I was lucky enough to interview one of the celebrated heads within Capgemini. Here is an edited transcript of our interview.
Tell me about your Journey to Senior Vice President, Head of Digital Solutions Unit (DSU)?
I started my career on a graduate scheme with a competitor of Hoskyns, which was of course a precursor organization of Capgemini. So I did a few weeks learning COBOL programming, straight out of university with a Biology degree, and was put straight into an applications management role for customers in the city of London. It was real sort of sink or swim, baptism of fire type of stuff. I really liked working for that organization. I was there for about 15 months and the reason I left was that they had serious financial difficulties and had a pay freeze on, and I had a mortgage. So I moved on, working for organizations, such as Rolls-Royce and the Bank of England, and working for small software houses, and then got a chance to join Capgemini – it was still called Hoskyns at the time in ’95 – and came in at two levels below VP, so what we now call T8. So I joined as a T8, about a year later I made T9, and then twelve years ago I made VP.
I made VP off the back of a history of doing a range of roles in delivery and in sales and account management. And the clincher for my promotion was successfully turning around a major account in the automotive industry. I was a European account exec for one of the major global car manufacturers, which I never dreamt I would do when I joined the company, because I joined as a delivery manager but through a series of roles doing sales support and then managing the automotive sector, which was a first for me into pure sales and business development, I then got the chance to manage this account. When I picked it up it was not doing very well, we had lots of problems, and when I left it we were in good shape, and that was considered a sort of final tick in the box for me to get the promotion to Vice President.
And I got made senior Vice President about three years ago. In terms of how I got to this role, my background, although I’ve done sales, account exec, sales management, and sales support, my actual core skill is project and programme management. I came up through programming and running project teams and that sort of thing. And I was working in Aspire when I got the chance to come and run the custom software development part of our applications business in the UK, so to move away from working for a single very large account to run a portfolio of deliveries across a whole range of customers. At the time the unit was not performing very well – so I seem to have a history of being parachuted into those sorts of situations.
So Lance was the solution if it wasn’t going well.
Well, maybe. (Laughs) At least they would give me a chance. And it’s worked pretty well. We achieved quite a significant turnaround in 2012, really kicked on in 2013, and first half of 2014 has been very good for us as well. So we’ve achieved growth in revenues, growth in new business, 30% year on year, two years running, and really solid metrics.
We created a separate digital unit 18 months ago, as a sort of investment vehicle for growing our digital business, and that’s been effective in developing a group of people, a group of offers and a certain number of engagements. But what we now want to do is kick on to the next level, so we’re making a number of investments around digital, one of which is creation of the Digital Solutions Unit, where we bring that digital team together with the Custom Software Development team, and try and drive the whole larger organization towards a growth in digital.
Have you had a mentor in your career?
Not one all the way through my career, but I have had mentors at various stages of my career. I don’t think it’s possible for most mortals to have a career where you never have any setbacks.We all have things go wrong from time to time, and I had a particular year where I had a tough time in the organization, and that coincided with the three people who have been my mentors over the previous five or six years all leaving the organization. One retired, two resigned and suddenly I was cut free without a ‘champion’.
I was a VP at that time; I still had a bit of a wobble and didn’t have such a good performance that year. So I thought that was really good learning experience, and it really convinced me something which I felt already, which was that it’s very important for all of us, up to and including CEO, to have people you can turn to, you can bounce ideas off, who can help you navigate through the complexities of some of the challenges you’re looking at, and I would encourage anybody to tap into that. It’s just the same as when you’re at university, people who I saw, in retrospect, did the best were the people who really built a relationship with their tutor, used that tutor relationship really well, I look back and think I could have done better at that and the friends who got firsts, I thought, ‘Yup, you worked that out.’ (Laughs)
What advice would you give someone going into a leadership position for the first time?
I am very clear about the differences between management and leadership. When I first got my first management role, where I had a team of my own, I didn’t do it very well. I knew I didn’t do very well because one of the team took me aside after a while, and he said, “Lance, in my spare time I manage a football team – an adult football team, not a bunch of kids – and before each game I have to give them all a bit of a pep talk. Some just need a kick, and some need a stroke, and some need a carrot, a certain incentive. It’s different for every one of them and the way you manage your team is you treat us all as if we’re exactly the same.” I thought, ‘What an insight!’ And it’s so obvious, when he said it to me I just felt, ‘Oh my god, I’ve been a fool here.’ I really didn’t step back and think about what I was doing.
So I think the most obvious thing when you first get into a management role is to realize that you have to treat different people differently. They have different motivations, different backgrounds, different personal circumstances, so you have to be sensitive to them. When it comes to leadership though, you really are then talking about shaping events. So management is about the exercising of a certain amount of responsibility that you have for a particular set of outcomes in the business. Leadership is really about driving the business into a different place, raising the game, driving things harder. I always use the expression “being a shaper of events, not a victim of circumstances”. And you often find people who are struggling say ‘this has gone wrong’ and ‘it’s not my fault’ and ‘that person’s let me down’ and all that. That’s a victim of circumstances. The person who’s really leading says, ‘that thing went wrong, and here’s what I did to sort it out. And I’ve managed to fix these three things, but I’m stuck on this one. Can you help me?’ That’s much more of a leadership kind of approach to it, than just saying, ‘It was all hard.’
Is it that problem-solving kind of aspect, seeing what’s going on, and then thinking how do you approach it?
You absolutely have to take accountability. If you’re in a leadership position, it’s no good complaining that your people have let you down. The buck stops with you. And it’s alright to say you are only the middle ranking person in the organization, but you own a particular outcome, whether it’s the delivery of a test plan that is useable by the testers, whether it’s the completion of a significant project delivery, whether it’s ensuring that the environments are in place at the right time for the development team to use. Whatever you’re doing, you have to take accountability for your actions, and that it what really takes people on the step towards strong leadership.
Strong leadership isn’t throwing your weight around, it’s not abusing your power, it’s getting the most out of everybody who works for you and every resource you have, and taking accountability for the results that you deliver.
What are you doing to ensure you continue to grow and develop as a leader?
I could do better in terms of reading; my approach to business books is that I tend to read the first couple of chapters and then I get bit bored because most business books go on to explain each of those concepts in more depth, and I often feel I know enough about that subject after the first few chapters, so I don’t want to hear it all again And I’m probably not getting as much as I could do out of some of those. I think I should do more of reading around.
My general approach is to look for and take on new challenges and learn through that. And to surround myself with people who are smarter than me, who I can learn from. And I guess those are the two ways in which I continue to develop. You got to be brave sometimes and put yourself into some uncomfortable situations, that are outside of your comfort zone, and sometimes that will work out terrifically and that’s great you learn from that, and sometimes it doesn’t work out so well – and you learn from that too!
So it’s really about learning from your mistakes and building on them?
Yeah… It’s interesting; I’ve just come from an interview and one of the questions that my fellow interviewer asked is, “What is the toughest project you’ve ever been in involved in?” And what they didn’t follow through with, and which I was going to but then the conversation moved on, is, “And what’s the biggest mistake you personally have made?” Because I think if you don’t… anybody who sits across the table from you and says they’ve never made a mistake, then I wouldn’t hire them on principle, because they’re lying. Nobody is superhuman; nobody gets through their whole career not making mistakes. What I want is people who have had some bad experiences and have learnt from them and grown stronger for it, and there are plenty of things I can look back on my career and actually think at that point I would have handled that differently knowing what I know now. So you have to learn from mistakes and I think if you have ambition, you’ve got to stretch yourself; you’ve sometimes got to go into an area you’re not quite so comfortable in.
What is one characteristic you think someone needs to possess to be successful? It depends what criteria you think successful is as well.
That is true, because reaching the top of the tree is not necessarily everyone’s definition of success. By definition not everybody can get there, because the pyramid narrows as you get towards the top, so we can’t all end up as CEO’s or Chairperson. So you’re right, understanding what success means for you is very important. And so depending on your goal, you can set various criteria that you say are important. But one or two that are universally applicable; one is tenacity, and the other one is resilience. So tenacity, you don’t give up. You hit a problem and you find a way around it. You hit a brick wall and you find a way over it. You don’t give in at the first sign of trouble. But you also have to have the common sense to realize that actually I can’t fix this and go and seek some help occasionally, but tenacity is really important and resilience.
When you get into management and leadership roles, the pressure can become quite intense and not everybody always helps you as much as you think they’re going to help you, so you get some interesting behaviors you have to deal with. It might be your customer, it might be members of your team, and it might be a third party that you’re working with. You’ve got to take those knocks, roll with it, not take it personally, because it’s only business at the end of the day. People are not really out to get you, they’re just pursuing their own goals that might not align with yours. So you’ve got to be resilient. So tenacious, resilient, you’ve got those two things, then they are, if you like, the core behavioral traits that will allow your skills to come to the fore, the things that you’re really good at, which are your personal attributes, then get a chance to shine. But if you collapse at the first sign of any kind of pressure, then you’re never going to be able to achieve your goals.
Goals and objectives for this year?
That’s very simple. We launched the new delivery unit on the first of August and my aim is by the end of this year we will have seen a material difference in the performance so if you take the performance of the two units we have brought together by the end of this year I want to see a material improvement on that level of performance.
What was your approach for merging CSD with DDU?
We knew that we needed to do something different with the Digital unit. It had reached a point of a certain size, but still struggling to cover the vast range of things that you’ve got to cover in digital, because one facet of digital is how volatile that market is, how fast changing the technology is, how new solutions and new ways of joining things up to achieve solutions are appearing weekly, daily, almost hourly it seems. So it’s a huge amount of ground to cover, from a technology perspective, from a crafting solutions perspective, from building teams and capability perspectives –attracting, motivating, retaining the people you need – in terms of changing customer demands, different sectors running at different paces and have different focus on how they’re going to use digital.
It’s a huge amount of space to cover and find a clear offer set and a way of engaging around those; the team just could not cover all that ground. So it was felt that bringing the two units together would give us critical mass, and the capacity to be able to do all of that. I believe that is the case but I wasn’t prepared to just merge it and just have it suddenly all operate as a bigger version of CSD, because that would undo a lot of the good work we’ve done to establish a bridgehead in digital. What I wanted to do instead was to really focus the whole unit of digital growth. There’ll still be some projects that go on that you would say are not strictly digital, things like the managed testing engagements will continue in the new unit, and that’s fine, they can co-exist with it, but wherever possible we are going to put a digital flavor and spin onto everything that we do with every customer.
And then we said, OK if we’ve made that decision, what does that mean for the organization we’re putting together? What it meant was we would review absolutely everything we do and challenge ourselves whether it could be done better to achieve that goal of digital growth. So we didn’t just merge things together, we rethought everything. So we rethought the way in which we organize the overall team, the way in which we build a capability around business development, the way in which we provide space for our people to engage with their peers, both internally within the company and outside the company. This is a very important facet with some of the technologies that we’re using, particularly around open source – you can’t be insular about it, you have to tap into the global communities. Then there’there’s the way in which we run our projects, the way in which we apply delivery management to short, sharp, experimental, fast fail, highly agile engagements, so how do you get your head around the risk in those engagements and make sure we can still manage them in an appropriate way? So all of that, you can imagine that’s a lot of things we were having to reassess and in some cases reinvent. So it’s been a quite exhilarating four weeks putting this thing together, and I think we have done a pretty good job of giving ourselves a decent baseline on which to say, ‘Right, we know where we’re going and we know how we’re going to do it.’ We will iterate some of those things, because we won’t get everything right first time, but we’ve made a set of decisions about how we’re going to approach this and off we go.
So that was one fundamental design principal, to rethink everything, and ask could it be done better to drive digital growth. The other guiding principle was ‘communicate’. So I did roadshows around the country, speaking to as many people as I could, we did big launch communications and going around meeting individual teams, capability units – so yesterday I was with the Drupal capability team, I’m going to be meeting the Salesforce capability team talk to them about how the new model works for them and how we can attract, motivate, retain people with those skills.
It does really create an innovation kind of feel.
That’s what we’re hoping to do, and you don’t change a culture of an organization overnight. It takes time. And it’s both top-down and bottom-up. Bottom-up is encouraging people who’ve got the bright ideas and the experiences of new tools and technologies and approaches, that they have a voice and they can contribute. We want to hear from them and want to see them driving, through the communities, different ways of doing things. And then top-down, I’ve got to ensure my leadership and the next layers and the next layers absolutely understand what we’re trying to do here; we’re trying to empower people, we’re trying to get the most out of people, and we’re trying to find new ways to do things. This isn’t about being entirely stuck in our ways and rigid, even though some of ways have worked very well. We have engagements going on now where the concept of fast-fail is actually built into the customer’s mindset; they’re not looking for a fixed price, multi-million pound, skin in the game commitment, they’re looking for co-innovation, they’re looking for us to work alongside them, taking a range of nebulous and fast changing requirements and experimenting with different ways in which those can be pulled together using the new technologies, and expecting that some of that will get thrown away. That’s a completely different way of working and it’s a really exciting place to be, because out through that kind of serial innovation you get the big leaps. It’s exactly how some of the great leaders of the digital revolution, if you like, have achieved their great leaps, by fostering that kind of freedom to experiment.
It’s you adapting to the market, what the customers need, and in terms of giving them innovation and how you’re doing it, does really look into capturing our values and giving people that freedom.
And boldness. And fun.
It sounds amazing.