Ep. 85: Russell Porter - Adapting Leadership and Management Strategies in a Crisis

August 31, 2020 | 19 Minutes

Russ Porter, Vice President of Finance and Planning for IBM, joins Count Me In to talk about how he adapted his leadership and management strategies to manage his team during the global pandemic. Russ has been with the company for over 27 years in a variety of financial leadership positions, and has worked across finance disciplines and cultures around the world. Russ believes that while Accounting and Finance are often perceived to be only about numbers, our profession is really about people. When facing crises like the current pandemic, that focus on people takes on an even greater importance, as teams collaborate across organizations to help companies and institutions survive, or even thrive. In this conversation, he shares some strategies for employee engagement when nearly everyone is working out of the office. Download and listen now!

Contact Russell Porter: https://www.linkedin.com/in/russporter42/

Adam: (00:05)
Welcome back for episode 85 of Count Me In I'm your host, Adam Larson and today's conversation features IBM's Vice President of Finance and Global Business Services, Russell Porter. Russell has been with IBM for over 20 years, serving in roles spanning most financial disciplines in business units. He is a strong leader with a high aptitude for merging strategy and operations. In this episode, he really focuses his insights on how to lead and manage remote teams during these ongoing times of uncertainty. Russell explains IBM's current status and upcoming plans, as well as what he has done along the way to keep his team motivated and achieving. Keep listening, as we head over to this very timely and valuable conversation.

Mitch: (00:55)
Many leaders were faced with a task of quickly adapting their management strategies to remote work following the coronavirus pandemic. What were some of the strategies that you implemented in the beginning of this for the whole work from home environment, and how did you go about keeping your team together?

Russell: (01:13)
Mitch, in any situation, you know, one of the best things we can do is provide some clarity for our people. Discussing what we expect to happen, what we know, what we don't know and, and how we're going to make decisions as we all work through the issues that face us. In addition, one of the things we did was reinforced clarity around our organization's mission, and tried to make sure that each person continually understood their role in that overall mission. That helps people to stay connected and engaged, as we went through, you know, the, the vast uncertainty of those early days of the pandemic. We also noted that we needed a greater focus on empathy. You know, our team members all face different situations from those who are suddenly homeschooling their children to others who are concerned about aging parents and some who were cut off from the bulk of the social engagement that they had by not being able to go to work. You know, there's a saying that everyone's fighting a battle that we know nothing about, and we need to keep that in mind as leaders when we're working with our people, especially when we can't be physically with them, as much as we're used to.  That led us to realize we also had to be more flexible. You know, the work getting done is more important than exactly how it gets done. So at IBM we've got existing flex time programs that we just leveraged across the board. You know it allows people to attend to their daily needs while getting work done at what some would consider off shift hours. Now, not everything can happen that way, but to a great extent, our teams could modify their workdays to be early in the morning, late at night, or even split into pieces based upon all the other priorities they had to address. That took some creativity at times, and we had to change some structures like the workday times or some job design. And it was a great time actually to tap into our team's creativity, because they helped us develop some of those solutions to address the individual’s responsibilities and the individual's requirements and the job environment. The biggest thing we did though was communication, communication, communication. We were fortunate in IBM, we we've implemented agile methodologies in a lot of our work within finance and operations. So one of those, one of those methods is a daily standup meeting, and that really provided us a great check-in opportunity for our leaders and our teams to share those experiences and their concerns, and to make sure that our teams remained engaged in the work, but also that we could talk to them about what was going on outside of the work environment. That regular communication has really helped us to communicate both vertically and laterally across the organization. So a regular checkpoint with the team is key. But also as, as I've seen lots of people talking about the one thing that's missing in this virtual environment is the impromptu run into the hallways connection. That time when you're just walking down the hall and you see somebody and you think, oh, I meant to talk to them about an idea. So reaching out and keeping up networking and your contacts within your organization and outside, and being able to communicate across the small teams that we work in, that was also a big thing. And that was enabled by the technology and tools that we had adopted already. We were already doing video conferencing with WebEx and instant messaging, which we adopted with Slack earlier this year. Cloud based file repositories. All of these went from being ancillary to becoming like the primary mode of communication around the, around the organization, and I think the fact that we are already progressed with those tools, or at least had started with them, helped us adopt and adapt very, very quickly to what became a full time virtual environment.

Mitch: (05:14)
That's great that you had so much prepared and were able to implement so quickly, you know, I'm sure during this rapid change, and it was certainly a lot of uncertainty for everybody, even with plans in place like this, there must've still been a lot of questions from the team members, right? So what were some of the main concerns that you were hearing from your team while all this was going on, and how did you as a leader, go about addressing them?

Russell: (05:40)
So I'll tell you the number one question I kept getting was when are we going back to back to the office? And here again, knowing individual circumstances, I've got extroverts and introverts on my team, and the extroverts, you know, when they heard that we are going to be working virtually for a while., they wanted to get back to the office as quickly as possible. And, and working from home, working from bedrooms or living rooms on their own was really driving them a little nuts. So a lot of people thought it was going to be a one or two week closure of the offices to get past a peak period. But as the days turned into weeks, that question of when are we going back to the office became more and more insistent. You know, again, the best we could do was provide the clarity that we didn't know. And, and I'm in the Northeast. So, you know, in the Connecticut, New York area, and we had to tell our people, we didn't know. It was dependent first firstly, upon state regulations, but then also upon, the company's way that they wanted to approach coming back to the office, given that we've never had a time when the virus wasn't somewhere in the IBM office offices, or in the environments, I should say the States where, IBM operates. So, number one question was when are we gonna get back to the office? And we gave as much clarity as we could. Number two, job was, well, how are we going to get our jobs done the way we're used to doing them? And the answer was, we're not. We’re simply we needed to adapt to this new virtual environment there, wasn't going to be, you know, printing of documents, and, and there wasn't going to be the huddling in a physical conference room to go over charts, to go over analysis, to, to present ideas. Suddenly we all had to go virtual and that required a little bit of change, and the way we did things and the way we shared. It wasn't marking up and standing in front of a screen. It was, you know, trying to point at something with your, with your mouse and a little arrow on WebEx. but here again, it was adoption of the technology that helped us adapt and, and continue to be productive as a finance and operations organization. And what we actually found was within FNO, we really didn't skip a beat. We were able to modify the way we did things, everything from presentations and analysis to, you know, approvals, everything got, got swept up very quickly. And within, I would say 30 days, we were operating, like we'd been operating in this form forever.

Mitch: (08:17)
That's great, and that's a very, quick, you know, adaption to the new way of doing business, and, you know, you mentioned this was a couple months ago now, right? And within 30 days, things certainly picked up for you. I know here in the United States and many other places across the world, there are businesses that are opening up. So, you know, based on what you've shared already, can you please tell us, you know, how is IBM currently conducting their business? And is there anything that you have already planned, as far as a return to work policy and how you would support those who maybe are those introverts like you, or those who are hesitant to go back for whatever reason and are not comfortable in the office?

Russell: (09:04)
Now, I completely understand that hesitation, and right now there are so many discussions and debates going on around the country about opening offices and schools. No one wants to see the infection rates start to spike up again. So at IBM, we're still operating at well over 90% virtual capacity right now around the world. And we're engaging with our clients, our suppliers, our team members, all through only virtual means. And to a large part, we found it largely effective. That said there are some countries and some cultures around the world where in person meetings are really difficult to replace. Now, we've been really public about the fact that IBM is going to take a conservative approach in our return to our offices. And we're seeing lots of other companies that are saying the same thing, that this is going to be out of the office for an extended period of time. For us, we're going to have a multi wave plan in which our critical client facing and our teams where collaboration is absolutely critical. They're going to be the first back in the office, and they'll be observing a lot of new protocols to help ensure that they're doing so safely. Everything from lower space density usage, and daily checkpoints of health conditions. Minimization of use of conference rooms, and obviously masks and social distancing are going to be a big part of that. IBM's actually develops a new tools to facilitate that transition transition for us and for our clients called Watson Works, which is designed to help assess, help employee assess themselves before they come into the office and help manage the interior office space to make sure that we're not overcrowding or putting our people into a difficult situation. Now, after that initial re-introduction, we're going to gradually increase the percent of the population going back to the office slowly and deliberately over time. And we're going to put priority on those organizations where face to face interaction is pivotable. Now my organization in finance and operations, we're likely going to be in the later stages. We've been pretty effective in working virtually for, for a long period of time. So I'm expecting, we'll be working from home at least through the end of the year and probably beyond that. And I'm sure that, and this is true for everybody, I'm sure. We won't go back to our offices and same way we did before. Masks, social distancing, staggered scheduling, low density, that's going to be the norm for the foreseeable future. And from my perspective, it follows that if part of our team is always going to be off site, because I don't think my whole team will be onsite altogether again, for quite some time. Then our practices of engaging the remote teams through video conferencing and Slack and file sharing. All of that's going to continue for the foreseeable future as well. So the office may become less of a place, we go to work our nine to five, and more of a place where we go to have those critical in person meetings, but most of the work will continue to be conducted offsite, wherever possible with a digital connection to those who might be in the office, but really the majority who are going to be continuing to work from home.

Mitch: (12:25)
Well, it sounds like those are great solutions, and I know just in reading through the news and watching, you know, as you said, it sounds pretty standard for many businesses these days. but everything you just discussed really has a very positive spin on it, and that's something I really want to emphasize. I feel like we talk about this and it's always kind of the downside of what's going on, but how about some of the positives that you have realized? What have you seen over the last three, four months, however long it's been that has really enhanced your business, or some individuals productivity or engagement, you know, what's the positive side of everything going on right now?

Russell: (13:03)
So there are a lot of positives. There's always a, a silver lining around the cloud.  From IBM's perspective, first of all, we've got a global workforce, and within finance and operations, we've always had a number of people who work away from IBM's primary sites, whether it's in their home or in a satellite site, and as managers and leaders, we now have a greater appreciation for the challenges that those people have faced for a long time. Those people who are already working remote, they adapted like it was nothing because it was continuing to do what they've always done. So as managers and leaders, we understand a little bit more of that perspective. In addition, as, as our clients have gone through this transition, it has created opportunities for IBM to serve our clients in new and different ways, helping them get farther along in their own digital strategies. So, there are elements of our business that we've been able to leverage to help our clients adapt to these environments as well. Internally, we've also been able to help, adopt our collaboration tools like the ones I've mentioned before Slack and WebEx. A lot of these were on our plate, prior to the pandemic, but they've been far more readily adopted as a result of the pandemic than they would have been earlier. And I think that's going to have a permanent and beneficial change to the way that IBM can operate, and that's true of almost any organization. It's another tool in the toolbox to allow for collaboration, communication, leadership of our teams, wherever they may sit. And of course the one, the one benefit I hear a lot is a no commute. I work in an area where typically people are commuting 45 minutes to an hour each way every day, and people have, people have really used that extra time for a lot of beneficial reasons. They've, they've improved their home lives. They're more engaged, they're sleeping better, they're exercising more frequently, and the number of new dogs that have shown up on my WebEx is in the background, have been, has been one of the joys of seeing how people have expanded their families in a variety of different ways.

Mitch: (15:25)
That's great. I know we have very similar circumstances as well, and, situations that a little impromptu, a sigh of relief and nice smile. It's something that's certainly welcomed throughout the day. You know, just to wrap up this conversation, this has been great, and I appreciate all your insight. You know, a lot of people have adapted and are doing well, as you said, there are many positives, but you know, looking ahead, those who are going to continue to work remotely, in your opinion, how do you suggest maintaining motivation? What can you share with our listeners who are leading remote teams or are remote workers and are looking for some added incentive, what do you have to offer them?

Russell: (16:06)
So I always, I go back to the basics on this and I'm going to end where I started, I think. Number one, you know, keeping our teams productive means keeping them engaged, making sure they understand, you know, our mission as an organization, and again, they're part of it. People want to see the value of the work they do, and how it contributes to the team. And in order to really engage people, you need to be empathetic. You need to be able to understand the off-camera issues that your, our team members are facing, and discuss those issues with them, be creative, helping them find solutions, or even just to listen. Some of our team members are likely experiencing, you know, loneliness away from the office, spending time, just being with those people, and helping them to, you know, showing that you really care about them as people, not just as workers. It does help to keep them engaged and keep them productive. But I think it also just helps them deal better with the challenges that might be coming their way. e\Even those that we don't see. And also a little bit of flexibility, creativity and fun. We've got a WebEx coffee hour or a happy hour every two weeks or so. One of the rules is we're not allowed to talk about work, we invariably do. But we try to spend time talking about what's going on in our families. What interesting things we've been doing for, you know, adventure, whether that's hiking or kayaking or, going out and running. And as I said, you know, we get to, we get introduced to new family members, you know, dogs, cats, a turtle in one case. And in one case recently, a new baby that joined the family. So, helping to keep it fun, keep it lighthearted, keep the teams engaged, that pays a lot of dividends in terms of people's willingness to put forward the extra effort when it's required, and these days to put forward the extra effort when it feels like at times, you know, they're on their own. Making the time to socialize, making the time to spend some quality time with our teams, that's really critical in, in helping all of our organizations achieve their end objectives and keeping our teams engaged, and, and dare I say, happy.

Closing: (18:33)
This has been Count Me In IMA's podcast, providing you with the latest perspectives of thought leaders from the accounting and finance profession. If you like, what you heard, and you'd like to be counted in for more relevant accounting and finance education, visit IMA's website at www.imanet.org.