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Two decades ago, a truly global IT department was a rarity – and so were female IT executives. Here’s how one woman helped change both those realities at a global biopharmaceutical company.
By Annie Chong, Regional Director, IT Planning & Operations, MSD International GmbH Singapore
From the beginning, my career has always been about change. I started my journey at MSD 18 years ago, as a manager in our new regional Asia-Pacific IT center in Singapore. I was one of the first employees and female IT leaders – which was a major milestone for MSD in our region.
I spent more than 18 years as an IT manager at varying levels and responsibilities. In today’s digital age, technology has impacted the way we work and live—regardless of what industry you work in. Particularly in MSD, technology plays a crucial role, as it brings us directly to our patients, empowering them to make more informed decisions now about their own health matters.
Over these two decades, I have gained some insights that I believe are widely applicable, especially in this era of digital disruption. Here are some reflections which I hope will be useful to other project managers who are leading their organizations through transformational change.
1. One size does not fit all
In my first role with MSD, I managed the Corporate IT applications for the Asia-Pacific region, which meant I oversaw how IT was used in numerous geographies, divisions and cultures, across the value chain. This presented challenges because, going back two decades ago, multinational businesses were less centralized than they are today. Every country unit had its own HR, Finance and Procurement system or process, its own way of doing things.
When rolling out a global solution, always think global but yet be locally relevant. It is an 80/20 rule. When implementing a global solution, accept that you may have to accept as much as 20% in local variations, so as not to impact local operations or statutory/legal obligations. This will help to drive adoption. To expect a 100% fit is not necessarily healthy or reasonable.
2. “Dance” with your stakeholders
After my first role in MSD, I moved on to take up a new role as the Change Management Leader for the Asia Pacific-Japan region for our enterprise resource planning application. I learned quickly that we would not succeed if we did not begin by embracing the people who would be stakeholders of the new system and then move with them as the change plays out. In every country where the new system was to be introduced, we focused on not only the executive sponsors or local business leaders, but people at all levels who would be directly affected by the system, as well as those who would support the users.
Regardless of where you are or what kind of change that needs to be implemented, it is critical to invest time on knowing your stakeholders first and how their needs, local cultures, preferences, requirements and even fear could be considered and taken care of ahead of implementing any technicalities of the change.
3. Training is only part of the equation
One of the classic mistakes is to think that change management is all about training, but in reality it goes way beyond that.
Developing the right people and talent to deliver value for the transformation, as well as a solid communications plan, stakeholder management and business readiness assurance, are keys to change management success. On top of that, I always believe that interpersonal skills are more important than the technical foundation.
The IT and business landscapes are ever changing, and it is never too late to learn and adopt something new. And there are many ways, channels and platforms to do that.
4. Start with the heart
Driving change is not just about ensuring that users understand the reasons for it. What’s equally important is our leadership style or approach in driving the change.
It is easy to get somebody to adopt a new solution or product. To make a lasting change, however, you have to really make people see and feel, despite the disruption of the change, how the new system will make life easier for them. As Barbara A. Trautlein notes in the book Change Intelligence, change leaders who “start with the heart” (people oriented leadership), “engage the brain” (purpose oriented) and “help the hands” (process oriented) will move the change in positive directions.
By communicating the context and explaining how the new solutions will help their day-to-day work, you are helping them understand the risk and the risks it might bring to the business if they do not accept the change.
This is where the skill of being able to see the bigger pictures and being empathic becomes crucial in project management. Good change agents are not only forward-looking, but also are able to help others step back and see the change in a broader context.
5. Don’t be obsessed about gender
It is easy to feel, as a woman leader, that you are being treated differently or perhaps even unfairly. But I think part of what has made me successful in my career is that I never saw myself as “the woman in the room.” Once you do that, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. You start thinking about the way you do things, how you are being perceived by others, whether you should be more outspoken – or less. These become barriers that keep you from simply doing what needs to be done, or just doing your best.
Yes, being a woman has made some of my work more challenging. There have been times, particularly in countries with a hierarchical culture or mindset. In such situations, trust and credibility need to be established with more effort, and you need to demonstrate and prove to your stakeholders that you have the relevant working experience and are capable of achieving the same successful results as you have in the past.
Managing and effecting widescale organizational change is incredibly complex. It involves countless variables and sometimes hundreds or even thousands of people – most of whom do not want their work life to change. Like it or not, your success will partly depend on factors that are hard to quantify – your personality and interpersonal skills, the culture of the organization, etc.
But my experience leading several big organizational changes has yielded some general principles that I have found hold true whatever the situation. Following them will not make the next change you lead a breeze to carry out. However, they should help you avoid some of the headwinds that you might otherwise face, while making your job more fulfilling and purposeful.