Digital Talent Chooses Culture over Corporate, drives transformation

A story about creating a culture and the best example is my last job, creating a startup in a corporation: In 2017, I got appointed as Group Chief Technology Officer for one of Asia’s and Europe’s largest retailers, to open the Digital Department!

The key objective was building one of the strongest teams covering Product Management, Data Science/Analytics, Engineering (Engineering, Frontend, Backend, API, and Legacy Integration), HR, Finance, Office Management, and Innovation. Basically, you can compare the job with opening a new startup within the confines of a Corporate.

Since we have been so successful so fast, we can see other firms in Thailand the regions, following the example on the model, culture, employer branding, and rapid generation of shareholder value.

I did naturally hire for cultural fit and skill, not by citizenship or pedigree in the CV (neither job nor university).

Principles or “culture” I promote and adhere to myself (or at least try):

Empowerment, Diversity, No Fear Environment, Transparency, Honesty, Work Hard & Play Hard, Learn & Improve, Deep Expertise & Very Fast Play

My direct reports included 8 Thai, 2 German, 1 Singaporean, 1 American, 1 Portuguese, and others – on average, I had 8-10 direct reports. Half of them have been female. From the overall department, many have been open and some not so open LGBTQ. Age groups from new graduate to retirement age!

What is important here? Culture Fit and Skills

My Office had a meeting room layout, one meeting desk with 6 chairs, one large wall-mounted TV, and Apple-TV to broadcast from Laptops, whiteboard style walls. I would typically use the same place and worked on a Laptop.

The team coined my office “Hulk Room,” it had a hulk-like figure at the office-facing window and was a nice comment about “tough in the matter, soft in heart” style.

We would have legendary workshops in my office, arguing about architecture, product roadmap, incidents, budgets, and people questions (Recruitment, banding, salaries, and organizational changes), to continuously improve. Everyone has to prepare their views and propose or be ready to work through the topic, with me having but one opinion, taking the perspective of what the shareholder would do.

Friday nights, we would have Pizza Friday, with free food (Pizza and many other things) and beer in our town hall space. Once or twice a month, we would have a sharing session or a town hall. People would meet and chat. Sometimes people bring games, or someone plays the guitar. Most go back to work.

That sounds “warm & fussy”, but the conclusion was a “kick ass” team, delivering 30 products, a new one every few weeks, and updates to all every 2 weeks.

People working extremely hard and professional day, sometimes nights and weekends.

Linking individuals to the goal of the Corporation, being clear on strategy and results is a critical part. Making sure we all know why we are here and doing this job. Answering tough questions after bonuses, promotions, etc. Not censoring questions, but being open and upfront – with what is possible and equally clear, with what is not.

We would invite Executives to share their views, as well as outside speakers to share theirs.

Here in the picture is a town hall with the Chairman and President, two of the Product Executives (one of them was my deputy), and myself in our office. At the end of the session, we would have a group picture sitting on the floor, part of the game.

Letting people be themselves, not criticizing how they talk, dress, eat, or are, as long as we can all work together. Measured on what we deliver and how!

The ability to team is in direct correlation to the ability to digitally deliver great products, which delight customers and drive significant revenue!

This is a learning from my Accenture days! We would often have hundreds of people in the project, but teaming well made the difference of success or not. Here as well, we did team well for the most part. Where there have been teaming issues, we would conduct team reviews and interviews – including colleagues from HR. With the outcome, we would discuss the mix of coaching or team structural changes to benefit all. Always focusing on the ability to deliver.

Individuals on any level could bring forward ideas in their daily work regarding technology, functionality, or working together. We would pursue ones with merits. Everyone, of course, needs a bit of endurance and help to implement their ideas.

Leaders should have professional and personal values and live these. This is creating authenticity, loyalty, teaming, and rapid success.

In my professional life and the companies I have worked for, I have seen leaders who failed on ethics, professional values, or personal values. How can you trust them on anything? How do you know what they say or think behind the scenes? I heard Executive gossiping about the private life of some professionals (males and females), getting questions like “why are there so few foreigners here or so many?), experts being screamed in meetings with 10, 20, or even 50 folks in the room – clearly, I can’t let that stand and have to take immediate action. So should every executive.

Are people making mistakes? Call it out and fix them: no vendetta, but fair performance review with all wins and losses throughout the time period. I wasn’t above the law either.

At a particularly stressful time, I analyzed myself, and it dawned on me that I overstretched myself and the team. So I apologized to the whole company for being too much Hulk and not enough Bruce Banner. I have received a fabulous positive response from most team members, giving me tips and advice.

Dear Team,

I like to apologize deeply for being moody at certain times over the last few weeks, I understand the impact this had on some of you [...]

Over the last couple of weeks I have grown increasingly tired and exhausted, with a mix of different private & business pressures to push back on. No right to become moody, obviously yet there it is. After 2.5 years of nearly no vacation (I'm finally planning a trip) [...].

Given that not only I'm over stretched, but most of us (are), [...] we already have started to communicate [...] that we are all booked until the end of the year and started pushing (too aggressive) 2020 deadlines backwards.

Today [...] I will share a special survey where you can tell me anonymously what I should do more off and what I should do less of. Please help me with the proper feedback. [...]

For almost all leavers, I have had personal discussions with and tried to understand concerns, potential reasons for leaving, but also giving them coaching on the new role. Clearly, for good candidates, this was intended to ensure they stay. Many times an issue is with a business context or the direct supervisor, here we offered alternate roles addressing this. It helped us sharpening the day-to-day management and review, to further prevent leaving in the first place.

Digital, eCommerce, and Retail and delivering digital products – a new one every 2 months – for some 14 very different business units in Thailand, Vietnam, Italy, and Germany is a busy and near 24×7 job. In 4 years, I had only once a real nearly-no-phone-call vacation (6 weeks before I left). Yet, I love my team, and I love the products we created.

As a team, including the work from great folks across all departments, we created a Digital Business, eventually enabling one of the biggest IPOs in the Country and globally in the Retail Industry in 2020 – with significant shareholder value being created from day 1 until the last day, exactly 4 years later. Together, we have pride in what we did well and took the learning’s to keep improving and growing.

The organization’s culture played a significant role, and the 450 folks eventually entrusted to me have made a lot of this happening. The culture made the difference, and people want good culture for jobs.

Corporations that can’t adapt will not be able to succeed in this space.

The business we have built and which keeps growing can be seen here: