Like so many veterans of GE’s IT organization, Sigal Zarmi rotated through multiple leadership roles. She held six different C-level titles there before leaving to become vice chairman and network CIO at PwC, the $35.4 billion professional services powerhouse.
Along the way, Zarmi learned countless executive leadership lessons, including the need to understand the underpinnings of her business units and to build trusting relationships.
But during a short stint in London with GE, she learned perhaps the most valuable lesson of all: the power of collaboration.
Collaboration is at the heart of en vogue trends like agility and flexibility, and speeding time to market, not to mention decades-old concerns about aligning IT with the business and driving process improvements. Without strong collaboration between disparate — and sometimes adversarial — stakeholders, those goals are virtually impossible to achieve.
Back in 2001, in London, Zarmi assumed the role of transformation leader for GE’s European Equipment Finance division. Her charge: Lead a project to consolidate separate equipment leasing systems in each country into a single pan-European system.
Hundreds of GE employees in Europe were assigned to the project, but the leadership team consisted of about 20 executives from different countries. And they had different opinions, objectives and requirements.
The cultural differences were difficult to ignore. Employees from one country tended to be heavily process-oriented and acutely concerned about regulatory compliance, while others preferred to move faster, with more agility. Still, others sat somewhere in the middle, seeking speed while remaining methodical.
On top of that, the levels of technological maturity varied from country to country — and within Zarmi’s team. “To me, it’s like putting people from Silicon Valley in a company very deeply rooted in its processes and saying, ‘Let’s do a project together,’” Zarmi says. “It’s not so much about where they’re from; it’s more about the background and diversity of the behaviors you see.”
Collaboration practices also differed. Some members of the project leadership team wanted more one-on-one meetings with Zarmi, while others preferred to bring the entire team together to make decisions. To build consensus, Zarmi had to lead out front but also do critical work behind the scenes, all the while striving to embrace the many and varied concerns of her team. “Without really understanding and collaborating between the different cultures, we really wouldn’t have been able to run a successful project,” she says.
Now, it wasn’t rocket science, or a case of finding detente among warring factions. But, as many IT executives have learned, managing complex multinational projects — complete with distinct cultural differences — can be a drastic departure from your typical system upgrade or software rollout.
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