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Leadership lessons for the digital workplace

Although digital transformation relies on technology platforms to enable business change, leadership remains the defining factor for creating successful outcomes. A top executive from VMware shares his experience and insight on this important topic.

During the years I have known Sanjay Poonen, Executive Vice President and General Manager of End-User Computing at VMware, leadership has been a consistent theme. Sanjay's current focus is on the digital workplace.

Also read Dion Hinchcliffe on ZDNet:

The new digital workplace: How enterprises are preparing for the future of work

I invited Sanjay to participate in a CXOTalk discussion, which focused on two topics: the future of work, especially pervasive mobility based on devices, and effective leadership.

During the conversation, Sanjay presented digital transformation within the context of process change and cultural transformation. Although technology can help enable transformation, leadership is the real success factor underlying business change initiatives. Legions of failed transformation projects remind us to keep this point in mind. Always.

In a first for CXOTalk, Sanjay Poonen quoted Nobel Prize-winning Indian poet Rabindranath Tagore to explain the wisdom foundation of a management philosophy he calls "servant leadership." Based on humility and being a coach, servant leadership also encourages innovation and intense competitiveness. In both concept and practice, the servant leadership approach commands respect.

Embedded below, you can watch a video of the conversation; read a complete transcript at the cxotalk.com site.

Here are key points from the discussion, edited for length and clarity:

What is a digital workplace?

Being able to take any application -- client server, web, mobile -- and not worry about the type of device. What's the benefit for the end-users? Their productivity goes up significantly. We call that allowing the end-users to work at the speed of light.

[For example,] Pilots lug 30-pound bags into the cockpit, and I've always wondered what's inside. I assure you it's not their toiletries. It's paper manuals for the landing or flight instructions or the airports in which the plane is going to land. That can now be digitized.

Sanjay Poonen (Image courtesy cxotalk.com)

Sanjay Poonen (Image courtesy cxotalk.com)

United Airlines and several others were the first to do that with an iPad. Other airlines, like Delta, picked a Microsoft Surface tablet. Whatever your device, the documents have been digitized, which reduces the weight of what you take into the cockpit.

Next, flight attendants have iPads to check-out when passengers order and maintain your profile to have a better customer relationship with you.

The third thing that happens is people on the shop floor, who are maintaining the plane, have an iPad to help with the experience of doing the maintenance. Predictive maintenance and plant maintenance of the aircraft engines.

Explain the leadership dimension of the digital workplace?

Our studies and research into best practice companies that have rolled out business mobility initiatives have shown there's often a visionary leader -- CIO, CTO, or maybe even a CEO -- that's driving change and forcing this. Of course, also encouraging bottom-up [activity].

Strong leadership but then maybe a group of millennials from the bottom up, demanding and requiring change. That combination is a tornado that ultimately helps an organization.

It's always people, product, and process. The three Ps that make innovation go well.

For example, one of the things we've done here as we're rolled out mobile is created an IT café, right near our real café or restaurant. People can have lunch and go downstairs to the IT café, bring their device and say, "Hey, listen, I need help."

All of a sudden we find help desk calls going down and our CIO tells me IT is starting to become popular because they're viewed as people who can help get a device or phone addressed while having lunch.

These are practical ways that you can change process to make end-user productivity significantly better.

Tell us about "servant leadership"?

There is a great line from Nelson Mandela, "Lead from the back and make other people feel that they're leading from the front." It's almost like you are leading from the back of the room and people aren't even looking, but they hear your voice, they know that your kind of there, you're helping drive them, you're their coach.

But they, in turn, are driving, helping the organization understand their greatest power is them and you're the facilitator of that.

The great Indian freedom fighter, Rabindranath Tagore, said something like this:

I went to bed and dreamt that life was joy. I woke up and realized that life was service. I acted and beheld, service was joy.

Sadly, as people get more and more successful, invariably they get preoccupied with themselves. They're occupied in their ego. They kiss up, and they kick down so to speak.

Before you think about what you can get by being mentored by some bigshot in your company, figure out how you can mentor others. I spend a good part of my life trying to mentor other people who are in the younger generation. Folks in their 20s, 30s, and millennial's, often people who are in school systems.

I want to be very clear; servant leadership doesn't mean that you're a doormat. People know that I'm one of the most competitive people. I want to win against my competition, and the score needs to be 100-0.

Just because you are a humble person doesn't mean that you're not competitive, you're not ambitious. But don't do it by you're being a shark. Your ambition should not be having to eat other people to rise on the corporate ladder. That type of ambition is selfish ambition.