Gopi Parampalli VP, IT Operations at Electronic Arts; Influence at a distance

What you have to do is different with your team, boss, peers, customers, and supply chain. Some require different amounts of shrewdness and savvy. I have 155 team members in 26 different countries. Also 260 contractors as part of teams. I engage with 5 primary stakeholders – Managers/Executives, Peers, Team, Internal Customers, and External partners. Tools required for each of these stakeholders vary. Influencing these stakeholders requires some common tools and some tools very specific to each stakeholder.

What you have to do is different with your team, boss, peers, customers, supply chain

Some require different amounts of shrewdness and savvy.

I have 155 team members in 26 different countries.  Also 260 contractors as part of teams. I engage with 5 primary stakeholders – Managers/Executives, Peers, Team, Internal Customers, and External partners. Tools required for each of these stakeholders vary. Influencing these stakeholders requires some common tools and some tools very specific to each stakeholder.

As a technology leader at EA, influencing starts with setting the organization’s agenda. At its core, the agenda is a list of critical annual objectives that solves business problems by applying people, process, and technology vectors. I use a slight variation of a Balanced Score Card to set these objectives – Talent and Leadership (People objectives applicable to all people managers that my team members care about), Operations (Running the business objectives that matter to my customers and executives), Innovation (New business capabilities that matter to my customers and executives), Financials (Managing the budget plans objectives that my manager and executives care about) and Customer Satisfaction (Measures my internal customers care about).

As you can see for me to get the agenda right, I need to work very closely, get influenced, and influence them on my org objectives. The agenda is what connects us all. This is the context under which influencing works. Once the agenda is locked after getting buy-in from my directs and managers, I follow a quarterly cadence to review progress vs. objectives. 

People’s objectives are driven by everyone.  That is the Ultimate device for holding teams accountable. I don’t force things from the top down at the beginning.  Once I go thru plans, we write them down, and then I don’t bug them weekly, only 1/quarter, when we have honest discussions around the objectives (Remember upfront these objectives were set with measures of success, not about individuals, or personalities; it took the drama away by setting concrete goals.  If an employee is not aligned, in 1st quarterly review, we discuss the problem, and I basically say tell me how I can help.  I ask questions, like ‘have we looked at this, or that’.  I help them understand. 

E.g., I had a remote team member, an awesome manager who only focused on his team and his employees, but he was not getting much done on ops or projects.  I was clear on the operations he should deliver since he previously hadn’t had to worry about accomplishments until I started my quarterly review of projects. In the company’s history, there used to be many conflicts about resources and headcount.  So there were Fights over protecting one’s own team and resources.  I wasn’t trying to take away his resources, only get him to tell me what projects he can deliver, and which ones, (because in the past no one had gone back to see how he delivered on objectives or held him accountable).  A shouting match wouldn’t work.  Instead, I ask for what changes he would make.  Eventually, he started reflecting on his own behaviors.   In 15 months, he became a rock star who figured out that he has to work with others. 

[Technology that helps engage the remote employees to influence them more effectively?]

We started using video conferencing because often remote employees were busy with other things like messaging, emails, etc; using video it was easy to see whether they were engaged. To keep them involved, I ask lots of questions, and make sure they are engaged; I keep my monolog short, to the best of my abilities, so it is not boring.  Before, they wouldn’t engage, or contribute; once we started using the webcam, it was easy to see.  I still use the phone, but only for short meetings.  We use a number of technologies, including Google hangouts, Microsoft Lync, and Cisco Video conferencing.  Each person is at their own desk, and we can see everyone at once, which makes it easier to gauge facial expressions, non-verbals, and can figure out if they have questions. 

I don’t do face-to-face every day or week, but go at least 1/year, see the work they are doing, show I am interested in the work they are doing, connect their face to name, see the work they have done, let them know how I interact, what I care about. It makes all of our interactions a whole lot better. It still makes sense once in a while to talk face to face; they like to have an HQ visit about the work they do.

[How do you avoid the headquarters seagull perception of flying over, eating their food, pooping on their heads, and flying away?] My visits are not focused on reviews.  I Spend time 1:1.  My questions are on understanding what you do, the difference you make, and how what you do can be leveraged by others. I don’t come with answers.  If you know the answers, send them, don’t show up.  Have a Genuine need to connect.  I’m not a fluffy guy, I still need to see results.  No one wants to think about how many tasks there are on your task list.  When you ask questions in this broader and more interesting way, they start thinking about the work in a fresh way.

[How do you deal with the inevitable Cross-cultural differences you face?]  I am Asian myself, so understand the hierarchy tendency to hold back.  I ask people from each place what I should do.  When I visit China or India, I know my team members won’t speak directly, so I have to ask questions 5 ways. Fortunately, In EA (the company) there is lots of cross-pollination. I go to websites that have country advice and make sure I don’t expect them to be an exact replica of me. If a project has gone really bad, it is tempting to get to the bottom line immediately, but I have learned it doesn’t work that way.  1:1 works better for being candid.  I talked to the whole team to get different perspectives.  Asking in many different ways helps me in what I am trying to figure out.  Unless I ask in different ways I don’t know what question I am really trying to answer.  Helps get to the real question I need to answer.  It’s frustrating, but I need more patience, getting frustrated is not effective in the long term.  When it is a complex multi-faceted issue, straightforward won’t get me the answer. 

It can also be a Trust issue.  One of my team is in Canada, and one is in Florida.  The one in Orlando has been with the company longer than me.  He Has his own ideas about operations, not working from the customer’s needs in.  For 6 months he was adamant about how to run the business.  I had to strike a balance between the good he brings with what we can get from working from the customer in.  I asked him to say what problem are we trying to solve, not just from the ops point of view, but from all perspectives; write it down.  He argued it was not needed, and eventually, I had to put my foot down. I said, “I am not asking you to change, but write it down.  Get the data, do surveys with customers.” Then he realized the world is bigger than how he was looking at it, he saw I was not his enemy, not trying to impose.  That helped. It took long, 6 months.  There wasn’t a crisis. I was just asking him to think from the consumer perspective. It rarely happens instantly, takes time.  Do I keep him around or let go?  But he brought lots that were positive, so we had to go thru this exercise.

[And how do you go about influencing Senior executives]:

Savviness is needed. The stakes are high and you can’t hold them accountable. The key is establishing trust.  Who they are is key. I meet with them and work to establish trust.  I try to find out what they care about.  I go to them if I need guidance, or what they are looking for if there are 3-4 different ones, often with very different objectives.  Sometimes what they want is rational, sometimes not.  Mostly I can do what they want, but sometimes I can get them to see that following an alternative path would be better; I am trying to make them successful, but proceeding otherwise can get out of hand, and control.  That doesn’t always work.  E.g., when I joined, an exec was pissed off about a tech tie-up my predecessor had made and wanted it cut immediately.  I said it would cost $6M because we would have to cancel projects too fast and that it would be better to do it gradually. I argued that we could set a schedule with clear checkpoints, and he could hold me accountable if I didn’t do it in 6 months Having this kind of frank conversation, showing tradeoffs, not just arguing back, is how I approached it and usually do when I have strong needs to influence. I find it better to have the conversation 1:1 not in a broader meeting, where others are watching.  That works for me. There have been times when it didn’t work because you can’t always be successful, but it works better.  Eventually, he turned into one of my biggest fans. 

[Where did you get the confidence to be able to hold your ground in that way with a senior executive?]  My father was running a restaurant.  I helped with everything including cash, and food, from the time I was 6-7 years old.  We had to deal with all kinds of characters and had to hold our ground if they would not pay, and I worked with good front office managers In 6th grade, one of my father’s friends borrowed $ and never paid back, so we all had to work every day for 3 years or we had no food to eat.  But being able to sit and talk, work to eat, and also my mom was super calm in adversity, so I think these matter.  I think all that was the source.  Those experiences Put things in perspective.  I try to teach my kids by putting them in situations of adversity, support only a little but don’t let them drown.  For myself too, how much risk to take. I now just believe, “I’ll get thru it.”

[Negotiation skills learned?]

How do I approach complex negotiations?  Stakeholders, a discovery process, ability to ask q’s, not get attached to the answer, ‘what do you want to get out of this,’ minimum, what do others want; using that approach after I learned it saved over $3 M as a result.  E.g., CTO and CFO were looking for a different set of things, and asking questions about what each wanted helps figure out how to proceed. People don’t slow down to look at that, using the time to write it all down helped.