The COVID-19 pandemic has been hard on all businesses, but it had a particular challenge in store for huge global organizations. Operating across different countries and with more than 1,000 employees, ICT provider, T-Systems has had to engineer a massive pivot just to keep things going. Its success in doing so relies on taking action as early as possible. Leading the organization in this radical shift is its highly self-motivated and goal-orientated COO, Daniel Delank. As the pandemic gives birth to a new age of leadership in response to a radically-changed business environment, Daniel works tirelessly to set up efficient systems for collaborating with his teams and ensuring continued productivity. He shares this experience and his top takeaways from this experience with host, Cameron Herold.
Daniel Delank is a multilingual, results-oriented Senior Executive and entrepreneurial thinker with a proven track record of setting up and improving the performance of organizations in different roles and functions. He has years of experience in advising Fortune 500 companies by implementing profitable growth strategies. Daniel started his career in consulting and joined two global leading IT companies, HP and T-Systems, before being offered his first executive position in the US.
As a highly-skilled, self-motivated, goal-oriented leader and manager, Daniel combines strong analytical skills with the talent to derive actionable measurements and feasible implementation roadmaps. Beyond this, he has a proven track record in implementing change and in parallel delivering high-value results. Constantly outperforming expected results as well as establishing and managing high performing teams. Daniel also spends a lot of time on the road traveling in his career and is based in Stuttgart, Germany. Daniel, welcome to the show.
Thank you, Cameron, for having me. I’m pleased to join you on this show.
One of the big benefits for you, the time that we’re in with this whole Coronavirus, is that you’re getting to spend a little bit of time at home with your kids and not spending as much time on planes and trains and hotel rooms. How much time are you normally on the road?
On a percentage ratio, under normal circumstances, about 60% to 80% I’m on the road. You can be sure that 4 days out of 5 days, I’m on the road. In many years, it has been internationally and now it’s more nationally on the road. I’m pleased to be more with the family and enjoy lunch and dinner times. You have different roles as being affected in the Corona crisis. On the one hand, you’re a teacher, you’re a manager, you are COO, you are a father, you have a kindergarten. It’s quite challenging on the one side, but a privilege to be at home and spend quality time with the kids.
It’s something that we’re all trying to figure out as well as we’re going. Can you tell us a little bit about what T-Systems does as well so we understand the business itself? I want to dive into some of what you’re working on in your role.
T-Systems is an ICT provider. We have around 40,000 employees worldwide, around 7 million in turnover. We operate in thirteen countries like Brazil, Mexico, the US and Asian regions like Singapore and China. We serve around 1,000 clients in different branches like the automotive industry, the public sector, and telecommunications. Our business model is around four big pillars. Connectivity like you can see from T-Mobile US. Digital transformation, we serve our clients and their digital transformation journey. Cloud and infrastructure. We have around 33 data centers worldwide. Our security services, which we have around 2,000 security agents that help us and serve our clients to protect their infrastructure and their IT. One of those pillars, the Business Unit SAP is located with around 2,500 people that work for 600 clients. We have around 500 million in turnover. My role is to serve this Business as COO.
You’ve got a huge global organization and a lot of people, 1,000 employees. How does a company like yours adapt to what we got thrown at us? This is not out of any business school program. There are no case studies on this. We’ve had recessions, global economic crises, wars, but we’ve never had a global shut down. We’ve never had supply chains seizing up. We’ve never had everyone being told you have to stay at home.
You can imagine that this is a massive impact on our company. We are lucky that we have a strong security organization. We initiated fast a daily operations call where we bring all the people from the different departments together to understand the situation and the business units to understand which people are affected. Also, we already started early to bring the people back to their home offices to not have them affected in the office buildings or by traveling. Our travel restrictions have been early on in the Corona crisis being quite rigorous to stop the traveling and to stop the expansion of the virus. By that, we can say that our measures have been successful.
In comparison with other companies in Germany, we have a low rate of affected people. Globally, you can imagine that, in particular, they are different and multiple restrictions. It depends on the government. It depends on the country. It depends even on certain subregions. Imagine in the US, the different states have their own rules and regulations. As we operate in those countries, we have specific target teams in the different countries which are collecting all this information. We’re consolidating that together so that every time of the day, we have an overall status of the conditions of our operations. The early action, the early setting up the scene by implementing a continuous daily update and tracking of the different measures that have been implemented. That has been the key success factors to get that under control.
The same as getting the measures and control, we already started thinking of different procedures and different measures of how we reopen. What is the new status quo? Different governments have tried to replace it. We are investigating to which extent we can slowly allow travel to which extent we can still operate in different environments and how we can engage with customers. We are also dependent on customer interaction and then sales. Also to be ahead of the wave, this is something that describes our different measures. That’s why we also think of these scenarios.
You bring up many interesting things to talk about. One that I got was the daily calls that you’re doing, the daily briefing calls, and getting the updates from the different parts of the field and consolidating that information to making decisions. Do you think that’s a practice that will continue as we come out of this? As a company, do you think you will continue those status updates and those regular policies? Are you seeing some benefits that would help the company overall even if we weren’t in a time of crisis?
Absolutely. In the peak of the Corona crisis, the call is a 30-minute call where every department can randomly ask questions about the different decisions that also our board has taken. It was a good practice and it will continue. It gets more into our continuous improvement process. The calls last maybe 15 or 20 minutes, not the full 30 minutes. In the end, it’s still important to sit back, share what’s happening, share about the next steps. This is the platform exchange with other responsible persons in the different departments and not to be the only ones that have a huge pressure on the shoulder to think about the next steps. Share best practices to share different views is a big benefit.
As companies, I wonder if we’re getting better in communication, collaborating, working together, updating each other, and working less in our silos and less than our vacuums. I wonder if we’re going to grow from this in a positive way.
It’s a good point. We are a huge corporation. We are largely spread. This institutionalized setting to fight against Corona has been a great experience. We need people that are engaged, people that tried to get the company through that crisis. We cannot change this environment, but it’s happening. Nobody has planned for it. We are all in this together and we can learn from it. The different people in the countries are behaving differently. They’re executing different measures. I believe in diversified teams. This diversified team, people from different departments, people from different countries, bring in new ideas.
Out of that came things like how do we treat fairs? How do we treat customer interactions? We still have sales running. We still have a sales plan that we now need to cancel. One of the largest events about digitization online, there are many thousand participants. It also was a kickstart to think about new ways of collaboration. It’s great to be at home, but we are still running training with our people. We’re still running leadership meetings. You are forced to use new tools but being forced. It shows you it’s more productive.
It’s possible and productive. That’s what I’m curious about as well. Are you seeing some opportunities with the work from home being more possible than you might have thought of as an organization? Also, on the travel restrictions, do you think that you will change the way that you operate as a company with maybe not having people on the road as much and maybe collaborating with customers or suppliers over video versus always in person? Are you seeing any change potential there?
On that one, we’re thinking intensively. Companies will rigorously think, “What is the financial benefit of traveling 10,000 miles to one location? What is the return?” Not only from an economic perspective but also from an ecological footprint perspective. Does it make sense to travel many kilometers to bring a single person to that place? I remember in my peak times I was traveling for an eight-hour meeting to Chicago from Germany. I was flying on the same airplane. Not with the same crew but with the same airplane. The crew could rest one day and I needed to fly back. That doesn’t make any sense at all, it was many years ago.
At this time, I was running an interesting team meeting with my team and we used whiteboard functions of many video conferencing tools and it was much more productive because everybody could make a screenshot. Normally, somebody pins everything down on the paper or try to scribble an email. It was much more dynamic as everybody could draw on the whiteboard. It will last for some time to get everybody on board because there are people that are more in favor of such tools than people that are not. Always, the early movers will somehow impact and show the benefits of using it. Not for everything, I’m still a people guy. It will still be required and important in certain areas and certain occasions to meet physically. Everybody, every single person will be much more sensible. Does it make sense to travel that long?
It doesn’t make sense. People are definitely getting more of a connection over video than we realized was possible because we have to. We’ll start thinking about the ROI, the return on our time, the return on our people, the return on our money of traveling for the meetings. We’ll make decisions differently. There’s an old saying that I remember as a kid in Canada and it was, “Necessity is the mother of invention.” It meant that when a problem occurred, you had to figure something out. Now that we have this, we’re figuring out these new tools. What was the whiteboarding software that you used? Do you remember what the tool was?
What do you think about the work from home side? As an organization, was T-Systems a company that would hire people remotely and would hire people and let them work from home? If you were or were not, do you think that will happen more than it used to?
In the IT industry, our habits are much more into that working from home, working remotely, working on large distances. We have people all over the place that works for one client that needs to work remotely, which needs to work virtually. With the crisis, we have figured out that it’s much better than we thought it. It works. To give you a number in PSAPs in our business unit in Germany, 98% of the people are at home, which means that there’s nobody on site. There are fewer people physically on-site, on the customer site as it’s required due to technical restrictions and then legal restrictions. The operations are running.
We are thinking, “Does it makes sense to hold so much office space in the future time? Is it a better investment to invest in technical equipment for the people instead of using and hold so much office building?” We started the discussions. I don’t want to say something that is not already decided. Many companies will start investigating that. Does it make sense to invest in office buildings or in technical equipment and maybe tools that enable people to collaborate even better? I also predict that there will be many companies raising tools in the near future and they are already there that enables virtual interactions.
It’s interesting when you talk about investing in the people, investing in their leadership development, and investing the technology tools for them versus putting money into real estate. I have a client in Colombia who has 800 employees and he said that zero employees were ever allowed to work from home and within two weeks, all 800 people must work from home. It was a complete quantum shift in the organization. If this lasts, which it probably will in some areas or longer, potentially in some areas, companies are going to rethink the way that they do business.
It’s like a boom. Many of our clients have been forced to shift immediately from physical presence to virtual. We are pleased, as a provider, serving those clients with our technology. For example, in Germany, they helped the government to install applications and apps and tools to serve affected companies to get support payments from the government. The companies use Corona more as a catalyst for getting that through the digital transformation.
Rather than letting it go, it’s important to make every step with a different perspective. What do you want to achieve? Do you want to achieve that the people and the employees are collaborating? Do you think that physical presence is rather important? Both answers are correct. There will be much more distinguished persons particularly important to be present in a physical place or it’s not. It gives a huge opportunity for everybody.
I’m curious how you, as an organization, talk to your employees about it’s time to shift from worry, fear, damage control, crisis management, and how it’s time to shift to going forward. It’s time to drive sales. It’s time to emerge. How did you manage that discussion or communication with people?
Early on, we inform the people intensively via conferences, via video messages from the board, via direct communication by email. Clear communication and setting the scene and expectation is important to give orientation for the staff and also to give clear rules and regulations. Sometimes the government has not been that precise. Once you translate it into the business area, it gets a little bit fuzzy. You need to make it crisp to have a clear standard for 40,000 people. Otherwise, for me it’s like, “It’s a little bit this. It’s a little bit like that.” It’s how I like it and it’s not. We have been strict and direct when we said to the people, “Don’t go to the office buildings any longer. We want you to work from home.”
For us, as a company, it was a huge stress. We had always worked from remote, but we needed to prepare the lines and the infrastructure to enable us to work from home. You need video conference licenses. You need bandwidth, etc. Doing it step by step and always thinking the step I had, like in chess, helped us to get through that. Getting to the positive side of this mini transformation, we also always try to put it on the positive side. What is this bringing to us on the table? You can work from home. You have different opportunities to interact with the clients.
We said, “We don’t do fairs virtually.” Let’s not think of, “This a shame that we cannot go to a famous fair. Maybe don’t do it virtually. Let’s try to find a way how we can do it virtually.” At the same time, we have quite a variation of products and services that we provide to our clients. We thought, “How about we tailor different offerings that help our clients? What are the big pain points that clients face with Corona? With our offerings, how can we best face our clients?” Get to work with the employees together to see, on the one side, the things that will impact us. Also, to see the positive side on the flip side.
I love communication and getting people to focus on some of the positive of it as well. It’s funny when you said that sometimes the government communication isn’t clear and it’s a little bit fuzzy. I was laughing, thinking that in America, Canada, or Italy, we’re used to the government being fuzzy. In Germany and Switzerland, you’re precise. It was interesting to hear how you get communication. You get it clear, crisp, precise. It’s important for the employees to understand this.
The governments in Europe, at least in Germany, we are lucky to be around us. At least the measures that have taken place have shown its effect. At the same time, to translate it with their own words to the employees and to see what this means for each individual. Also, to reflect that from that perspective, what is the effect on every employee? The employee needs to, like in my personal situation, support the kids and to work with the family to get it somehow done. On the one hand, work, be the manager, be the professional. Our mother company, DTAG, Telecom Germany, has put in some products for the family. For example, Disney+ for a half year or something like that to support the different affected individuals. We can only come through that crisis together. Everybody needs to take its fair share to get it through.
It’s interesting you’re thinking that way. Are you noticing that there are some new leaders emerging in the company? In this wartime or crisis situation, a new group of leaders is emerging that are saying, “Let’s do this,” and driving it forward and/or maybe more entrepreneurial than you used to maybe have. Are you seeing a shift in leadership at all?
I would say yes. There are other characteristics required in such a crisis. From that angle, we are well equipped with leaders that stand their ground and show up with pride to also bring the workforce into the situation to think about this as positive. Many companies have seen the Corona crisis and still see it as something that is hitting us and it will hit us as an IT branch and as a company as well. You always need to see the chances. To have tailored offerings to discuss on a broader scale with the people what we can do about it. We can still serve our clients. What is the best way to help them come through the crisis? It shows me that there are thoughtful leaders that drive that topic in the right direction.
The last question on the whole Coronavirus and then I want to go back into more general business and operations. I’m curious, about where you are and what we’ve been through. Do you think that you’ll still travel 60% to 80% of the time? Do you think you’ll try to shift your role and your focus into doing it in a slightly different way to maybe take that down to 20% to 40% of the time? Does that depend on how good your kids are?
Not really. I’m happy, I’m pleased. I was reflecting on before and after Corona. Before Corona, I would most likely be at 6:00 on the translation. I drive 2 or 3 hours to Bonn and be in Bonn for eight hours on meetings. Be alone in the hotel room. Another eight hours on meetings and then most likely travel back with the train three hours to Stuttgart. That’s on a regular basis. Maybe a flight from Stuttgart to Hamburg, which requires us to wake up at 4:00 in the morning to be on time at the airport. It doesn’t make fun. Why? For certain physical meetings, I definitely believe that physical presence is important, for example, in any negotiation with clients, if it comes to pricing and such type of stuff. I definitely will much more rigorously question myself, “Is it needed to travel or not?” Not that I have not done it before, but it has been much easier with that decision to say, “It’s good. Let’s go and let’s get it done.”
It provides for such a better lifestyle for everyone and maybe even more clarity in our decision-making when we’re less tired and we’re more grounded and we’re not scrambling. It’ll be interesting to see how that changes for you or if it can.
I use the time, not to traveling, in productive time. I still wake up early in the morning, but the two hours that I’m on the train or I should have been on the train, I now use for work.
You can get some exercise and connect with family and have some meaning in your life, which then gives us the excitement to work because we have a reason to be living instead of working all the time. Talk about your role for a bit. You’ve been with T-Systems for years. Where did you start in the organization and grow up in the organization to the role that you’re in?
I started years ago. I joined T-Systems as part of the line office of one of our directors. I’ve worked there for two years. I have different responsibilities. After that, I decided to go into a much more operative role and a role that has international spread because I wanted to work in the international environment. I started to work as an engagement manager for the Region Americas before I was promoted to become the VP of Global Business Operations for the Region Americas in APEC. At that function, I worked for an operation that holds around 3,500 people. It comes from Canada to the US, Mexico, Brazil, Singapore, and China. It was work, time, life balance challenging, but interesting to work with such different people from those countries. It was a privilege to work in that area.
After that, I was asked to hold the restructuring project for our sales operations. I was working for two years with our CSO and was running a project which was called ITD-4Growth. It was a program running or touching the whole organization. We’re framing it and installing a different set of measures like building a pipeline, building up different measures that touch the quality of the salesforce to improve the tool landscape of the salesforce, and modernizing the processes and approaches that go to market. This was a quite challenging period in my career, but it was intense in terms of the learning curve.
After that, I decided to go back into my COO function because I am a passionate COO. I was happy that was the requirement for our Business Unit SAP, to build up the COO function, which was also quite challenging to be precise because the Business Unit SAP was in 2019. It formed out of two different departments that hold SAP services. One was more person or people intense, and the other was more platform intense. I had the challenge to build up a team of around 70 people, which was not there. It’s a once in a lifetime shot to have the privilege and the honor to set up a team of around 70 people, select them, prepare them and build up the strategy and the structure to be able to run a COO role and function.
Lots of different cross-functional areas that stack up into the COO role, “You don’t have any gray hair. You’re young to be doing the role that you’re in.” Why do you think that is? What have you been able to pull together? Why do you think you’ve done so well in your career at such a young age already?
I have been always asked to join a team or to solve a problem. In particular, I would summarize the success of my career that I was famous for getting problems, even problems that may sound impossible to get and somehow solved. I’m passionate and dedicated, which shows the result that has been achieved. I’m a structured guy. For me, structure comes first. Get the strategy and the structure right. Get the operational design ready to execute the strategy and get the right people at the right place, that’s my philosophy. It has shown that this is the right one to get things done.
That makes sense. I like the methodology that you put behind it all. What about yourself and your skillset? You’ve clearly had to grow in your role as a COO and grow in your role in the organization. Where have you focused your growth?
For me, it was always important to deal with the people around you. I have been always put into challenging situations. The first managerial role I’ll hold was a situation where the revenue, the top line was declining dramatically. The cost and profitability were not sufficient. I had no structure in place to support this challenge ahead. The first thing that I did is understanding where the problem sits. One of my philosophies is to fix the right problem. One of the problems I investigated, there have been many different activities running in parallel that nobody in the sales organization could focus on and getting the sales done. The first thing we did, at that time, was cleaning up the pipeline and focusing on the suspects that are promising that they have the possibility to win.
On the other hand, I investigate and think of what are the costs that we can allow ourselves to run the operation. I always make the math. You make $100 million in revenue and you have $80 million in costs to get $20 million in profit. If you have $100 million in costs, something is wrong. You need to work yourself back to the $80 million in the cost structure. What is the allowable cost for every department, for every team, for every single individual that allows you to run your business to generate the margins and the profit? What is the respective revenue and top-line to support?
With that systematic approach, with that clear strategy in place, it helped us to first form the team. It was empowered and it was fighting with us against the same target. It was not only me, there’s a chief and the SVP that I was reporting to, the management directors in the different countries that helped us to turn the ship around. I always also say that it’s not a short-term journey. It’s a two-year journey that drives the need. You need to drive constantly with the team to move the ship around. I’m also privileged in my early career to work with the leaders that were role models to me, which helped me to form also my leadership function or detect me as a leader and my philosophy as a leader.
Europeans already are, but you’ve been fortunate to work globally in your career as well with different leaders, in different countries, on different continents. Have you noticed any differences with leadership in different areas of the world that you’ve been able to pull from or grow with?
Yes. In Asia, leadership is quite different from the US or Mexico. There’s always a flavor of the different cultures. To give you a precise example, in Argentina, I was working for a smaller company and it’s top-down managed, regularly speaking. It was always important to find a way to bring your ideas to the message of the CEO. It makes it a little bit more slowly in the execution, but that’s how it is. You need to work around it.
Working with so many different cultures and also having the privilege to live in some of them and work intensively with those people also forms you as a person. You’re always reflecting, “How has this colleague reflected the situation? What would my PA in Mexico think about this situation?” It always tries the better decision at the end, because you circulate different ideas until you say, “That’s not the right thing.” Sometimes it helps to make better decisions.
What about your team and the people that report to you, how are you focusing on growing them? Is it more situationally?
For me, it’s important to build up clear expectations and what I expect from them. At the same time, also share with them one of my learnings. I reflect on my leadership role beforehand, it has transformed quite a bit. We also discuss intensively within the company how does agile working methods need to be reflected in our leadership styles. For me, it’s clear or important to give clear messages to my team, but also give them freedom and empowerment.
I run a team from sales, over service delivery management, over quality, over resource management, over communication, over projects, over automation tools and processes, over quality. It holds all the different flavors of a COO function. I can’t be the subject matter expert of all of those. I need a trustful team. I’m happy and lucky that I have the best team in place, which I can rely on 100%. That helps me to be in the situation that we are in. It’s important to give clear messages to the team and to show them the expectation, but at the same time, give them the freedom to execute what they think is the best for the company.
If you were to think about a clear message that you are going to give to the 20-year-old or 22-year-old Daniel who is maybe starting in his career, what word of advice would you go back and give yourself that maybe now you know to be true, but you wish you’d known at a much younger age?
The one advice that I would give is to do the things that make you happy. If you do the things that make you happy, you will be good at the things that you are doing. Once you do the things that you’re good at, you will be successful. Whatever it will be, if you followed those three terms or three rules, it will make you a happy person in the end.
Hopefully, get some skiing days in with your kids as well.
That’s for sure.
Daniel Delank, the COO for T-Systems, thank you for calling in from Europe and speaking with us. I appreciate the time.
Cameron, thank you for being on the show.
About Daniel Delank
Daniel Delank is a multilingual, results-oriented senior executive and entrepreneurial thinker with a proven track record of setting up and improving the performance of organizations in different roles and functions.
He has over 15 years’ experience in advising Fortune 500 companies by implementing profitable growth strategies. Daniel started his career in consulting and joined two global leading IT companies (HP and T-Systems), before being offered his first executive position in the US.
As a highly self-motivated, goal-orientated leader and manager, Daniel combines strong analytical skills with the talent to derive actionable measurements and feasible implementation roadmaps.
Beyond this, he has a proven track record in implementing change and in parallel delivering high-value results. Constantly outperforming expected results as well as establishing and managing high performing teams.