A scant five years ago, Bell Canada ran a traditional “old school” IT shop. Although it was a passable performer it was never in danger of making the honour roll. It often took too long to deliver projects and was successful on only about half of them.
To make matters worse, the IS/IT department didn’t have much of the old “school spirit”. Employee satisfaction was down to 51%, lowest in the company. People were working too hard without getting good results.
Though retiring CIO Dave Cox had great leadership skills, he had been hamstrung by the company’s decentralized approach to IT. Cox controlled the infrastructure but almost none of the development. It was difficult to get people to pay attention to the corporate CIO because most of the IS/IT staff worked for the business units — that’s where their bonuses came from.
When Cox retired, BCE president and CEO Michael Sabia tapped Eugene Roman as the new dean of IT, charging him with the responsibility of turning the IT function into a high-performing team.
Roman had joined the company on loan from Nortel in 1998 to help with Y2K preparations. Having witnessed the difficulties faced by his predecessor, one thing was clear to him: if he was to build the kind of high-performing team his boss was expecting, the days of outdated back-office IT at Bell must come to an end. It was time to put the “old school” ties in the shredder.
A new way of doing business
When Roman took the job of CIO of the IS/IT group, which would later become Bell Systems & Technology (BS&T), he immediately set about the task of turning things around.
“I took my team offsite to Niagara-on-the-Lake for three days and we built a 100-day plan. What are the things that we are going to do in 30 days, 60 days and then 100 days?” he explained. “The key steps we decided on were, first, line up the IT organization with the businesses, second, convince the business leaders that this newly centralized or shared IT community makes sense, and third, provide basic service excellence.”
In order to ensure he had the clout to get things done, Roman insisted that the IT team have a solid reporting line to him. They would still serve the business and be in the business, but he would do their performance reviews and determine their bonuses.
One of the biggest challenges Roman faced in creating a high-performance IT team was getting people motivated. With employee satisfaction hovering at around the 50% mark, a concerted effort would be needed to resolve a myriad of human resources issues.
First in need of repair was the relationship between IT and the business, which had frayed because of the “old school” approach. IT staff felt under the gun — blamed by business when problems arose, and criticized for being too slow. Roman dealt with this one head on. “I said to our business leaders, we are either partners or we are not. If at the first sign of trouble you are going to beat on us, you will get what you want, but the good people won’t stick around in that environment.”
The message got through. Business leaders changed their approach and began doing an excellent job of recognizing the good work done by the IT department. As a result, IT staff became much more willing to take calculated risks to get the job done.
Credit where credit is due
Roman is a big believer in acknowledging a job well done, and he has put in place a number of initiatives to boost employee morale — simple things like team recognition and individual recognition.
“We give out symbols,” he said. “At Christmas, I give out gold pens to people who have done something really spectacular. We use a pen because you can stick it in your pocket, sort of like a medal of honour. And we use Montblanc pens as a symbol of enduring quality. We want our people to think quality.”
BS&T has also instituted a program called Breakthrough Awards. The idea behind it is to encourage people not just to talk about problems all the time, but also to share the good stories. Any staff member can nominate a fellow employee for a Breakthrough Award and winners are eligible to get up to $1,000, depending on how big the breakthrough is.
Another HR issue that Roman dealt with was the burnout problem. Staff were working too many hours and making too many mistakes.
“You can’t run a large shop like a sweatshop. Enterprise level IT is demanding, high-pressure work. Our job, as leaders, is to make the work enjoyable for everyone,” he said. “If we could find a way to ensure that our employees enjoy working every day, then that would be the promised land. We’re not there yet but we are working very hard to be there.” You can’t run a large shop like a sweatshop. Enterprise level IT is demanding, high-pressure work. Eugene Roman>Text
One way in which Roman is helping achieve this goal is by encouraging workers not to overdo it. “I say to people, don’t work too hard. Just go home and think about what you are doing. The antithesis of work, work, work is think and then work.”
In order to take 1500 people, transform them, and get that transformation to work, BS&T needed a guiding philosophy. The one it follows is called ‘servant leadership’. “We put in the right leadership drivers, and servant leadership was the key,” said Roman. “When I met with my staff I said, ‘Look, I am here to serve you.’ They looked at me a little strange and said, ‘Well, no, we work for you.’ And I said, ‘If you think that, you’ve got it wrong. If you look at me as your boss you won’t call me, so don’t look at me as your boss. I am here to serve you, so you’ve got to figure out how I can help you do your jobs. Ask and you shall receive. ”
The servant-leadership approach is like an inverted pyramid. The most important people in the company are the ones in front of the customers. And in Roman’s philosophy, there is only one customer. As he puts it, “We don’t accept that there is an internal customer. There is only a cash-paying customer at the end. Everybody else is a partner trying to figure out how to make it work.”
Under the servant-leadership concept, everyone is an equal. At the end of the day the boss is still the boss, but as a functioning group, everyone is equal. Roman’s staff meetings, which take the form of roundtables, exemplify this notion.
“These meetings are all about openness. People have to be truthful; they have to act with caring for other people in the room. There are no silos. We share openly and work hard to deliver the results,” he said.
Because the people in BS&T weren’t used to communicating amongst themselves and across different domains, a lot of time was spent encouraging people to be better communicators. It started with town hall meetings. Every three months there is a town hall, which every employee is expected to attend. All town halls are interactive, and employees are encouraged to speak up on the fly.
“We also do a lot of face-to-face sessions with our employees,” added Roman. “In these sessions we encourage people to speak out, tell us what’s on their mind. How can w