Supporting, Leading, and Developing as Pandemic-Joining Leaders.

Grant and Rich work together to drive towards the future of technology for Boots and WBA, and they have done so for more than six months now. Given that they have only seen pandemic times since assuming their roles, it has provided the entire context for each of them.  

 In pre-Covid times it’s clear they would have spent some time face to face together by now and yet, they have created a new relationship and a strong partnership by aligning on new ways of working through our teams and shared resources and perhaps most importantly, through their shared goals for the organisation elements they are the leaders of and their own desired outcomes.

 To those of us that know them, we see them as reflective people, who learn from each other based on what they have done differently (with success and failure).  After leading together they’ve shared their reflections on the journey so far with three key dimensions: Supporting their organizations, Leading their teams and Developing themselves… Please join us for the conversation to follow…

 Supporting Our Organisations

Before we dig into your personal Covid adaptions, what has been your approach towards supporting the organization’s adaption as it manages the disruption of pandemic times?

Rich – I have always believed that the role of CIO has to be grounded in the business.  If you are an IT director then feel free to stay focused and obsessed with the technology, but if you are a CIO then you must have a business focus and champion transformation as a goal for technology to achieve, and this is what we have made our priority during the last 12 months.

 Doing that in a virtualized way, unable to really get under the skin of the business is way more challenging.  I’m lucky I came into the CIO role from within Boots so had experiences of transformation and of the healthcare business and had the support of two great leaders as I moved into the CIO role.  Richard Bradley, a member of the executive team as I became CIO, offered me a wealth of advice about being a good member of the Exec and the outgoing CIO Greg Michelini gave me the best hand over I have ever had. Turning to people with experience of the many facets of the organisation has been absolutely key to making a success of what we are doing day in and day out.

Grant – Notice Rich’s comments are answering the HOW, not the WHAT? That’s the key! Coming fresh from an executive coaching certification program into my role at WBA, I learned that building empathy and two-way trust with the whole person (not the task or problem at hand) is critical to forming meaningful relationships to drive outcomes together.  Just as technology myopathy isn’t a permissible lens for an effective CIO, as their strategic advisor, it can’t be the focus of an Enterprise Architecture team either.  We join the CIO in the charge to bring a business outcome focus into the technology space.  Seeking to understand the “must improve” capabilities across our business and influencing to invest appropriately into people, process, information and… yes… technology areas is needed to facilitate the delivery of our business outcomes and transformation. 

Rich – I have learnt the hard way and quickly that the most important thing to secure your credibility with the organisation is to ‘run first’!  Coming from a background of innovation in Boots, I had to take extraordinary care to make sure that I was really clear that I only had permission to bring in new solutions once I could demonstrate that the changes we were delivering would offer stability, a new ease of working and would have our team members at the heart of each change.  Sounds simple but, as with almost all large organisations right now, Boots has a very wide mixed estate of old and new to deal with and that means a lot of midnight oil being burnt to get your head around how it all hangs together quickly.

Grant – If that isn’t an architecture hand off, what isn’t? Hanging together is the crux of an effectively designed architecture living as a part of our overall ecosystem.  It is easy to get addicted to the drug of problem solving.  It takes executive temperament and patience to zoom out and ensure that we are solving the right problems first, then to hold that focus and slowly apply the zoom lens into what dimensions of the problem need solving before allowing our not-so-inner technology nerd to get after the how… and that’s exactly where my job gets really hard! 

Right at the critical moment when I want to unleash my problem-solving technology nerd on a ripe opportunity… I have to pass the frame of the challenge onto the technical community who is most aligned to the technology, business and information domains associated with the space… I know they will take us further in the right direction than I can and without the bias I probably brought to the problem to start with… They leverage our standards first and pave our roadmap to our target state in their respective areas of expertise.  To that later exciting point on roadmaps: sometimes we get really lucky and find a “double win” where our business enablement needs provide us with a chance to also address elements of our desired modernization roadmap for IT. That’s where things truly get exciting!

Rich – Working from the spare room over a Teams call is now what we all expect but it has caused us all to think again about who we are in the grand scheme of things and what that means for the organisation we serve.  The approach we now take is to stay as close as we can to our colleagues, checking in more regularly to see what is needed and always being there, always on, always able to work through how to support the need for something different today.  That immediate reactive nature can be destructive to our strategic design for the future, and that’s why, again, the need to stay close to Grant and his team of Business and Enterprise Architects they have been so important to the success of all that we have tried to do.

Leading Our Teams

How are you adjusting your leadership within your teams?

Rich – How much more human do we feel as colleagues of one another 12 months on?

We have seen each other’s dogs and cats, we have observed each other’s taste in art work hanging from the walls of rooms we would perhaps never see, we have ‘met’ children we would have known just the names of and heard every type of doorbell ringing.  The pandemic has levelled our perceptions of one another and created a new inspiration for being a ‘human leader’.  The need to ask, “how are you” and mean it has never been more acute as a leader task.

Grant – I’m great Rich, thanks for asking – you always do. I couldn’t agree more. Whether we see each other in 1-to-1s or in larger group meetings as we assemble it’s critical to check in! You won’t be able to talk about weekend plans or the funny thing that happened in the last meeting over coffee, walking the halls or walking in and out of the conference room. We have to create that connection where we share space… and that means an intentional step away from the problem or topic of the meeting to really connect with one another!… It’s important to remember:

Even though we appear as legless torsos in this virtual world – the whole person is still very much here!

Rich – That connectivity is what people have missed the most when we talk to different parts of teams.  Replicating that in virtual space has been a key challenge I think, particularly to do it in a free-flowing way where conversations can be inspired from nothing rather than from an agenda.  In Boots IT we have instigated a number of different virtual moments:

Can You Give Me Two Minutes goes out every Friday, a two minute ‘download’ of what has happened in the week, successes to be celebrated, things to watch out for and sometimes just simple feelings of what’s going on.  Every other one of these is written by a guest writer from within the team.

Golden Hour is a protected slot that the team has ‘permission’ to use for anything that is NOT work, so walk the dog, go for a run, listen to some music or simply sit.  It felt odd to need to give permission to protect this hour but now it’s in place you can see the way the team reacts to each other’s golden hour, being so much more respectful. (The term comes from my step-daughter who has golden hour for good behavior at school)

Weekly Huddles have been put in place for 25 minutes with guest speakers from all over the world –  technologists, business leaders and the most senior members of the team being interviewed in a ‘fire side chat’ style.  We have done this to offer a continuous growth of new ideas and new outlooks and have created some amazing collateral off the back of it.

Weekly team get togethers have been hosted by every member of the IT leadership team.  An agenda-less 30 minutes a week to come together and chat about anything.  This one has been quite hard to do, to cater for every type of person who wants to interact in different ways but months and months into the pandemic we are still doing this.,  Some people join to simply hear different voices, while some join because they have something important and interesting to say and some join because they want to be able to see a colleague without the agenda in the way of the conversation.

Grant – Every leader finds their own authentic recipe to create this space.  The worst mistake we can make is not doing anything and expecting our communities to build and our relationships to form on their own. In our global EA community, we’ve borrowed a few pages from Rich’s book by bringing in experts into a monthly all architecture call and are actively working to build EA communities of practice across each major business division, platform focus and architecture discipline across WBA to connect IT leaders with similar interests personally and professionally.  In a similar way, we are creating tracks of work within my team to build and improve our EA process and methodology together.  In all of these forums each architect’s effort to share what has worked well in their experience quickly builds collective best practices which can be used globally. 

Most importantly – each of these venues both Rich and I have created strive to bring us together as technology leaders and to provide an opportunity to connect with one another while contributing to the future and most of all fulfilling our human need TO BELONG.

Rich – I think the adjustments we have made in how we interact with each other and the value we place on the human side of our relationships is here to stay T that’s got to be a good thing, right?  It does set a challenge though, to get the levels right, everybody is different in how they want to interact and we have to understand peoples’ preferences more to get that right.

Developing Ourselves

How did you shift your personal approach to working in COVID?

Rich – My own natural stance is one of collaborator and sense maker.  I’ve fostered that for years, so now to be in isolation to some degree and needing to find new muscles for creativity that can be expressed when in lock down-induced creative isolation has been a real challenge for me.  That ability to be creative together is something I can’t wait to get back to – I love post it notes and brown paper as a way to solve problems.

Grant – Post it notes make sense, however, it won’t surprise you that as an architect I’m all about white boards and dry erase markers… I hate to admit it, I almost miss that terrible smell!

To shift my personal approach, especially in this virtual meeting reality, I try to take special care to focus on one-on-ones and get to know the people I’m meeting with, support them in their journeys inside and outside work while sharing my experiences as well. This isn’t a selfless investment! My values of partnership, caring and belonging all resonate when I can zoom out and connect with my teammates.  This keeps me motivated, fulfilled and at the top of my game ready to address the challenges of the day; and hopefully does the same for my colleagues too.

In addition to these real conversations, another place I like to connect is LinkedIn… and yes, this conversation is a part of that focus…  A little friendly banter and exchange on LinkedIn whenever I see something innovative, a little geeky, inspiring or meaningfully ‘Coachy’ gives me a chance to creatively think of the headline that really “sums it up” while creating a conversation with all of the colleagues I’ve had the privilege of meeting or working with along my journey inside and outside WBA.

Lastly, there are many opportunities to learn and contribute externally in the COVID world and getting on a plane and taking a day off work isn’t a necessity with today’s silver lining.  This could be joining or participating in panel-conversations or sharing a presentation with generally applicable learnings to invest in our profession while sharpening our insights with Q&A from external contributors.  These activities contribute to our industry voice as a company, and they support building our personal brand and network as leaders.

Rich – There have been ways to make the different environment work, though.  Certainly you can get more hours in a day done, not that I think that’s a good thing, but the technology we have now put in place will enable this new hybrid working to become the normal which supports a much wider approach to our lives at work. As we do get back to a normal pace of work, as we live in this new hybrid world working out what balance is going to be right for EVERYONE involved in every meeting is going to be a new(ish) big challenge for us all.

Grant – Ah, Rich saved the best for last… balance! I am admittedly terrible at this.  One thing we can do to help each other is to hold each other accountable to reasonable working hours. Given we never “leave the office” it’s easy to never “shut down”. In addition to being unhealthy for our families, this can also have an impact on our teams by setting the wrong example. This is the area I’ve been intending to “let go” to speed my onboarding over my first six months at WBA (much to the supportive objection of my caring colleagues)!  As an important focus for me looking forward, I’m committed to limiting the 12+ hour days to the moments where that level of urgency is required.

I bring forward my own opportunity because – more than ever in today’s virtual world – it’s easy to miss those subtle queues from your support network on where you need to invest to be better!  Be sure to take the time to ask for feedback and really listen. It’s too easy to clock in and out without making time for yourself in the journey.  Do not forget to invest in your own development and whole-life success in this surreal break from the norm and that means taking special care to notice and listen to that crisp insight coming across your mushy speakerphone.

And that’s a wrap for chapter 2! The story doesn’t have to end here. 

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