Sudharma Thikkavarapu, Head of Product Security and Engineering Transformation at T-Mobile, described how transformation comes down to individuals—not only leaders but everyone in the company.
Thikkavarapu began the first keynote presentation of the day at the 2019 CIO Leadership Deep Dive: Digital Transformation Starts with People, which was held on March 12 in Seattle, by stating, “I want to share what I’ve observed in the industry, what I’ve been practicing to become a better leader, and what we should be focusing on for the future. We’re not going to talk about AI, we’re not going to talk about ML. We’re going to talk about you as the driving force in digital transformation. Not just the leaders, but every individual across the company should be ready for that transformation journey,” he said.
“We’re in the midst of transformational chaos. There’s so much to learn in this transformational chaos, and it’s not just the technology aspect. It’s also about the people aspect and getting our people ready for this transformation,” Thikkavarapu observed.
“We all agree that leadership is always value-driven. Innovation and emerging technologies are the visible aspects of value, but, beneath the surface, are the hidden values of big-picture vision, digital economies, industry revolution, digital culture, and connecting people. How far can we continue to play within politics, artificial harmony, and the status quo?” he asked.
“The world’s 20 largest tech giants are changing so fast it’s unimaginable. What we see is the technology, but what we have to see is under the carpet—the leaders who run the companies and the people who work there. I look back at my company, T-Mobile, and I see it’s our leadership that changed us. They transformed each of us individually.” Thikkavarapu presented a slide ranking the top 15 global brands in 2000 and how those brands had been rearranged in 2018—all because of leadership.
“Today, we’re trying to understand 21st-century technology with the mindset of the 20th century and institutions of the 19th century. How do we fix this? By thinking beyond our imagination and listening to our people. My definition of digital leadership is, ‘growing beyond ourselves and thinking beyond our imagination,’” he said.
“I know thinking beyond works, because it’s worked for me. T-Mobile is a transformative company. We go at scale and at speed, and sometimes it’s hard for our security organization to catch up. One of the reasons cited is a shortage of skills. I believe there’s no shortage of skills. We brought in students from the University of Washington. These college kids can do five things at a time. They have unlimited potential, and it’s on us, as leaders, to figure out how to tap in to that. What I’ve done is mentor them, coach them, and teach them to think like I think, and that force-multiplies everything. They assume my role—they understand how I think, my pain points, and how I deal with situations—so I’m able to go do something else. This has really worked for me. I joke that if I leave today, the team won’t collapse for at least one and a half to two years. I influenced them, they influenced me, and we built that trust. They know how we need to transform together within the company. They question the status quo, which is what we have to do as leaders. Sometimes the change agents become the victims of the change, because many people don’t like change,” Thikkakavarapu noted.
“I also ask each member of my team, every morning, ‘Do you still love your job?’ I know I can’t solve problems if they don’t love their job. Also, this is a challenge to them—if they don’t love their job, they present me with a solution so we can try to make their job better. We need to build that culture of openness and try to influence people to think bigger than the scope of their own work. They have to understand where the industry is going, because, in 20 years, they’ll be leading the organization. I feel the problems we’re trying to solve are yesterday’s problems. We need to build something that’s more useful for the next generation.”