, they jointly decided to end it together. “After a phenomenal last year, I closed both companies in 2016, with grace and deep gratitude and moved to the US,” says Barbara.

This experience taught her to look at challenges as opportunities. “Making the decision on what to do with my companies in Germany taught me several lessons,” she says, outlining them below:

  • Be aware of your biggest supporters and involve them to turn a challenge into an opportunity. You cannot do it alone.
  • My core values are my guiding principles that are my compass and steady foundation I can draw upon to inform my direction.
  • It does not matter how others (outside of your supportive bubble) view your decisions. At the end, it is up to you to view and overcome challenges as success or failure.
  • Comparison is pointless. Your experience, your personality, your situation is unique. Instead of trying to blend in, dare to be you. Draw upon your own Superpower to move forward. “Become a Maverick in your industry.”

From IT Advisory to Digital Transformation 

Barbara then shifted focus from hands-on Consulting to Advisory Services for IT Leaders and her business model from having employees to working with a hand-selected, tight-knit partner network. But going from IT Advisory to Digital Transformation was not a Cookie Cutter approach.

“I’m not simply implementing a method following standardized checklists,” says Barbara. “I’m drawing upon a baseline toolbox that contains Coaching, Process Modeling, Agile & Innovation Techniques, and pairing them up with the client’s leadership skills, team culture, software landscape, and vision to create an individualized solution.”

Barbara meets each of her clients where they are, creating an individual roadmap for the engagement. She believes that Digital Transformation is mostly about People and Relationships, and as an Advisor it is critical to bring empathy and deep listening to each engagement, making IT about people first, not technology.

“Technology can only be leveraged to its fullest when talented people have the space to innovate and co-create,” she says.

Barbara believes that her biggest contribution is not to her industry, but to her clients. While consultants help in operations and getting things done, it does not scale and sustainably grow the IT Team. IT Zeitgeist’s biggest achievement has been supporting the growth of a client’s IT team from 15 to 65 people to match the company’s growth and innovation needs.

“In a fast digital world, you must have your core innovation and execution power in house,” she says. “As an Advisor, I deliberately step away from operations and help with strategy, scaling, and team cohesion. My contribution to the industry is that I help build sustainable IT Teams that are innovative drivers aware that a small process change has potential implications to many.”

Uncovering IT leadership skills in herself and others

Besides advancing her own sense of leadership, Barbara also offers a Leadership Program for IT Leaders to bring out their inner Maverick and establish a personal leadership baseline that they can build on, to lead Digital Transformation and inspire others.

She believes that expanding one’s skillset and uncovering leadership and personality blind spots is key to every culture of integrity. Her biggest goal is to empower IT Leaders and Teams to become responsible influencers and change makers in every company and in the digital world.

Barbara believes that having the wisdom to make ethically sound decisions and advocate for them will fall upon the IT Leaders. “As IT leaders, we hold a huge moral responsibility as the gatekeepers to data, process, and customer experience, shaping the world for the next generation. In a sense, we shape the digital future and ethics of the next generations,” she observes.

IT Leadership has established a strong team foundation, governance standards, a shared mental model, and stakeholder support, with IT transformed from a pure operations role to an innovation driver. As core traits for a healthy culture, Barbara sees the following approaches as important and non-negotiable:

  • A circular approach. A culture of integrity celebrates and highlights the harvesting of learnings, celebrating wins, allowing exhaling, and pausing for a minute before jumping into the next project or task. Skipping this demotivates, drains people, and takes away their purpose.
  • Celebrating endings and not just beginnings. At the end of a project, we must sit down, share high and low points, summarize learnings, and simply enjoy completing something. This offers closure and brings oneself to the next venture without still lingering on the should-haves, would-haves.
  • Establish a shared mental model. Having the same values to operate around, understand mission (the Why) and goal. Reiterate the shared mental model in each meeting. Repetition supports living it.
  • Mind the digital ripples. In a connected world, a small change can have unattended consequences. IT needs to think of the picture that includes not just the department, company, end customer, but also future generations.

Over the past 2 years, Barbara supported IT Leaders to uncover their inner Maverick in the COVID-disrupted world and created a Workbook and Leadership Program to fast-track the lessons for seasoned and aspiring IT Leaders and those who need to conquer Digital Transformation.

Loving what you do and how you do it

Barbara’s definition of success is based on the Maya Angelou quote, “Success is loving yourself, loving what you do, and loving how you do it,” which became a guiding star when she started her own business.

“Loving what you do and how you do it seems like the simplest piece and speaks to the core of leadership. If we have a strong baseline and definition of who we are as a leader, loving what we do and how we do it is simple,” she says.

Barbara believes that the harder part is to love oneself, without which we’re missing an integral part of authentic leadership and failing our established baseline. “Essentially success is about integrating information and behavior and bringing authenticity and soul to life and work,” she says.

When employed, there are always others or circumstances to blame. When you are the head of a company, there is no one else to blame but you. Barbara feels the same learnings apply to IT Leaders of today.

“Starting my own business changed my perspective to a more holistic view. It forced me to swing from Me to We and define success on a broader scale of many,” she says. “It pushed me to become a better leader and role model, establish clear culture, values, and goals, moving from micromanaging to empowering my employees to solve problems.”

Barbara feels that a strong baseline does not only mean being an expert in your field, but also knowing and acting according to your personal values, practicing empathy and active listening. “I don’t really believe in the myth of competition,” she says. “By spending too much time looking around and focusing on what others do, we lose sight of what our clients want.”

Leading by example

Describing herself as a Maverick, true-hearted, and authentic, Barbara believes in a better world and in challenging the status quo with strong convictions and great intuition. She believes in leading by example and giving others permission to do the same.

A member of the 5 AM club, Barbara loves working from home, but believes that it holds the danger of working way too much and working during odd hours and that working like crazy around the clock does not always stand for the best results.

“In fact, if you run a machine without doing maintenance, it eventually breaks,” she says. “It helps me to keep a schedule and a steady rhythm that allows me to have time with my husband in the evenings to cook a meal and enjoy dinner together.”

Her personal maintenance activity is going for long camping weekends or spending a week or two off-grid. “I gave my employees the same option,” she says. “Giving people the freedom to find their own pace and experience new environments is a big motivator.”

Barbara’s personal goal is set on legacy, touching as many IT lives as possible, inspiring through Keynote Speaking, writing another book, and enjoying many more adventures in the wilderness with her husband. Her message to aspiring businesswomen is to Be Yourself.

“Don’t try to mimic the successful men in the industry. You bring traits to the table, such as intuition, vulnerability, and deep listening that are so needed in this world. Dare to be You,” she advises, sharing this quote from her award-winning book, Meetings in Moccasins:

“What would happen if we women were to combine our efforts to fulfill our dreams with our true talents instead of copying men? What if we were to think outside of the box and explore the chances and liberties of our role instead of our limitations?”