Magdalena Petryniak, Story Seekers: I am honored to talk to Nigel Ng, the president of International Sales for RSA, the security division of Dell Technologies. Today we’ll be talking about leadership and building high performing teams. Correct me if I’m wrong. You spent 19 years under EMC and now Dell umbrella.
Nigel Ng, RSA: Yes, that is correct. I spent just a bit over 10 years at EMC. And now I am on my eighth year at RSA.
So, after a very successful mission in Asia Pacific and Japan, last year, you were promoted to run the international sales arm for RSA. What does this endeavour mean for you?
Well, for me, it’s a personal challenge to drive success for RSA for the EMEA region as well as APJ. This is quite unique to combine the 2 regions: APJ and EMEA as one, international team. I do believe that we are going to have a great time and we’re going to drive a lot of successes for RSA.
You said it is a unique idea to combine APJ and EMEA as one. What do these two regions have in common and what are the differences between them?
That’s a good question. I think there are a lot of similarities but there are also important differences. One of the similarities is that both EMEA and APJ are a collection of countries on one continent. It’s a collection of many countries, each with a rich history of cultures and languages, and they have different ways of doing business and even different time zones that we must take into consideration. Unless you work in APJ and EMEA, you will likely fail to recognize the fact that it’s not one continent like America but many regions/countries, and you must treat them differently. For example: in Dubai, we work from Sunday to Thursday, and you need local language in many countries like Italy, Spain, Poland, France and so on. We need to be flexible enough and adjust and adapt to different challenges and requirements driving business in those regions. In many countries, relationships and trust is key. I think that both regions are much more aware, well-travelled and understanding of what it takes to live in a continent that is so mixed in terms of people and cultures.
You have truly thrived and grown in the region, ranking as the top region within RSA, and probably exceeding all expectations. Are you going to copy what you did in the APJ region? What is your strategic plan for EMEA?
I think there are some things that we introduced in APJ that we can probably replicate in EMEA. But ultimately, it would be silly of me to tell my team who runs the UK, South EMEA, META, Benelux/Nordics or DACHEERI markets how to go about their business. After all, they know their business, their culture and their customers better than me.
We created a shared vision for our leadership team and then the rest of my job is empowering them and helping them to be successful. I don’t control how they run the business. I empower them to make the right decisions for their business because they know their business better than me.
Working in a corporation and having a lot of procedures and standards can be difficult. As an organization, RSA has changed a lot in the last three years, and we are much more open to adjusting our guidelines and our programmes to suit the local regions and the local countries and I think that works the best.
You said that RSA has been changing a lot in the last years. How have you been managing that process in APJ and EMEA?
Change management is all about creating a shared vision and direction for the organization and the team. As such, we need to get everybody’s buy-in that it is a good idea. Otherwise, it will fail. In my experience, trying to change too many things too quickly will not work. I tend to have a focused approach to change, only 1 or at most 2 things at any one period, ensure everybody understands “why” we are doing it, the benefit to the organization, our people, our customers. Then, we systematically roll it out, measure it and review the process to see if we need to tweak it to get the outcome, we hope for in the first place.
How would you define your leadership style?
Before, we had some challenges in leadership in EMEA; leaders came and went, there wasn’t a lot of continuity. What I have tried to do, when I came here, was to stabilize the team and I think it helped that I’m from RSA. As I already know what works and the team felt comfortable with that.
My leadership style is about creating a shared vision for all of us.
That idea resonated very well with the team. We came out and collaborated to create the RSA EMEA Leadership Brand. This is what we want other people to say, whether it is Internal RSA, other Dell companies or our customers when they think about the RSA EMEA leadership team. We spent half a day workshopping and defining the RSA EMEA Leadership Brand. We said things like:
- we wanted to be seen as a big contributor to the RSA business,
- we were going to create a culture of collaboration and inclusiveness and teamwork and
- that we were going to help remove the roadblocks and frictions from our sales teams and other parts of the business so that it’s easy for them to be successful,
- we wanted to make it easy for our customers to work with RSA,
- and we have the ambition for RSA EMEA to become number one in the group.
It has never happened before, and I feel that it really brought the team together to have a common, shared vision.
What is your motivation behind the leadership brand idea?
I believe that, as leaders, we have a job to do. That job is to make our team successful and make our customers successful. Like most organizations, we are built into a structure that has different business units and different silos.
As such, I think that the number one opportunity is if you are able to get the teams to work together to deliver the outcome for ourselves and for our customers. That creates a wonderful culture of empowerment and collaboration because, as both you and I know, you can’t win on your own, you need help from a lot of people. If you create the right culture for the people to get that support, then you end up removing a lot of potential roadblocks or frictions. I think if you can remove that for the benefit of your team, you’re giving them an opportunity, you’re creating an environment for them to be successful in.
That is why a shared vision from a leadership team perspective is important. There’s no point if three of your teams or business units are successful, but the other two are not successful, because overall, as a region, you’re not successful. No part of the business should be successful at the expense of another part of the business. Our job is to make sure everybody is successful. So if we create the right environment and culture for that, then everybody will work together and everybody will win and everybody will be successful and ultimately that makes our customers happier, because it makes it easy for them to work with RSA when they see us as one unit that is supporting their business.
When I travelled to work with your team in APJ I often heard your people saying that we were the RSA family. You talk a lot about collaboration and inclusiveness as fundamentals of the RSA culture. How do these values translate to a day-to-day business?
In life, you can’t win everything, and you can’t get everything. You hope that maybe you can get 80% of what you want in life, so that is why you need to learn to compromise and to find a compromise. It is a life skill. When you look at the relationship you have with your colleagues or with your customers as a long-term relationship, you are more willing to compromise to keep these relationships in good shape.
So, collaboration is making sure that everybody wins, and I think it’s a very big part of company culture that you want to introduce for your teams.
Inclusiveness is when people feel that they are the same, they are treated the same, they are supported by the leadership team the same.
Everybody who joins RSA must feel that he/she has the same opportunity to be successful and the same opportunity to be supported by RSA leaders. That way of thinking leads our leadership behavior and how we make decisions. For example, if you come up with a recognition programme in sales, it cannot be for the salespeople only, you have to include the pre-sales people and the channels people and the inside-sales people and so on. If you do it just for one group, you then make the other parts of the organization feel like “Are we less important and don’t we deserve the same rewards and recognition as salespeople?” I’m very sensitive to that. So when we roll out programmes I make sure everybody is included just like in a family. You can’t give a bigger Christmas present to your son and not to your daughter because that is not right. You cannot show favoritism when you have kids, right? So it’s the same concept.
Often, when I’m talking to leaders of organizations, they tend to focus on making their organizations more effective, more lean, more agile and more profitable. You emphasis the importance of organizational culture. Is there a way to show ROI from culture? What is your viewpoint on that?
I genuinely believe that the company culture is one of the key elements of success.
Creating a culture is very difficult, because, as you said, you can’t measure cultures, and you can’t tell everybody to be like this or that and expect everybody to do things the way you like them to. I think that, when creating an organizational culture, you must be very sensitive. I tell my team that it is up to us to create the culture. RSA doesn’t have a culture. It is up to the people in RSA to create the culture. We have a choice as a team, as employees of RSA, as to what type of culture we want in RSA. And, as leaders, we need to walk the talk. We are the ambassadors of this culture. So when we see bad behavior, we need to voice it and when we see good behavior, we need to congratulate it. And it doesn’t matter if those people report to you directly or not. We must be aligned with what we believe the culture in RSA should be. If we, in the leadership team, are close and connected, people and their teams will say “The leadership team is working so closely together. We should also work closely together, right?” So, we must lead by example and that is the only way to drive and develop a strong positive culture.
I will give you another example. Do we hire externally, or do we promote internally? There might be an external candidate who is much more experienced for the job. But, if we have an internal candidate who has worked for RSA for several years, has been loyal and dedicated, and yet not as much experienced, I would rather promote the internal person into the role, giving that person the opportunity to grow, and helping him/her develop into that role.
So the culture navigates decisions leaders make every day. What has been your toughest leadership decision to date?
Every decision is tough because it involves people’s lives. There are no small or trivial decisions. I look at leadership as an act of service, so each decision must be carefully, thoughtfully considered from all angles, so that you feel that the decision you made was the best outcome for the organization, its customers and employees.
The most important leadership lesson I have learnt is that a leader’s job is to keep charting the course that no one has ever pursued, to lead by making hard decisions fast and to lead by working and fighting alongside his/her people.
As a leader, you have to make decisions, it is a key skill. If you don’t make any decisions, then your team feels like my leader is not a risk taker. My leader is procrastinating.
You need to give confidence to your team that you are making decisions. And so, again, I don’t look at each decision as live or die. You can always tweak the decision if it’s not working out and you can improve on it. It is a mindset of continuous improvement. And that means you’re always learning, you’re always improving things. I tell my team I don’t expect them to turn the business upside down. If we can help improve the sales ops. by 5%, if we can improve the finances by 5%, if we can improve how we do demos for our customers by 5%, at the end of the year, it all adds up and it makes a big impact for the business.
Incremental improvements in many areas add up to something more substantial.
Sounds like continuous improvement is one of the pillars of the servant leadership that you cultivate.
What were your key stepping stones before you have reached where you are today?
Whatever role I take up, I take it seriously and I want to be really good at it. I don’t want to be mediocre, I want to be a master. The Japanese have the Kaizen principle, which means that if you want to master your craft, you have to keep practicing, keep learning because you don’t become an expert overnight. I do have that mindset of continuous improvement and continuous learning. I ask people how I can improve when I see they are more experienced than me. I read a lot of books.
And every time I read something or get a piece of advice, I take action. I ask myself what new habit or new ritual I could implement in my day-to-day life so that I become better at that part of my job.
You need to be aware of your strengths and develop them, and you need to be aware of your weaknesses and find ways to compensate for those. You can’t learn everything and you can’t be good at everything, either. I do believe that we should focus on our strengths, because, if you are good at something, you’re already in the top 20%, and if you improve it by 5%, you’re now the top 15%. On the other side, if you are bad at something, say, you are in the bottom twenty percent, even if you improve it by 10% you are still in the bottom 30 percent, right? So, focus your energy on what you’re good at and master it. Find ways to compensate for the areas that you’re not so good at.
So, what are you good at, what is your superpower?
I don’t think there’s one superpower. I think it is a combination of talent, mindset and hard work to reach your potential. You need to be operationally strong, you need to have a shared vision with the leadership team, because then everybody will come together. You need to have a good command of the business, making sure that you are inspecting all parts of your business every week, every two weeks, every month. Don’t expect what you don’t inspect, right? So this means hard work and discipline. And lastly, build the kind of culture where everybody feels empowered to contribute new ideas. I’m not the smartest guy around. There are smarter people in my team and I want everybody to contribute, because as a team, we’re much more powerful than as an individual. It makes my job easier because everybody’s contributing to the success of the organization. It’s not just me, it’s us as a leadership team.
What was the most painful mistake you have made? And what did you learn from it?
Honestly, I do not believe in mistakes. I believe that one of the traits of a good leader is that you must make decisions based on incomplete information sometimes, within a small window of opportunity. You try to make the best decision you can at any point in time. You do what is needed at that time. So you can’t fear mistakes because if you fear making mistakes, you will never take any risk, you will never step outside of your comfort zone and you’re not going to learn anything new. Stepping outside your comfort zone is where the magic happens. That’s where you learn new things. So you can’t let fear guide your decisions. You need to make decisions and you need to give yourself a break that some decisions might not be the best, but you will learn from them. If you make a mistake and you don’t acknowledge it and you don’t learn from it, it’s a crime, right? Because that’s the perfect opportunity for you to become better.
How often do you feel you need to step out of your comfort zone?
There are many challenging moments in my life. Moving to a different country, taking on a new job – that can be challenging. I remember reading an article where the author shows that if you move to a different location, you have a 20% chance of failure. If you move to a different location, and a different job, it’s a 40% chance of failure. If you move to a different location, a different job and report to a different manager, you have a 60% chance of failure.
But again, you can’t let things stop you from what you want to achieve and it’s better to try and know that you have made an attempt rather than not to try at all. For my children, I want to encourage them to experience new things and try new things and not be scared. Because that’s what life is.
What is your WHY? What drives you in life?
I want to be a good role model for my children. The best way to protect them is to give them a worldview based on sound principles. And I must live in that way for them to follow and catch on. I challenge myself that whatever I do in life, I want to be the best I can be at it. Mastery of anything in life takes hard work, dedication, commitment, focus and drive.
Thank you Nigel.
Story Seekers Hero Stories is a series of interviews with business leaders led by Magdalena Petryniak, Story Seekers Poland Managing Partner. She is looking for leaders of the future skillset, being particularly interested in finding inclusive leaders, who build their organizational culture based on collaboration, empowerment, and inclusiveness. The interviews highlight leaders’ career path, turning points, failures, and lessons learned, their definition of leadership. These stories inspire others to thrive in a fast-changing business landscape.
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