VMware Canada: building culture, portfolio sales, and partnerships

Sean Forkan discusses progress on three VMware Canada strategic goals, leadership of a Dell EMC portfolio initiative, and plans for the partnership with AWS.

As with other members of the Dell EMC ‘federation’, VMware is managing a tightrope of opportunity, looking to put in place the resources needed to turn potential market growth into reality. This balancing act involves looking with other members for synergies in terms of technical and sales integration to ensure success of the Dell EMC merger, while working with external partners to maintain ability to capture key market trends – hybrid computing, for example. In Canada, this balance is all the more complex, involving as it does, the impact of corporate decisions on local operations. Under Sean Forkan’s leadership, VMware Canada is walking the walk through new partnerships to deliver more broad, customer-oriented solutions, and working to develop culture and internal leadership as the foundation for market success. As is described in the following, edited version of a conversation between Forkan and Mary Allen of InsightaaS, hard work over the past two years has paid off in revenue achievement, cultural shifts, and VMware leadership of a Dell EMC integrated portfolio initiative in Canada. (ed.)  

Mary Allen, chief content officer, InsightaaS:  When you came on board to lead VMware in Canada two years back, you described three different goals you had for the company. The first was to double earnings in three years, the second was to revamp the channel program and relationships, and the third was to establish Canada as a center of excellence in a particular area. As I recall, you were focussed at that time on developing relationships with the server provider community – so telecoms in Canada – and on working with employees to ensure that “everyone who came to work was happy to come to work” as a means of encouraging the best staff performance. Can you describe where are you on that journey today?

Sean Forkan, VP and country manager for VMware Canada:  To start off, the high-level aspirational goal that we had was to double the business we had in Canada in a three-year window. While I can’t break out specific numbers – because we don’t separate them at the country level – I can say we’re on track plus or minus five or ten percent to execute that, and would achieve that next year. So we’re well ahead at the very high number level.

Allen:  Congratulations.

Sean Forkan, VP and country manager, VMware Canada
Sean Forkan, VP and country manager, VMware Canada

Forkan:  Thank you. I just went through your second question with my team in Vancouver, where we reviewed strategic growth drivers to the business. One of these was having a strategy, a plan and focus around creating the best place to work that we could possibly create. The nineteen different leaders in the room felt that we had done a pretty good job: when they considered the situation two years ago, they felt it would have been fair to say VMware wasn’t a destination for top talent. Some of the leaders told me they would post a role and struggle to get applicants. Today, even without advertising roles, I probably get a couple of LinkedIn requests for an introduction or queries about future openings every week. When a role is posted, we now tend to get twenty or so candidates within a week, and a really strong mix of candidates. So think we’ve become a bit of a destination.

But I scored us with a ‘B’, so that we can do a reset on the plan. We’re saying that as good as we’ve become at creating that culture, what can we do moving forward? What are the areas in which we can become a bit better? My approach has always been that when you go out to ask that question, you ask for some outside perspectives – what are people from outside the business seeing as best practices we might want to take on – but I also like to ask the frontline staff, “what is it you’d like to see us do differently to make this the best environment possible for you to perform at your peak?” We’re going to go through that process, and we’re going to build a new plan in Q1 of next year (February to April) to see what we can do to continue to improve because my belief is that job is never done. You always have to continue to get better.

Allen:  What specifically did you do to make your employees so much happier, or to make VMware Canada a destination site?

Forkan:  What they feel is a smart turn around in the Canadian business; even our Dell counterparts see this whole new energy when they are dealing with the VMware individual contributors, or with our leadership team. Our very intentional focus on culture started with some basic organization items. For example, we moved away from a model where we had people flying in all across the country, and instead invested in top leaders and put them in the geography. We told them that they were accountable not only for the sales numbers, but that they also owned the culture in the geography, and that included local people who may not report to them.

Once that structure was in place, we said we also want to make sure that leaders provide oxygen for conversation. This means having everybody lean in to the discussion – so creating an opportunity to include people, and a forum for their perspectives to be heard. I once was told that one of the jobs of a leader is to make good decisions, and to teach others how to make good decisions. So in Canada, I tell employees that your voice will always be heard, and though we may not always agree, I will always listen. But my job also unfortunately can involve making some difficult decisions.

You’ll hear about ‘delegate without risk of failure’. We try to be very prescriptive around what various roles are held accountable to, but once this is defined, we delegate and trust our team members to do the right thing, and hold each other accountable to that. We talk about the need to grow, the need to be thoughtful and intentional about learning, not only at the business level, but also at the individual level. We look to help you as leader or an individual contributor improve on a yearly, quarterly, or monthly basis….

We also did some other, more basic things. For example, we have a definition around transparency: when we make decisions, we explain the thought process that went in to making it, whether it involves designing how territories look for a sales rep, or our investment priorities moving forward. And my reward is I get all these wonderful notes on the Christmas holidays, from people saying “I love coming to work everyday. I love what I do. I love the company and I love the environment that you’ve helped to create.”

Allen:  It’s good for the individual to have a voice, so that they can see an opportunity, a path forward. It’s a great idea to help people envision where they might go as individuals within the company, or what contribution they might make. But it’s also good for you, from a leadership perspective, because a lot of companies struggle with development. One can import tech talent or top-level leadership, but it’s often difficult to grow mid-level leadership and management skills. But without that, there’s discontinuity because its important to have staff who understand what the business is, some of the history, and why there might be need for change. If you can develop that individual, I believe there is more continuity. In addition to this operational challenge, employee churn is expensive as is training, so internal staff support benefits the company from a corporate perspective.

Forkan:  At the Vancouver meeting, we tried to model what I think my leadership needs. We worked with corporate HR who flew up from Austin to run what is essentially called a ‘Start, Stop, Continue’ process. It is very similar to something called an NMAP, which is the New Manager Assimilation Process. So if you’re a new leader in the business – somewhere in the 60 to 90-day mark – you bring in either HR or a consultant to give your leadership team an opportunity to provide you with feedback. They deliver input in a confidential manner, and then the leader is invited to respond and potentially ask clarifying questions about concerns that might be out there. When you do that a couple of years in, the leader will invite feedback, HR addresses the team and talks about what they’d like to see that individual start, stop, or continue doing.

I often talk about how these country manager roles are really three to four year runs. Somewhere in that third to fourth year, by the end of the fourth year, the company should be thinking about having somebody else lead the business. It makes some of my leaders uncomfortable to talk about that, but what I try to explain to them – and this reinforces some of the points I think you were making – is that if the company offers me a new role tomorrow, or if I leave two year from now, and the company should be comfortable selecting two or three of you to run the business. They must have confidence that I have done a good job preparing you to step into my shoes. If the company feels they have to go outside, I will have failed as a leader. It doesn’t matter what I have achieved revenue wise, or growth wise, I will have completely failed as a leader.

I don’t do things like I don’t buy hockey tickets, but what I do do is try and be frugal, so that I can take money that might have been spent on that kind of activity, and invest it instead in the leaders. They all had executive coaches last year, and through the program, a lot of them have learned about themselves about the things that they can do a little bit differently, to hopefully become better leaders. This investment is all part of preparing them for the future, so that the company understands that I’ve done a good job, not only in terms of delivering short term performance, but also in building a really strong bench that they can select from a couple years from now.

Allen:  You have presented a good description of how you as a manager, as a leader in Canada, are preparing for the future. But what do you do from a management perspective to prepare for some of issues beyond your control that may ultimately have impact at the local level – for example, the back and forth in ownership at the corporate level that has been going on? VMware is right at the heart of all of this. Do you have to think about this and do you do some kind of contingency planning? How does it affect you locally?

Forkan:  I always believe in and focus on what I can control. And that’s things like culture, having an operating discipline that balances short and long sight. There is Dell technologies, which is Michael Dell and Silver Lake, and then there’s the portfolio of companies that are part of that – Dell EMC, which is now public again, VMware, Pivotal, SecureWorks, and RSA. There is such a wonderful opportunity for us to come together in a collaborative manner to solve those big, unmet, underserved needs which customers are struggling with.

It’s very early days, and I’ll probably be able to tell you a little bit more about it in a few months, but Michael Dell has recognized this as well. He probably uses different words, but he’s said there’s a wonderful opportunity for collaboration. And so we have picked three or four accounts in Canada, where we’re going to make a very strategic, sort of pro-bono consulting investment. For each of these initiatives, the company has chosen a local in-country Dell technologies executive to be the executive sponsor, who will represent the Dell technologies portfolio. We are actually doing a handful of these in Eastern North America. Just before year end, the consulting team Michael has invested in to lead this project approached me to ask, “Hey Sean, we would like you to be the Canadian executive”?

They could have picked somebody from Dell EMC – legacy EMC or legacy Dell – for this role, but they picked me, and I think it’s a testament to their recognition that we need to think about the bigger portfolio. I imagine that in the US they’re going to pick maybe an RSA person, or a Dell person, or a legacy EMC person to play a similar role, but I think their choice in Canada speaks to our ability at VMware Canada to develop customer focus, to think about client problems, and how we can leverage this rich portfolio of assets and bring them together to solve a bigger problem for the customer.

Right now we’re working through how we can intelligently approach that. We’re going to focus on a small number of customers, and it will probably be six or nine months before I know whether we have developed a good approach. But our idea is that we come up with a framework and an approach that we will be able to scale across as many significant enterprise customers, both public and private sector, as is possible. So that’s how we’re thinking in country about corporate activity.

Mary Allen, chief content officer, InsightaaS
Mary Allen, chief content officer, InsightaaS

Allen:  Since announcement of the Dell acquisition of EMC back in 2013, I’ve been focused on the challenge of integration because my belief is that an acquisition is successful when synergies between the different assets are created. Just after the deal, I had an opportunity to ask Michael Dell about this, and said at the time that he believed in total independence, in not interfering with companies, especially because so many of the companies involved were top level in their markets. This approach leaves a lot off the table, but I’m curious about limits on this whole notion of integration in Canada. For example, you’re talking about developing a framework for the whole Dell EMC portfolio that will scale, and what I really think I’m hearing here is a consultative sales approach, which generally involves recommending best of breed solutions from a variety of companies. Will the framework that you develop include best of breed, and represent more than just joint sales?

Forkan:  There are a couple of points to make here. Let me say first that what Michael said about independence remains accurate. What I do with Mike Sharun [Dell EMC country manager] in the enterprise business in terms of relationship I also do with IBM, right? And I could do the same with Cisco or HP as we still maintain relationships there, though the one that is becoming increasingly important is the Dell one. But though we’re independent, we’ve got customers who are saying “I could see how by taking this plus that you guys could help me solve a bigger problem.” So what we’re trying to do is adopt a consultative approach.

Our intention, through this new program that I’ve been asked to be a part of, is to start with the customer. To ask, what are the big problems you’re trying to solve? What are the proven tools and methods that can help you? Do we have a point of view that you find compelling? Will you engage in a joint discovery process with us to validate our point of view and the application that can really solve one of the big problems for you? If another partner had approached me to do something similar, I might be able to do that with them as well. But I see this arrangement as unique because this is something that customers have asked us to do.

The third piece is the one that I’m probably less of a domain expert on, but that is what are the engineering needs? We are seeing hard-core people in Palo Alto working with people in Austin saying “hey! You have a desktop software application that is very compelling, and I sell desktops, so can we bring those teams together to do something that can increase the value to our customers and partners?” That work is active and we’re just starting… some of the announcements that have come out about Workspace One and the Dell integration, for example, take time, as does the hyperconvergence innovation in the software defined data centre, where joint engineering, which is critical, is experiencing a lot of really good momentum. Those are the kind of stacks that we will collaborate on, while still remaining an independent structure, as in Michael’s original vision.

Allen:  This sounds really compelling, but in many ways is the opposite of the direction you’re going in with other key partners. I’m thinking specifically of AWS, who you mentioned at the beginning of the interview as enabling the second most important opportunity going forward, hybrid delivery. Where will your focus be in the year to come [Dell EMC or AWS]?

Forkan: We talk about ‘ands’ and ‘ors’ – this is an ‘and’. We have been spending time with Eric Gales who runs AWS Canada enterprise and someone from the public sector side, and VMware Canada has partners who have already picked up their AWS certification. We have an interesting idea, which is to take the AWS team and put them in the room with a strategic partner to figure out what the go-to-market should look like, rather than simply do the standard launch program, which is being built as we speak. This would cover more than the marketing piece, and consider what are the use cases, and who are the customers that we’re going to go target? What is the diagnostic that our partner or our services organization will use to help build out the original use case or reference architecture for the customer? That’s the concept, and I have budget approval to support bringing in an outside consultant to help us figure that out. We’re going to be executing on that in short order, in preparation for the launch which is scheduled for March.

This is also an initiative that is customer driven. Customers are really excited about the potential capability – we’re having conversations with large public sector customers, we’ve got enterprises and mid market customers who are interested in this. It goes back to strong digital foundations (where we started our conversation), and the understanding that the world is going to be more hybrid than less. I think there are very few customers who are pure 100 percent public cloud, or pure 100 percent private data center, so the dominant compute model going forward is one that encompasses the best of both. In an Internet model there has to be flexibility to support what we see as businesses change, and as business requirements change, so too will digital platforms need to have the ability to support those changes.


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