Mark Aikman: Companies have to take responsibility for their workforce

date: 14 February 2019
reading time: 10 min

Maryjka Szurowska from 300GOSPODARKA speaks to UK's TOP 100 CIO, Mark Aikman.

Many companies are facing IT workforce shortages, causing firms major problems and hindering their technological development. Meanwhile, 37% of written software is never used. In parallel, the world is facing a shortage of energy resources.  In this situation, the global trend is to stop wasting them. Do you think that more sustainable approach towards working time is a rising trend?

– Yes. I think time is really precious regardless of what business you are in. Managers and the leaders have to challenge what their workforce is spending time on but I also think they need to challenge their customers in terms of what they actually need and want.

I believe you should sit with people, discuss this problem and take their opinions into account – you will have richer debate and more clear understanding of what you are trying to do. Resource is precious, no matter whether it is yours or someone else’s. And we all have to make sure that the resource is going to be used effectively.

Honestly, when I look at the market there are companies that arrive with a product for which it is too late – their customers do not need it anymore.  Others launch a product that is not yet understandable for their clients – there is too big leap for them to see the viability. These companies are wasting the time and skills of their employees. And by the way, this shows why it is important for entrepreneurs to identify the right moment to launch their solutions.

You have just said that you need to challenge your customers. It is a bold statement. How does it look like in reality? They come to you, they tell you what they need and what do you tell them?

– You’re right, challenge is indeed a strong word. You need to advise them how they can get to the point where they want to be. Of course, the success of such a conversation depends on the client and whether they value you as a partner. That is the most important thing – if this assumption is fulfilled, there is no problem for you to give your opinion based on your expertise. You can show the client a different way of solving this problem.  You might even suggest that this sort of problem can be solved by existing off-the-shelf software and ask whether they have thought about that. If you look at it this way it is not a challenge anymore but “information sharing”. Your aim is to get to a good landing spot, where both you and your client know what the best solution is and agree on what we are going to do.

I think it is a challenge. People are used to coming to a company, stating what they want and expecting the supplier to find a way to realise their wish. If you tell them that you are not going to do that they will find numerous competitor companies that will do it. You will lose clients due to this approach.

– I believe that in business, the real win is doing business with the customers you want to do business with. Not the customers you do not want to. A lot of companies have fallen into this trap – doing business because they have to, seeking only the financial gain… But a customer they are doing business with might not be a perfect customer.

When you are a supplier, you supply a precious resource so it would be optimal to do it for a client who shares your aspirations, your values and your goals. This is a partnership. You know, I have been a customer and I have been a supplier – I am constantly a bit of both.  Consequently, I recognise that you need a partner whose background you understand and where you respect what they can bring to the table. Without both of those, you do not have basis for doing business.

Have you ever been to the United States of America?

– Yes, of course. Many, many times.

I am asking because you are talking about relationships, partnership, sharing values etc. and it is difficult to combine this philosophy with a “start-up culture” where no one has time for anything. I have met a lot of founders and company owners who give their possible business partners 5 minutes to pitch and if they are not convincing enough they will not talk to them anymore. How can you survive swimming against this tide?

– I disagree with your point about the Americans not wanting to build a relationship. My experience is completely the opposite. I have spent a lot of time working with the Americans and they are hospitable, they like to share their problems and talk about what they are trying to achieve.

I think it is not a matter of nationality. Culture is very important. I really enjoy working with people of all nationalities. For me it is about the person and how you create the interaction, like us now – how we talk, how we behave. Being a leader is about how you address a bigger crowd of individuals, how you get them to listen to what you have to say and to take the plan on board. Equally, a key is not to present yourself as Mr. Right because a good leader is always curious about what people have to say. You can be determined about what you want to achieve but you cannot be arrogant. Your job as a leader is to listen and rapidly decide whether a particular opinion is relevant to what you are trying to achieve. Honestly? It is just a basic human interaction.

I did not want to discuss nationalities but about the approach which is in my view dominant in business. Business people stress the efficiency, gain, targets, numbers… not relationships.

– Again – it depends on which business people. There are some industries where the people are focused on products – fast-moving consumer goods for instance. But ultimately their relationship with customer is paramount anyway. They just build it differently – by marketing and feedback. So I think that, whichever sector you are in, putting the customer first is critical. If you put your service or your product first, you will lose your customers. When I observe the market I see that a lot of companies have learned over last two decades that the product performance is not the most important route to success.

Let’s go back to the skill shortage in the IT. There is a huge demand, specialists can change job like shoes and it is really hard to keep someone for very long.

– I disagree with you. There are lots of people I’ve been working with for many, many years and on different projects. They enjoy the job and they achieve some exceptional results. For example, in Poland I’ve been working with Future Processing company for over 5 years and they are an exceptional bunch of individuals. I came here often to discuss the project, and to give and receive feedback.

I think companies have to take responsibility for their workforce. Companies are vulnerable to skill shortages and they have to start thinking outside the box in terms of rewarding to attract and retain people. It is not about money. They have to think how to reward individuals at the company. In London in particular the skill shortage is big issue, so for example some companies are giving their employees child care in-house to keep the individuals working for them. It is not about the money. It is about the environment, it is about the journey you want people to go through.

By definition people do not work for money nor for different perks but for someone. What kind of person are you that people want to work for you for many years?

– It is about being engaging. I hope I give out an engaging message to the team I work for. I’m also very collaborative, very colleague-ic. I like to discuss and understand other people’s point of view but ultimately I’m the one who makes decisions so I have to be accountable. The buck stops with me. I have to be able to pull together a team of individuals who have  business expertise and the right IT skills but also right mix of personal qualities. By this I mean making sure that you have a proper diversity in your team, that the people have different skills because what I do not want is a one-trick pony. I want to have a combination of people that will bring me the right performance. Maintaining this mix of skills gives you a team that is able to do the X and to do the Y – and do so again in a year’s time. To make it clear – I’m not saying about the technical skills alone. It is also about such qualities as communication skills.

It is also good to give the people the opportunity to travel and gain experience from different cultures. As I work with Poland my people can travel here and the Polish staff can travel to the UK regularly.

It is even more surprising to hear such a philosophy of building relationship, of paying attention to every individual from a person who deals with cross-border IT outsourcing. Outsourcing is not about relationships. It is about the money. One might say that you are wasting your time on paying that much of your attention to one country as in few years the other one will be cheaper…

– I do not like this word “outsourcing”. If you outsource activity X to company Y in location Z you do not have to pay much attention as long as they deliver the result you want, for the price you want to pay. For some organisations this seems like a solution but I firmly believe that for majority of organisations it is changing. I think they do care. Certainly I cannot speak for the whole industry, but as we have a global shortage of skills – wherever you are the skills are getting more and more precious. Therefore automatically you have to treat the organisation you are working with as the people who can help you and stay with you for the long haul.

Being a leader it’s your responsibility to find someone who delivers something for a particular price but also takes some time to understand the organisation, to think whether their culture fits your culture. Doing that makes it more likely that you will succeed than if you throw the problem over the fence. For the individuals and CEOs I have talked to, throwing over the fence is not the solution. Those people are very progressive and they want to build their business collaboratively.

This interview was conducted by Maryjka Szurowska and originally published in Polish on 12 Feb 2019. 

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