What Game of Thrones can teach us about agility, growth and competition
Despite pertaining to the normally quite niche genre of fantasy, Game of Thrones has proven to be popular amongst a remarkably wide and diverse audience. One of the main reasons behind the show’s widespread appeal is its masterful relatability of fantastical elements to the real world, notably: chaos facilitating changes in power; building alliances and beating competitors; and preparing for uncertainty when the seasons inevitably change. From the perspective business world, there are lessons to be learned: agility, growth and competitiveness are essential for survival.
Winter is coming…
…or in other words, disruptive technologies (such as cloud, automation and AI/ML) will (continue to) drive rapid change in the business world, making the future less certain. This is helping to level the playing field in terms of business scale: SMEs and start-ups can leverage the speed and ease of implementing new technologies while larger enterprises are held back by footprint, complex networks of IT dependencies and legacy business applications. Larger enterprises may have armies of IT staff at their disposal to defend systems from disruption, but these could well be limiting organisations looking for new paths to tread.
With the winds shifting in favour of the small and agile, enterprises must learn to be able to move at start-up speed lest they lose out to a better-adapted competitor. Transformation does not need to occur overnight, and individual business units should be assessed and prioritised in order of dependency and cost. Game of Thrones teaches us that we must avoid relying on old methods to work in the present, which may, in fact, result in the sacrifice of crucial assets in the process. An incremental approach helps to ensure transformation remains outcome-driven, and enables leaders of digital change to develop iteratively, checking their assumptions at every step.
Chaos isn't a pit. Chaos is a ladder
As kingdoms rise and fall, from the ensuing chaos emerges opportunities for the less advantaged to get ahead. The dawn of the age of cloud and the disruption it has brought is one such example of this. While agile, cloud-native start-ups speed ahead by quickly adapting to customer needs via platform-based business models, industry incumbents are struggling as a direct result of their scale, weighed down with networks of nebulous interdependencies and legacy IT. Adding to the chaos is the sheer amount of choices businesses face when evaluating cloud options, including provider, on-prem vs. hosted and a multitude of ancillary choices.
With disruption on the horizon, it can be easy for traditional businesses to feel powerless, however, as Game of Thrones tell us, "power resides where it is believed it resides.” No one holds a monopoly on innovation, and businesses of all sizes can ensure they have the right tools to exploit chaos by basing their choice on that which empowers their staff. Solutions should be picked based on how well they get your team to do what they do best: build products and features that matter to your customers. Therefore, staff must be involved in the decision-making process to ensure they have everything they need to deliver value to end-users. Collaboration is key to empowering staff to face the myriad challenges presented by the chaos of digital transformation, providing the chance to set a business up with the right technical foundation for the future.
Fire cannot kill a dragon
With immediate brand recognition boosting user trust in new solutions, fortress-like financial security and the lion’s share of the skills talent pool, industry incumbents and cloud hyper-scalers may seem like the ultimate survivalists when it comes to the highly-competitive enterprise IT industry. However, even dragons have their weaknesses. For too long, prospective competitors have failed to dethrone the industry leaders as a result of trying to fight fire with fire. In today’s competitive landscape, agility, innovation and uniqueness go much further than brute force when it comes to disrupting the market, while precise, targeted execution can help eliminate risk, identify new areas of growth, and crucially, gain a key advantage over the fire-breathing competition.
Often, key advantages can be evinced out of relationship-building and partnerships. However, on the same token, you should never wager all resources upon the reliability of a single individual, and always be careful who you trust. Everyone has his or her own vision for how a strategy should be executed upon, a factor which is exacerbated by closed-off management structures, siloed teams and rigid hierarchy throughout the organisation. Success can be found in the least likely of places by looking inward, not upward. Leverage the power of the people internally and collaborate in order to identify a new way to move forward. At the same time, question convictions and maintain a healthy scepticism of those of peers to make sure to stay on track when a breakthrough is on the horizon.
Make a plan before you go to war
Whether it's enhancing security or crafting roadmaps, companies must have a sense of what they want to accomplish before they go off and start changing things. For security, carry out a realistic risk assessment: Identify the most crucial corporate assets, their core security requirements and why they matter to the business, while continuously validating assumptions. For roadmaps, take an iterative approach to execution to make sure the team remains outcome-driven; test products out in the field, then evaluate, adapt and test again. The more experience an organisation has in identifying new risks and working out ways to limit them, the more resilient it will be when it matters most.
Technology is daring and changes frequently. As the winds of digital transformation have shifted towards the cloud, make sure platforms are flexible to take advantage of new opportunities and tools, and that the approach is holistically focused on driving business value. Remember, when you play the Game of Thrones, you win, or you die. The same can be said for enterprises today that fail to compete and grow. In time, they will simply cease to exist.
Marketing matters: from IBM to Kyndryl
Prior to joining Kyndryl as Chief Marketing Officer, Maria had a 25-year career at IBM, most recently as the tech giant’s CMO where she oversaw all marketing professionals and activities across North America, Canada and Latin America. She has held senior global marketing positions in a variety of disciplines and business units across IBM, most notably strategic initiatives in Smarter Cities and Watson Customer Engagement, as well as leading teams in services, business analytics, and mobile and industry solutions. She is known for her work with teams to leverage data, analytics and cloud technologies to build deeper engagements with customers and partners.
With a passion for marketing, business and people, and a recognized expert in data-driven marketing and brand engagement, Maria talks to Business Chief about her new role, her leadership style and what success means to her.
You've recently moved from IBM to Kyndryl, joining as CMO. Tell us about this exciting new role?
I’m Chief Marketing Officer for Kyndryl, the independent company that will be created following the separation from IBM of its Managed Infrastructure Services business, expected to occur by the end of 2021. My role is to plan, develop, and execute Kyndryl's marketing and advertising initiatives. This includes building a company culture and brand identity on which we base our marketing and advertising strategy.
We have an amazing opportunity ahead at Kyndryl to create a company brand that will stand apart in the market by leading with our people first. Once we are an independent company, each Kyndryl employee will advance the vital systems that power human progress. Our people are devoted, restless, empathetic, and anticipatory – key qualities needed as we build on existing customer relationships and cultivate new ones. Our people are at the heart of this business and I am deeply hopeful and excited for our future.
What experiences have helped prepare you for this new opportunity?
I’ve had a very rich and diverse career history at IBM that has lasted 25+ years. I started out in sales but landed explored opportunities at IBM in different roles, business units, geographies, and functions. Marketing and business are my passions and I landed on Marketing because it allowed me to utilize both my left and right brain, bringing together art and science. In college, I was no tonly a business major, but an art major. I love marketing because I can leverage my extensive knowledge of business, while also being able to think openly and creatively.
The opportunities I was given during my time at IBM and my natural curiosity have led me to the path I’m on now and there’s no better next career step than a once-in-a-lifetime-opportunity to help launch a company. The core of my role at Kyndryl is to create a culture centered on our people and growing up in my career at IBM has allowed me to see first-hand how to prioritize people and ensure they are at the heart of progress in everything Kyndryl will do.
How would you describe your leadership style?
I believe that people aren't your greatest assets, they are your only assets. My platform and background for leadership has always been grounded in authenticity to who I am and centered on diversity and inclusion. I immigrated to the US from Chile when I was 10 years old and so I know the power and beauty that comes from leaning into what makes you different from other people, and that's what I want every person in my marketing organization to feel – the value in bringing their most authentic self to work every day. The way our employees feel when they show up for themselves authentically is how they will also show up for our customers, and strong relationships drive growth.
I think this is especially true in light of a world forever changed by the pandemic. Living through such an unprecedented time has reinforced that we are all humans. We can't lead or care for one another without empathy and I think leaders everywhere have been reminded of this.
What’s the best leadership advice you’ve received?
When I was growing up as an immigrant in North Carolina, I often wanted to be just like everyone else. But my mother always told me: Be unique, be memorable – you have an authentic view and experience of the world that no one else will ever have, so don't try to be anyone else but you.
What does success look like to you?
I think the concept of success is multi-faceted. From a career perspective, being in a job where you're respected and appreciated, and where you can see how your contributions are providing value by motivating your teams to be better – that's success! From a personal perspective, there is no greater accomplishment than investing in the next generation. I love mentoring younger professionals – they are the future. I want my legacy as a leader to include providing value in work culture, but also in leaving a personal impact on the lives of professionals who will carry the workforce forward. Finding a position in life with a job and company that offers me a chance at all of that is what success looks like to me.
What advice would you give to your younger self just starting out in the industry?
I've always been a naturally curious person and it's easy for me to over-commit to projects that pique my interest. I've learned over years of practice how to manage that, so to my younger self I’d say… prioritize the things that are most important, and then become amazing at those things.