HR2IT Trailblazer: Qulacomm’s Alexander Bissell on Change Management
by Dan Roberts
Alexander Bissell came to Qualcomm in Feb. 2017, after 12 years with KPMG, and he says his consulting background is essential to his approach to change management—his arena within Qualcomm’s Office of the CIO. Talk about a challenge: the semiconductor and telecom equipment manufacturer is helping to engineer 5G, technology poised to change how we live and work. This entails considerable internal transformation, as well. Qualcomm has more than 33,000 employees in 165 offices worldwide, all of them touched by the changes IT brings as part of CIO Mary Gendron’s transformational agenda. IT itself has a team of about 1,850 global employees.
Based in sunny San Diego, the UK native has kept busy, noting that his six-person team has completed change activities around more than 50 initiatives in the last 18 months.
When Alexander and I spoke, he had just returned from a business trip to India, where he’d been working with the IT leadership team on Mary’s new “OneIT” Strategy—“Journey to 2020”—but if he was jet lagged, he showed no sign. I took the opportunity to drill down on his approach to change management, and to scaling such a vital function across a sprawling, global organization.
Q: It’s not common to see a dedicated change function within an IT organization; why so at Qualcomm?
As a leader in mobile, we sit at the epicenter of an industry that is not only innovating at a pace and scale like we’ve never seen before, but that is rapidly changing as every industry becomes mobile. Change is a constant in our world. Plus, Mary Gendron joined only 2½ years ago, and she has embarked on executing a transformational agenda that spans from the leadership team all the way down to the OneIT employee.
At many organizations, behavioral change management is typically an afterthought. I’m a strong believer that we need not only to manage changes within IT, but to build a resilient organization that can adapt to constant waves of change. While being embedded in IT under Mary, I also partner closely with HR, which drives resilience across the entire organization. IT is central to so much change, and to the technology that enables our employees on a day-to-day basis. It’s critical that we integrate a strong change management capability within our IT initiatives to drive desired outcomes and enable productivity across the organization.
Mary also personally feels very strongly about change and the bigger picture.
Q: Tell me a little bit about your relationship with her. When I asked Mary about you, she said, “Alexander brings a wealth of energy, experience and creativity. He has been instrumental in our OneIT transformation journey, driving Qualcomm business objectives by enabling us to lead employees through change.” That’s considerable praise. What’s it like tackling change management as part of her team?
Mary is a great change leader. My team is only successful because of the support and vision that she has provided us with her OneIT initiative. OneIT stands for, “We’re all in this together,” and it really unified the global organization.
Mary is also a strong and visible leader, that’s 100 percent critical.
Q: What’s the key element to your approach to managing change?
My agenda is a people-first mindset. I define the IT organization in terms of the three-legged stool: people, process and technology. We need to ensure that we identify the right systems, define and reengineer business process, and identify the people impacted by the transformation—and then manage them through the change curve.
Q: Change is difficult for people. How do you approach it?
Change is personal, and we all have this emotional journey we need to move through. People tend to be very negative toward change, especially when it’s impacting them. There’s a degree of helplessness, in that you can’t control these changes. I have focused on trying to pivot the conversation away from what you can’t control to, “What can I control?” or “What can I influence,” reducing the lens of focus to controlling your own response.
We teach leaders that you can affect how you show up, and how you inspire your team. You can control what values you hold yourself accountable for, and lead into the change. If, as a leader, you can demonstrate that you hold yourself accountable, then you can ask commitment of your team.
And for the team member, there’s usually the need to restore some sense of order, the idea that we are all again rowing in the same direction. Providing as much information as we’re able helps with that, as well as that sense of control over one’s own performance and accountability.
All this can have powerful results, because if we can pivot the conversation or mindset and we each influence or control one or two things, then we start to get a movement across our peer group. And hopefully we can deal with that change and invoke a more positive, beneficial reaction to it.
Q: I get the impression that you’re working not just to help people adjust to a new status quo around a particular change or implementation, but to thrive where change is the status quo.
Yes. As our industries evolve, the organization is evolving. There are new business priorities and organizational structures, and we are on the doorstep of the launch of 5G.
If I may attempt an analogy to American football: If you try to throw a touchdown pass from your own 10-yard line, there’s a lot of risk. But if you focus on just getting to the 20-yard line, that reduces the playing field and opens new options. You can celebrate that success and work on getting to the 30. The end goal is still the same, but it’s more manageable.
Q: How are you driving that level of culture change?
To take a step back, my office of change management has grown to encompass your classic OCM capabilities: change adoption, communication governance, learning and development, training, talent management, and we’re working a lot with Mary around our technical talent risk profile, talent mobility, our intern program, all those kinds of things.
Then we have employee engagement, which is a very critical factor to how Mary is changing the OneIT organization here. How do we create open lines of communication between leadership and the employee? We’ve created “Mary’s Mics,” where we go in and record a quick two-minute video with Mary around whatever’s top of mind. And we do round tables. Also, I recently implemented our IT Leadership Team, ITLT, and I’ve introduced this concept of ITLTV, where they also have a platform via video to share information with the OneIT organization. And then finally, what I’m just setting up at the moment is around organizational effectiveness. As we go through all this change, how can we deal with it more effectively?
That’s my sphere, or my capabilities stack, if you will, that I’m in the process of updating and refreshing as we’ve just started our new fiscal year. In all of this, I partner very closely with the talent group in HR and with other groups within the business.
Q: Do you have the set methodology many consultants would bring to an engagement? If not, what’s your six-person team’s “secret sauce” for tackling such a huge challenge?
I came to Qualcomm with a lot of experience with change methodologies, and I knew what I wanted to implement, but wasn’t sure how accepting the organization would be. I started by testing out some activities around a couple of small projects to see how the ideas I was bringing in would be received, and how much might be too much.
It’s challenging to implement change management practices at both the project and strategic levels, but you must, to create resilience—especially in a global organization. To do so with limited resources is very challenging, so you need five key things:
- Most importantly, a strong change leader;
- A strong methodology, to make sure that people understand the value of change management;
- To bring change management into the initial business case;
- To enable the organization through change training and/or an accessible toolkit;
- And what I call a Change Champion Network.
The first point I have in Mary. Then, I mentioned the methodology, and it’s important to insert that understanding with the initial business case. To gain cultural buy-in for the methodology, I branded it “Qual”Change. Then, in addition to trainings, we’ve developed a formal, end-to-end toolkit. Everything from making your case for change, all the way down to how you make change sustainable—30-plus change assets.
Perhaps most importantly, though, is the change network. This a network of individuals within the regions who are really my change advocates, beating the drum and singing in a consistent voice. We may also assemble additional change networks that are specific to that particular project, recruiting influencers within a domain who can actually drive change and provide two-way communication.
Finally, in addition to our change champions, we manage the scalability challenge with a simple control gate. Essentially, it’s, “Answer these questions to assess the magnitude of change and how ready the organization is for it.” If your score is High, my team will be embedded into your project team. If it’s Medium, we act in a more consultative way. And if it’s Low, which a lot of our projects are, we provide resources, basically giving people a net so they can go fish for themselves. That helps my small organization serve all the changes across the enterprise.
Q: I know that a lot of what you do is driven by your consulting background. What strengths come from a consulting perspective that others in HR might adopt?
In the consulting world, you’re paid to deliver value. You’re a problem solver, constantly trying to drive value in everything you do. And if you have that mindset, you can achieve great things in any organization. So focus on value, for one thing. Also, consultants are thrust into many different situations, experiencing so many industries, leadership teams, and ways of solving problems. It’s really valuable when you can bring an “outside the box” perspective to the table.
Q: It sounds like you’re on an amazing journey. Have you seen early wins so far?
Yes, we have—just the feedback we’ve been seeing from our change management training has been overwhelming. Leadership have asked us to do more in this area, so we’ve opened up more classes, and added new areas of content.
I think your work speaks for itself, and we’re proud that so many people have contacted us and said, “Hey, can you come speak to our project team?” Even being invited by the HR leadership team to come speak about change management and what we’re doing in IT, I think that speaks volumes—because typically you’d have that communication flowing the other way.
Q: That’s fantastic. And speaking of the flow of ideas back and forth, how do you see HR2IT elevating your practice?
I think it’s going to be critically important. In my case, change management is a new capability we brought to Qualcomm. Coming in, case studies and thought leadership from the outside really helped me advance the change management agenda here. We’re very much in the initial part of maturing this capability, and there’s much more out there—and that’s really exciting. As I look to take it to the next level, I hope to lean on this community.
Groups like HR2IT help us understand new trends and capabilities, the disruptive ideas, emerging tech, or new approaches to KPIs and leadership. So sharing ideas with people about what we’ve all done with our change adoption stories will be very valuable.
Alexander closed our conversation by quoting his CIO on how they handle the cultural shift from entrenched thinking to newer paradigms, and it’s a great summation of the work Alexander is doing at Qualcomm—and a terrific approach for us all: “Respect the past, understand the present, and be optimistic about the future.”
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