by Malcolm Wheatley

How to Win at International Politics

Oct 01, 200110 mins
IT Leadership

DESPITE THE EARLY HOUR, the morning sun is already beating down on the top of an office building on Fremont Street, in the heart of San Francisco’s financial district. It’s the headquarters of Barclays Global Investors, and its global head of technology, Paul Stevens, is already at work, having arrived at 6:15 a.m. even though he flew in from London late the previous night.

At least one week a month (sometimes two), Stevens is in San Francisco, where most of the company’s top managers are based. The rest of his time is spent in London or shuttling between corporate offices in Sydney, Australia, Toronto and Tokyo. Barclays is the world’s largest institutional investment management company; it handles more than $800 billion in assets for more than 1,900 clients in 37 countries?mostly pension funds for global giants such as Citibank, General Electric, General Motors, Sony and Toshiba.

It’s the dawn of a typical workday for Stevens?managing his far-flung, multicultural global IT empire. The secret of his success, revealed as his day unfolds, is deftly dealing with the true nemeses of global companies: people politics and cultural conflicts.

The politics are aggravated by Barclays’ heritage of multicultural mergers. The business is the culmination of a series of mergers and acquisitions that bolted Nikko Securities, a Japanese bank, on to San Francisco-based Wells Fargo & Co. before the whole caboodle was sold to London-based Barclays Bank. IT was not only fragmented globally but also splintered within offices; the funds management function, for example, has a wholly different IT setup from the fixed interest securities group.

Britisher Stevens, headhunted from Wall Street in 1999 after five-and-a-half years at J.P. Morgan, was given a simple mandate: Sort it out and stick it all together.

Can’t We Communicate?

Fulfilling the mandate hasn’t been easy, Stevens says with a sigh. “People aren’t physically colocated and are culturally very different,” he says. “Communication is a perennial problem. I have to do a better job at communicating; my direct reports have to do a better job at communicating?but the people who are listening have to do a better job at listening.”

One of Stevens’s early communication innovations was a rolling global program of “Sit Down with Paul Stevens” sessions. Wherever he is in the world, time is found for Stevens to sit down for a town hall meeting with a selection of a dozen or so employees, including programmers, administrators and data center staff. “Not the people who report to me but the people who report to them,” Stevens says. The agenda is open: “You can ask anything you want, provided you ask it politely,” he says.

Yet even this carte blanche proved problematic. Sometimes predictably, of course. “Go to Tokyo, and no one asks any questions, and you know that they’re never going to ask questions,” Stevens says. But perhaps surprisingly, he says, although the meetings work well in Sydney and London, it’s the San Francisco meetings?such as the one he will host later today?that place second in the tight-lipped stakes. “People are very reticent about coming forward,” Stevens says. “I’ll say, ’Please speak freely,’ but no one says anything, and later we’ll find out that there were problems.”

So last year, Stevens tried to eliminate such standoffish behavior. First he figured out that he and his direct subordinates had been communicating the wrong message. Instead of jumping straight in talking about proposed solutions, Stevens and his lieutenants needed to prove that they’d identified the right problems to solve in the first place.

The reason: A perception that Stevens and his team weren’t credible when it came to technology. The programmers, for example, hold widely diverging views?prompting what Stevens describes as holy wars over technology choices. “People in London think that Visual Basic is perfectly acceptable, while people here in San Francisco spit on Bill Gates’s shoes and want to use Java.”

The solution: Geek shall speak unto geek. And if Stevens himself isn’t seen as a credible enough geek, he is more than happy to put together a team of uber-geeks who are seen as credible and task them with resolving the debate.

The result: They developed a written framework?a “technology triangle”?spelling out cost versus functionality versus technology trade-offs of any choice, and five rules of the road that guide the decision process.

Building Buy-in

In a further move to come to terms and open up the dialogue, Stevens gathered some 45 people from around the world?analysts, developers, infrastructure specialists and support personnel?whose one common factor was that “they were seen as people we had to win over.” A two-day retreat held in Sonoma, Calif., aimed to do precisely that. Through a process of guiding, cajoling and explaining, Stevens and his team convinced this core group that management had indeed identified the right solutions to the right problems?not just on technical issues but the whole strategy, direction and priorities of the fledgling global IT function. The group, in turn, took the message back home.

With the communication roadblocks removed, the pace of progress has sharply accelerated as Stevens seeks to coax globalization from his international motley crew.

Back to the business at hand, Stevens holds a scheduling meeting with his assistant, Barbara Hornsby, a rarity in a relationship transacted by e-mails and telephone calls?the inevitable consequence of Stevens’s London base and Hornsby’s location in Walnut Creek, Calif.

Next comes a telephone conference with London and Sydney. The discussion is about how to hold the company’s data on funds and clients in the same way in every office around the world. The objective is to reap the advantages of a standardized process without losing any of the information on which local offices rely. With representatives from IT and the business areas that would be affected, the debate is vigorous but good-humored. While the call is an attempt to solve a technology problem, it’s also part of an ongoing effort to manage sensitive office politics.

Some years ago, Stevens explains, Barclays stirred the flames of political ill will when the globalization project foundered, turning into a niche Y2K fix for the U.S. business alone. That antagonized the overseas offices. Now the project aims for smaller, more achievable goals. It has cochairs representing different countries and has much more business buy-in from around the company.

One example of the subsequent progress made is OrdersOnline, which enables institutional clients to place orders over the Internet. Before, Joe Soap could trade online through the likes of Charles Schwab, but an institutional client wanting to place a $10 billion trade was forced to use a fax, replete with authorized signatures?a process that could take days. No longer. Earlier this year, Barclays Global Investors became the first institutional management company to offer online trading accompanied by personalized client content.

It was, concedes Stevens, “an obvious go-get.” Yet it was one that the politically charged company overlooked as it wrangled over how best to exploit the Internet.

Once the conference call concludes, Stevens prepares for the next series of appointments: The rest of the day will be back-to-back meetings. “When people know I’m coming, my calendar fills up very quickly,” he says. To cope, he’s had to develop iron discipline: “Time management, agenda-setting, firmness in running a meeting?these become incredibly important when time is rationed.”

Perpetual Time Zone

How do Stevens’s lieutenants feel about serving a boss who’s rarely in any one location for a reliable period of time? Nancy Tognela, based in San Francisco, manages the IT group’s worldwide administrative arm. She keeps a mental clock tuned in to Stevens’s current time zone and admires the way he keeps in touch from wherever he is. “He’s very committed to weekly meetings,” Tognela says. “We’re always on the schedule, even though we occasionally get bumped at the last minute.” The only downside is the early morning or late night appointment, depending on where Stevens is.

Another person who counts on Stevens’s accessibility is Craig Squires, an Australian based in Walnut Creek who runs the company’s 10 data centers and global networks. Previously based in Sydney, Squires has been in the United States for more than two years. But he’ll soon be heading back to Australia; he figures he can run the global network just as easily from there. Help desk support is already run globally, he says, rather than from national offices. “If you look at where our offices are located, there’s never a time when we don’t have people at work,” Squires explains. Capitalizing on that, the company is now able to support users around the world from whichever office is working normal business hours. The result is lower employee turnover, as fewer help desk people have to work antisocial hours.

The switch to distributed help desk support will be made even easier by the adoption of a single Windows 2000 global desktop, complete with approved standardized applications, Squires adds?a decision that once again highlights cultural differences. While developers in London and Sydney are sanguine about the switch from Windows NT 4, it’s seen as something of an imposition in San Francisco, where developers in particular want more freedom in their choice of applications and desktop configuration. “There’s a libertarian streak running through the business here,” Squires says. “People tend to think that corporate assets are their own.”

HR on My Mind

Stevens heads for a final round of meetings. The first is with Jeff Seretan, head of global human resources. The formal topic is quickly dealt with?the implementation of PeopleSoft 8, which went live in Sydney the week before and will next be implemented in Tokyo. Stevens and Seretan briefly review project leaders for each implementation, congratulate themselves for resisting the temptation to customize the out-of-the-box package, and then move on to weightier matters?namely people, again.

The IT function, Seretan explains, is to be the guinea pig for a new people assessment and development mechanism, termed “talent mapping.” Although the recruitment pressures of the dotcom boom have eased, retention and remuneration remain prime concerns, prompting the need for the assessment.

As Seretan talks through the new process, Stevens nods approvingly. Clearly, it fits the bill. Assessing people on three dimensions?performance, adherence to corporate values and promotability?dovetails well with two of Stevens’s concerns.

First, it avoids the so-called forced distribution method of assessing people, which disregards absolute performance in favor of relative performance. “[Forced distribution] doesn’t recognize that there can be people in the lower quartile who can make a valuable contribution keeping some production system going,” Stevens says.

Second, it provides a formal framework, which Stevens reckons is essential in a global organization. “This is a real hot button, and we’ve got to get it right,” he says. “People are always complaining to me that it’s easier to get promoted in the U.S. than in London or Sydney.” Using the framework, Stevens will be able to answer those complaints. “When it comes to the hard decisions, people around the world can at least understand them, even if they don’t like them.”

Which sort of serves as an introduction to Stevens’s last meeting of the day?the promised “Sit Down with Paul Stevens” session. There are beefs and gripes aplenty?particularly about the implementation of the new Windows 2000 desktop?but they are tinged with genuine concern about the future prospects of the business in the down market. Despite the occasional cultural chasm?highlighted by the blank looks when Stevens quotes Britain’s Victorian-era Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli?it’s a shared bond that links together an organization spread over thousands of miles.

It’s been a long day, but Stevens still has one more task to perform. “Gotta check the e-mail,” he mutters. Somewhere out there, people are waiting for an answer.