Oct 28 2019

IT Leaders Share Insights for More Successful Global Operations

Execs from Uber and other international companies emphasize culture, regional talent-building and making sure remote employees have a sense of engagement.

Technology facilitates the expansion of commerce across the globe, but it doesn’t always do so smoothly. Businesses that leverage technology to extend their reach often find unexpected challenges in new territories, from the logistical to the cultural. 

Three leaders who head up IT operations on an international scale shared their experiences in “Digital Transformation Stories from Global Companies,” a panel hosted by the CDW IT Leadership SummIT, held Oct. 10–11 in Chicago.

Panelists included Shobhana Ahluwalia, head of IT for Uber Technologies; Brad Cline, IT director at business software company SolarWinds; and Elliott Peterson, the new senior vice president for global IT at sales and marketing agency Advantage Solutions

David Chapman, vice president of sales for CDW U.K., moderated the discussion.

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In Global Business, Culture and Talent Are Top of Mind for IT Leaders

Finding and developing in-country staff was a consistent theme of the panel discussion. At SolarWinds, which has 36 offices and 29 data centers worldwide, Cline said his tactic has been to grow regional centers of excellence. That starts by identifying a small pocket of talent in a particular area — perhaps just a handful of individuals — and using that base as a springboard.

“We’ll find certain regions or demographics have amazing talent pools” in a particular discipline, such as DevOps or networking engineering, Cline said. “We’ll build a center in that region focused on that service.” 

At Uber, where 700 offices on six continents manage the on-demand transportation service, staff development starts by recognizing cultural differences, Ahluwalia said. 

“Different areas have different ways of doing things,” she said. “Something interesting we notice is the meaning of ‘urgency’ is different in different parts of the world.” 

During a network outage caused by a cut fiber in a remote market, for example, tech staff said they’d send information about the problem within 12 hours — a much longer time than a U.S. staff might expect to provide feedback. 

Managing local partnerships over time also can be an issue. As a company grows, for example, smaller vendors may find it hard to keep up

“You evolve as an organization,” Chapman said. “Your partners evolve, and it’s a question of relevance.” 

One way to maintain a strong pipeline is to work closely with local partners.

“We are in 70 countries,” Ahluwalia said. “It’s not possible for us to be in all of those countries and get the best talent. We have to rely on our network of vendors and partners to do business in those countries.”

Frequent turnover also creates challenges, Peterson said, making it hard to ensure consistent deployment. One strategy to minimize the impact is to rely on a consistent partner that can help to facilitate the knowledge transfer and task management, even as individual employees come and go.

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Develop a Personal Connection with Remote Employees

New markets also challenge leaders to assess their own management style, accounting for communication, perception and the need to establish trust. Across the board, panelists emphasized the importance of listening, asking questions and being on the ground to develop personal relationships.

“There tends to be an American thing we do, which is, ‘We’re right,’” Cline said. “I’ve seen in a lot of cultures that does not go over well.” When he visited global offices for the first time, he said, he met resistance to giving feedback, even when he asked for it directly. So, he took it upon himself to build a culture of collaboration.

“It’s coming in … saying, ‘I’m here to help’ and building trust,” he said, a strategy that eventually opened the door to “tons more feedback.”

Ahluwalia agreed that culture is critical. 

“In certain cultures, they would not contradict you, but that doesn’t mean they are going to do what you said,” she said. “You have to understand how people work in that culture. We have to adapt our management style to help them, and not the other way around. You can’t change an entire country’s culture.”

Tools and technologies that support interoffice communication, such as videoconferencing solutions that are reliable and easy to use, are one solution, Ahluwalia said. Uber also strives to have “time zone-friendly meetings” at least a couple of days a week, although Ahluwalia noted that in-person meetings, when possible and needed, are even better.

“Create those avenues where people get to know each other,” she said. “Face to face is sometimes the best.”

For Peterson, visiting a region to understand local nuances helps him to be more mindful of them — for example, the different ways that Europeans and Americans manage their vacation time. 

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A Clear Roadmap Keeps Remote Offices Aligned with Headquarters

Leading effectively on a global scale requires adaptability, Cline noted. 

“It’s easy to get stuck in a rut,” he said, a pitfall that’s especially problematic across cultures. His strategy is to always be willing to learn from colleagues and to change with the circumstances.

Visibility across the organization also helps to keep everyone on the same page, said Peterson.

“Create a roadmap you can execute,” he said. “Make sure everybody understands the journey you’re on and the milestones, and celebrate the milestones as you hit them.”

That roadmap should be shared across the entire system, including partners, he noted. For IT staffers, whose work is often in the background, he said, “elevate that so people see” what’s happening.

Finally, Ahluwalia recommended finding ways to engage employees in the work, regardless of their location. Often, she said, work is parceled out piecemeal, so that a regional office may own certain tasks on a project but lack any decision-making power or sense of ownership.

“That’s just not inspiring for them in the long term,” she said. “There’s no skin in the game. They’re just ticking off boxes. If you give them the entire charter and say, ‘You’re responsible for it,’ we’ve seen that grounding them and making them feel more successful as part of the team.”

Read articles and check out videos from BizTech’s coverage of the CDW IT Leadership SummIT here.

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