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THE CUSTOMER COMES SECOND…DID I READ THAT RIGHT?

Yes, you read that right. In a client-centered business focused on customer success, it may surprise you to hear that it’s not our customers who come first. It’s our people.

This may sound trite, but our people truly are our biggest asset here at HighPoint. We’re a technology-focused business of course, but at heart we are people-centered. We believe that people who are fulfilled and passionate about their work deliver the best service to our clients. In our experience, customer satisfaction follows employee satisfaction.

The digital transformation projects we work on for large enterprise clients have high stakes. Significant budgets are involved. Hundreds of people need to be finely orchestrated for delivery, often across many months and numerous geographical regions. And when stakes are high the pressure is apparent. Customers value progress, so how do we guarantee that progress is made and we deliver for them? We do this by putting our people first.

Throughout my career running large-scale change programs, I’ve seen many examples of projects that missed the mark. Within the complexity of a failing program, I’d say – almost without exception- that it’s a failure to account properly for the people dimension that’s a contributing factor.

Hiring just for technical skills is not enough. If team members have the right skills but lack the cultural fit for success, it’s a problem. We can train and develop capability over time, but it’s not easy to train in the right attitude and behaviors. Square pegs in round holes become a significant drain in fast-paced delivery environments.

It’s for this reason that we’ve worked hard at building a top-notch team of people who have the right mindset, made up of a blend of permanent employees and trusted contract associates. All of them are carefully selected to ensure they align with our ethos, fundamentals, and mindset and can share in the unique culture we’re trying to develop at HighPoint and will thrive within customer environments.

So what attributes do I look for in a successful team member? Here’s the blueprint I follow:

They have a positive, enquiring ‘Outward’ or ‘Growth’ mindset
They are truly collaborative by nature, care about supporting others, and work well in a team. Brilliant jerks and lone wolves need not apply!
They have strong technical skills, but importantly are ‘sponges’ and always ready to learn new things
They are comfortable working remotely without constant supervision – which is more critical today when people are primarily working from home
They have the right habits to maintain their own physical and mental well-being – helping to keep them healthy, balanced, and motivated whatever work throws their way

Recently I was asked what I do all day. It’s a deceptively simple question, but it made me think. The true answer is that I spend most of my time helping my team and solving meaty problems. In large delivery teams, the unexpected and urgent comes up all the time, however, well you plan. But if the team is empowered, motivated by and bought in to the vision, things get solved quickly and creatively.

We construct the team for success from the outset. This allows us to work from a position of strength and be resilient and resourceful when things go wrong. Here’s our approach.

My Recipe for Success
My approach to program leadership operates in phases, recognizing critical human elements throughout. The early days of a program are spent building out how it should operate. I talk to the team and share the vision of where we’re going. Together we build a roadmap of how we’ll get there.

Alongside a strong cadence of 121 communications, we establish regular team sessions, bringing people together without siloes. We agree on ways of working through this process specifying ‘What’ we’re going to deliver as well as ‘How’ we’ll do that.

Recognition is prioritized throughout the program, celebrating small wins as much as major milestones. I always say thank you for a job well done and reward those that exemplify the team’s fundamental values.

One of the best managers I ever had once said to me “Tom, feedback is the breakfast of champions.” I can hear his broad West Yorkshire accent as I type! He was right. It’s through the process of giving and receiving feedback that engagement is truly achieved. It allows us to respond and improve and builds trust by ensuring that people’s voices are heard. With feedback as the fuel of change, the team evolves, and individuals continuously recalibrate.

My final (and most important) program leadership fundamental is providing support. Proponents of the ‘command and control’ style of leadership should stop reading now because mistakes are tolerated here. They’re an important part of learning and a reality check that things do go wrong however hard you try. There’s no place for micro-management in this environment; that results in an unhealthy blame culture, focusing on the error, not the outcome. Supporting and backing the team means taking the heat out of a situation, being involved in the solution, and identifying the learning opportunity.

Creating ‘Psychological Safety’
In this human-friendly, empowering environment our team engages fully; the benefit of speaking up constructively far outweighs the benefit of saying nothing. There are no penalties nor fears of reprisal. Everyone steps up with confidence and accountability, in full knowledge of how their role contributes to the program’s outcomes. It’s from here our best ideas come from and our best work gets done, along with a healthy dose of fun too! This doesn’t mean life is easy I might add; problems still need solving and tough decisions still need making, but we do not allow these to weigh too heavily. We resolve them as a team and move on.

I describe this as a culture of psychological safety. It’s the primary goal I have in looking after our team. I guess you’d call me a servant leader in that respect; once your people have psychological safety you’re better placed to balance their needs with those of the customer and handle the twists and turns that our UK professional services leader, Ankit Patel, discussed in his recent blog.

The stress and pressures of the pandemic have created an imperative that as leaders we’re ready to support our teams in this way. Trusting team members who you’ve only met via video can be challenging, but if your goal is generating psychological safety, the necessary relationships develop quickly.

“What about wellbeing?” I hear you cry. Well, it’s a critical factor to promote and the topic for another blog. But what I would say is that it’s far easier to promote wellbeing and good habits with an engaged team that values and cares for one another. Sharing feedback through trusting engagement means we’re more receptive to conversations on wellbeing topics too.

If you’re reading this and thinking “Tom’s gone soft. All this warm and fluffy stuff is nice to have, not must-have!”, then I’d challenge your thinking. Prioritizing the human factors of your business should be fundamental. People are not expendable and expecting happy customers if the team delivering for them is unhappy and disengaged is unrealistic.

Fortunately for HighPoint, our customers share this ethos and recognize that we’re able to deliver the outcomes they need because the delivery team is empowered. We share a vision where people feature incredibly highly. With happier, more productive people, change happens faster, and outcomes are powerfully delivered.

So back to that question of what I do all day. As a servant leader, I try to empower my people. Take away the fear. Engage as a human being. And lead people through periods of change with optimism and impact. I truly believe that “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts”, and this is absolutely achieved by putting people at the heart of the delivery puzzle.

To find out more about HighPoint’s approach to delivering digital transformation, please email me at tcoulbeck@highpoint.com.