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How to bridge business expectations and technology capabilities?

On this week’s Digital Lighthouse, Zoe Cunningham is joined by Scott Ronan, Senior Director of Central Infrastructure at GXO. As the second special episode on digital leadership, Scott takes a deep dive into what it means to be a digital leader. Scott shines a spotlight on the importance of trusting, understanding, and giving autonomy to your teams, as well as predicting technology trends and working out how to build new technologies into your business strategy.

 

Hosted by Zoe Cunningham
with Scott Ronan, Director of Central Infrastructure at GXO

 

Transcript

Zoe Cunningham: Hello, and welcome to the Digital Lighthouse. I’m Zoe Cunningham.

On the Digital Lighthouse, we get inspiration from tech leaders, to help us to shine a light through turbulent times. We believe that if you have a lighthouse, you can harness the power of the storm.

Today, I’m super excited to welcome Scott Ronan who’s the Senior Director of Central Infrastructure at GXO. Hi, Scott.

Scott Ronan: Hi, there.

Zoe: Welcome to the Digital Lighthouse. Could you start by maybe giving us a super brief intro to your current role, and also the journey that you’ve been on to get to your current role?

Scott: My current role is, as you said, the Senior Director of Central Infrastructure for GXO. GXO is a company that recently spun off from XPO, which is a large logistics company. They carry on as XPO, focusing on transport. We focus on supply chain logistics. We look after warehouses and getting goods into warehouse, and then getting them off to the end customer.

Central infrastructure covers everything that is essentially not in a warehouse. We provide the networks to the warehouse, the processing for the systems in the warehouses, applications, database, VMware, storage, and we also look after end-user computing. My focus is mainly for Europe when it comes to central infrastructure. For end-user computing, I also look after the States as well.

I joined GXO in August, after spending about 18 months at a hotel company called Accor. My roles have stepped up for a number of years, through various companies and industries. I originally started my career in IT operations and have followed that infrastructure and operations path to where I am now.

Zoe: Absolutely fascinating. I love this idea of how do you separate out because obviously it’s all interoperating with each other, right? Actually, how do you parcel out different bits of tech and different bits of digital is always super interesting. That brings me onto my first question, because the term that I think is most popular at the moment and has definitely become increasingly popular, is the term Digital Leader. What is it that we mean when we describe someone as a digital leader?

Scott: For me, it’s about providing a number of key things to my teams and my departments. On the one hand, there is the people or the team side of things. That’s building up a strong relationship with all of my direct reports and their direct reports, understanding what they’re interested in, what their skills are, where they see their careers going. Then working to provide those individuals with opportunities that align with our strategy as the company and also with the IT department, but also enable them to work and fulfill their objectives in the most positive way.

That’s the people side of things. That’s about making sure that when somebody in the business comes to me and says, “We want to do a new solution,” maybe it’s, let’s say, a data lake in the cloud or something, that I can understand which members of my team are the people that are going to be good fits for those projects.

The other side of it is around the technology and being aware of what is coming around the corner, how it may be beneficial to our business, how it may align with our strategies, whether that’s moving to software as a service solution, doing things in-house. It’s just having that longer-term view of the technologies that are going to be coming into the market, and how can that fit around some of the problems or challenges we have.

Zoe: It’s a big, old job as everyone in this space knows. How do you go about implementing on these really quite large requirements? What are the key skills that you need, as a digital leader, in order to be able to do this well?

Scott: When somebody comes to you and says, “Okay, we would like to do this task here,” being able to step back, take a look at, first of all, because often the business will come to us and say, for example, “We really want to use GCP, Google’s cloud platform.” “Okay, great. What do you want to use that for?” Or they come to you and say, “We really should be doing more with this.” It’s like, “Okay. Let’s decide on the technology later,” because actually, if you’ve got a strong business case and you know what you’re trying to achieve, a technology will be decided along that journey.

It’s about asking those questions, “What are you trying to achieve? What do you want to do?” Rather than trying to shoehorn a piece of technology into something that might not be the right one. Because if you come to me with some strong requirements, and then I sit down with my architects and say, “Okay, John from marketing wants to do this,” we start to break those requirements down. Eventually, the technology that is valid for that business case will become easier to see. Whereas if someone says, and I’m not picking on Google, it’s perfectly fine, if someone comes to me and says, “I want to use this,” I need to understand how they’ve made that decision.

My business guy, he doesn’t care about how well it’s monitored. He doesn’t care about how easy it is to patch or if we’ve got a DBA who can already do that. It’s about trying to tease out those requirements that don’t really matter a great deal to the business but are very important for us in supporting the business’ solution.

Zoe: Yes. It’s almost being able to find out the non-technical aspects of it, because you know about all the technical aspects already within your department, right?

Scott: It sounds really bad, but I want my team to be as lazy as possible. I don’t want us to have to build a new wheel every time somebody comes to us. If somebody comes to us and says, “I want to do this,” I should be able to go, “Well, which one of my service catalog items does that fit into already?” Because if there’s already one there that’s already been paid for, it’s already been amortized, and it’s already working, and it’s tested and we’re confident in it, then that’s a cheaper solution for everybody, it’s up and running quicker. It’s important to bring that sort of information to the business person rather than just choosing whatever they’ve read is the latest technology they should be using.

Zoe: Absolutely. How has the role of digital leadership changed over the last few years?

Scott: I think for me, probably my first real big leadership role started in about 2011. I was working for a UK gambling company. At that time, it was very much about, “We are going to get the absolute most we can out of this hardware for as long as we can and it doesn’t matter if–” I remember, at one point, we had 2,500 shops running on a Windows NT domain, which was officially out of support. The view of the business at that point was, “IT is a cost center over there. There’s somebody that we come to when they need to do something. We don’t take them on the journey with us. They’re not sitting at the table with us.”

I think what’s happened now, and certainly, in my last three or four roles, IT is sitting at the table. Rather than sitting there waiting for the business to come to them and say, “We want to do this,” IT are saying, “Well, we’ve got this technology here, and we think it’d be really good for your HR department,” or, “Really good for your finance department. We believe this is the value that it’s going to give to you guys.”

I think if you go back to 2011, and even before then, it was, “Okay, are we going to let IT into this meeting?” “Not if we can help it. We don’t want them coming in. We’ll just tell them what money they’ve got to use at the end of the process.” Whereas now, certainly where I am now, and in Accor,= which was the hotel business I worked in before this, IT are very much front and center, enabling the business and showing the business how to do things better.

This was very apparent during the COVID pandemic. Obviously, the hospitality industry was very badly impacted and projects were refocused. Suddenly, you went from, “We want to do this,” to actually, “How do we enable contactless check-in? How do we enable the use of a mobile app? How do we support what we used to refer to as the silent traveler?”

Whereas three, four months before, it was entirely about, “How do I get him to come down to the bar and buy his meal here, and use his loyalty points?” and all those things. Massive, quick about face, and IT was absolutely at the center of doing that, and Accor put some amazing solutions in place to make our customers and our staff feel a lot safer. It was just very interesting how IT at Accor had to be incredibly agile, very quickly, in a very real-world situation rather than the usual sort of IT style of agile. In a very real-world situation, we had to change direction very quickly.

I think that’s where things have changed. IT is no longer an afterthought when it comes to enabling the business, it’s actually part of the decision-making process.

Zoe: That’s really fantastic to hear because actually, that is the only way you can be agile and you can respond with your technology. Unless you have that two-way dialogue, you haven’t got the information to be able to make the business decisions that are going to rely on technology. It’s just common sense, really? [chuckles]

Scott: Yes, it is. It hasn’t always been that way and wasn’t for a very long time. I worked with some fantastic IT leaders earlier on in my career who were coming to the business with these great ideas. In some instances, they were brushed off. In some instances, they weren’t and were able to create fantastic transformation, but I think nowadays it is very much IT first and you’re beginning to see, certainly in my organization at the moment, you’ve got the IT department, then you’ve got the in-country IT department, but you’re starting to see IT specialists or subject matter experts within certain key department.

There is an HR IT team and there is a finance IT team and other areas in the business. They’re recognizing the importance of it themselves and outside of regular IT, they are regular IT as well, but they’ve got a focus and their understanding around what their key users need that enables them to work on that. Whereas certainly for my team, we’re a central IT. We’re looking at things at the centralized level going across numerous countries. In some cases, you need that in-country person or you need that HR IT person just to make sure their voice is heard.

Zoe: Absolutely, and to represent the users and I suppose almost to translate as well. To translate from users who won’t understand the technical language into, “This is what it means from a systems point of view.”

Scott: Definitely. Sometimes it can be difficult for you to get that message across to the users as to how this particular technology is going to really enable them. HR has its own specific needs. Certain countries have their own specific needs. If you look at Russia, for example, it has certain requirements regarding Russian citizens’ data, so having somebody in that country who understands those needs suddenly becomes far more important than it used to be.

Zoe: We’ve touched on this in talking both about your career history and also about these department-specific IT roles, but how generalist would you say being a digital leader is?How much is general knowledge and principles and ways of doing things that can be cross applied in different industries and how much is it very specific knowledge and knowing how to apply that?

Scott: I think you get to a certain point in your career where you are prepared to stay technical and constantly keep updating your portfolio of technical skills, or you make a decision that I’m going to either go towards project management or product management and work directly with the users to develop solutions, or you move into the management side of things. For me, I made this decision in 2009/2010 to not abandon my technical area of choice, which was Linux and Unix, et cetera, and operations, but to go towards management. You still have to be fairly technical, you still have to have a good understanding because the people underneath you want to know that you understand the concepts.

Understand why you’re saying yes, they should do option A or option B, but I’m definitely more of a generalist now. I do have a couple of areas that I’ve worked on specific long-term projects that have meant I’ve got a stronger knowledge of those, but I am definitely more of a generalist now than a specific area. I’ve got guys for me, I will question my network director, of course I will, and he knows that. We’ve got a relationship where when he comes to me with something, he knows what I’m going to ask him already. We’ve got that and that’s good, but if he tells me we absolutely should do this and I don’t have the time for the two or three-hour conversation around why it’s the right thing to do, sometimes I’ve just got to say, “Chris, if that’s the right thing to do, we’ll do it. We can talk about the reasons later on, but we don’t have the time now, so just go with it.” It’s good to have those strong people underneath you that you trust to make those decisions and those recommendations.

Zoe: Yes, absolutely. That is one of the cross-applicable leadership skills, isn’t it? It’s knowing how to get the most out of your team and how to utilize them to the full rather than trying to do it all yourself.

Scott: Yes, and also to offer them a level of protection as well. To give them that space to make mistakes, to protect them from the business, because sometimes what we find is we’ll have a P1 incident, for example. There’s lots of the business want to talk to the network manager who’s dealing with it or the AS400 engineer who’s dealing with it. No, why does anybody think that would be a good idea? These guys don’t want to talk to you about why the business is doing A or B, you shouldn’t talk to them why we’re failing over an LPAR on an AS/400 or something. It’s about offering your technical team that protection, but then on the other side, making sure that you’re keeping a business updated, they feel engaged, they understand what the problem is, that you’re working on it more than anything else. You’re giving them that sense of comfort as well, that you understand how important it is to them, but should they be talking to my networking guy while he’s trying to fix something? No, I think that’s probably quite a bad idea.

Zoe: Not going to result in a win for anyone. [chuckles]

Scott: No, it’s going to slow things down because somebody’s trying to explain to the business what, I don’t know, BGP routing is. It’s not going to help anything get fixed any quicker and that’s what you need to do as a manager or leader, whatever you want to call it. Offer your team that protection and that space to resolve issues and to make changes and ensure that the business are also being kept up to date and they feel engaged and they feel like they’re important because they are.

Zoe: Something I’m really interested in because at Softwire, we spend almost all of our time working on new pieces of software and new products and developing new things. Within a business like yours or perhaps, it would be interesting to hear if it’s varied across the different types of organization you’ve worked for, but how much of your time is spent integrating or developing new technology versus optimizing and getting the best of existing technology?

Scott: Most of my team are working 60% of their time on new projects. Probably 30% of their time on operational services and then probably 10% on administrative tasks, like documentation, ticketing, things of that nature. That varies a bit depending on the time of year and what’s going on. For example, at the moment, most people are working on operational testing because we’ve got Black Friday around the corner. We need to give our customers the confidence that we’re able to do it. Also, it’s budget preparation time as well, so nobody’s got any money to spend. We’re all trying to work how we ask for some more money to spend. A lot of them are working on that at the moment, but once Christmas and Black Friday are out of the way, it is a return to the 60% project work.

Some people in the team, so I do have architects in the team, they don’t really do any operational work. They are probably 90% project-focused. Now, some of those projects may never come to fruition. Business direction may change or something along those lines, but architects, probably 90%. The rest of the team probably about 60% looking on new systems or new initiatives.

Zoe: Presumably it’s quite complex trying to work out the interplay between those two as well. When you bring in a new system that will have an impact on your existing systems.

Scott: Yes, it is. The transition to life processes is very important and getting that right and the hyper care around the new system and how long is the warranty period, because you always get that friction between project resources and operational resources and they just throw the new system over the fence and leave us to deal with it. Then the project side is often, they don’t know how to deal with it. It is a very delicate balance between the two.

One of the ways that I find to deal with that best is that if I am working on a project that’s going to be going live and either working with a third party who’s helping us or with my own teams, there is almost a buddying system with operational solutions people.

There should be no occasion where the operational team is not aware of a system. They should be there in the kickoff meeting, they should understand why we’re doing it. They should understand how it’s going to impact them, the escalation pass, all of those key points. I have been, earlier on in my career, working in operations teams that were just, “Oh, here’s a new system. You support it. It goes live tomorrow.” “Okay, what does it do? Who do I call? What is the capacity issues around it?” all of those things. I understand the importance of having that.

I think in the past, there was very much a clear division between pre-live and post-live. I think nowadays, certainly when you look at the way DevOps has become so prominent in IT, that line is blurred and a lot of people look at that as a bad thing, but I actually look at it as a very good thing because it gives you a solution that isn’t going live. The live team probably already know about it earlier than they would have in the past and the non-live people, because they’re tied directly to the live or the operational people, they have a better understanding of what will impact them and the constraints they have to work with.

Zoe: Exactly. It’s all about communication again, isn’t it? Different people have different parts of the puzzle and they need to talk to each other.

Scott: Yes, very much so. I used to have a very good Linux manager and a very good Windows manager. They were both absolutely superb at their job but they were absolutely terrible with communicating to each other. We went through a process called Insights Leadership Management, and it tells you how you should communicate to people. My Linus guy was very much, “We’re all in this together. Let’s go on this journey and we’re all going to do great.” The Windows guy was very much like, “I need facts and figures. I need a log file. I need evidence.” Once they learnt that that was the optimum way for them to communicate, the Linux guy would go to the Windows guy and go, “Here’s the log file. This is what I need. Is that okay?” “Great.” Then the Windows guy in turn would go up to the Linux guy and go, “This is really good. Your guys are going to be able to do this, it will give them so much more control.” Once you get those understandings around how you should communicate then that makes everything a hell of a lot easier.

Zoe: Absolutely. Fantastic, Scott. Just finally, what one piece of advice would you give to an aspiring digital leader?

Scott: Get good people around you, people that you trust, people that you enable. Protect them and make sure that they feel valued and that they have the ability to make change without always being concerned about how it’s going to impact things. Yes, of course, try to avoid impact but that shouldn’t be the complete constraint that you have to work within. Get good people around you and enable them to do good work and offer them a level of protection when things don’t go right.

Zoe: I could not agree more, Scott. Thank you so much for coming on the show to help shine a light for others.

Scott: Great. I’ve really enjoyed it. Thank you.