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Investing in people

Stuart Mills explores lessons in leadership and innovation and how getting the best out of your tech means investing in people.

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"We need to be truer to our values and our purposes, as organisations and as ecosystems, because the world will not get better if we're not."

Stuart Mills is VP of Trailhead & Ecosystems EMEA at Salesforce. With previous experience at companies which were still learning the Salesforce ropes, he made the move across the divide to help other companies embrace the technology. Earlier in his career Stuart was in the Navy as an engineer.

Stuart joins Debbie Forster MBE on this episode of the XTech podcast. They discuss people and technology being two sides of the same coin; the big lessons in leadership; and widening the net of knowledge so every student can feel like an innovator.

Transcript:

Speaker 1:

Ready to explore the extraordinary world of tech. Welcome to the XTech Podcast where we connect you with the sharpest minds and leading voices in the global tech community. Join us as we cut through the complexity to give you a clear picture of the ideas, innovations, and insights that are shaping our future.

Debbie Forster MBE:

Hello and welcome to the XTech Podcast by Fox Agency. I’m your host, Debbie Forster MBE. I’m the CEO at the Tech Talent Charter and an advocate and campaigner for diversity, inclusion and innovation in the tech industry.

So today I’m thrilled to be joined by the VP of Trailhead and the EMEA ecosystem for Salesforce. Stuart Mills. Stuart, welcome.

Stuart Mills:

Great to be here, Debbie.

Debbie Forster MBE:

Okay, so Stuart, for our listeners, we really like to understand how you got where we are. There are some of us that wake up and instantly we’re the proto geek and want to be in tech. Others go through more winding ways to get here. So how did you get into tech, and get here today?

Stuart Mills:

Gosh, it’s a small question to start us off, isn’t it? Amazing. A winding path is probably closer to my trajectory in that way, although when I think back and I look back, I always think, well I started being really interested in technology in the broadest sense and how things are made, particularly for me engineering from a very, very young age. Did primary school in Kenya and I remember both being fascinated in Lego as a toy and the young children around me in all sorts of different situations making things from anything. Coat hangers, and coke cans can be an amazing sort of aircraft. So that sort of journey started early with those sorts of things, but went into the Navy and spent some time there as an air engineering officer, and then sort of a winding path through all sorts of different things.

Technology is to sort of define it in working at Salesforce now in IT and technology for me started 15 years ago I suppose, where I discovered the Salesforce technologies and how they could help the business that I was help running at the time and to do things better. And it was sort of okay, oh this is interesting. And there was some of the engineer in me that came out quite early when I was doing some sales and marketing leadership roles. And that career evolved from there into I suppose today, where I lead this incredible effort that we have around Trailhead and ecosystem around helping people into jobs in technology and trying to understand how to do that best. So all sorts of different bits, I guess.

Debbie Forster MBE:

And it’s interesting, I’ve not had someone on the show talk about coming from the Navy and that’s not necessarily where we picture technology coming together is. Did you feel that buzz even then?

Stuart Mills:

Yeah, I think I did. I joined the Navy as an engineer. So I studied engineering and joined, and then became an air engineer and spent a little bit of time doing that. I didn’t spend a long in the forces. It was very much that, in order to do something you needed technology around, you needed my case aircraft, and those were the technology of that time. So I’d done a lot around technology in its impact in the world and I suppose that was, in order to deliver on the mission of the Royal Navy, you needed the technology of ships and aircraft, and all of those pieces. So it’s very much a sort of technical role.

And my first attraction to the Navy was actually going to something called the Roll Tournament back in the day and oh, you do engineering in the Navy and that’s the sea, which I’m fascinated by that combination. So it was very much about all of those things. And I learned lessons. We do work today with veterans of the forces in all sorts of different contexts. And actually there’s lots of disciplines and things that are relevant to people working in technology. And I still go back to those days in various leadership lessons I had that I apply. So all built from that place.

Debbie Forster MBE:

In the Navy, technology, I don’t always hear the join up. Is there some aspect of that that sort of resonated and started taking you where you are today?

Stuart Mills:

Yeah. I think that I work in learning and development now around how people use and develop and build technologies and even own technologies. And it’s been a big observation of my life that has been that in order for technology to add value, people need to embrace it and understand it. And actually technology only exists for the benefits of humanity, and to make our lives a better place. And I think of some of the lessons that I had along the way. And back in my days in the Navy, I remember a story of on an aircraft carrier where a pilot got absolutely furious with a set of things going on and ended up kicking their helmet off the ship and into the sea. It was rather a dramatic thing, and there was various trouble caused by all of these events, but it was a real [inaudible 00:04:46]. I could still picture it today.

And it was real lesson for me, that in order for that aircraft to be in the air doing its job, the pilot needed to understand exactly how to work with that aircraft. And unless they were the synthesis of the two things together, then you didn’t get what you needed out of the technology and neither did you get what the pilot’s job was out of them. And so there was a technology and the people that use it, own it, and build it is two sides to the same coin, a yin and yang if you like, which was very visible there. That mission couldn’t have been delivered in that. But also people get really fed up and there’s a whole set of conversations about people fed up with technology.

Debbie Forster MBE:

There is that feeling, because I have images and I think actually people when you want to shake that printer, that screen, that laptop, it would be actually deeply satisfying to flinging it into the ocean. But we don’t get that opportunity quite as often, and it would be frowned upon.

Stuart Mills:

There’s the big off button. Maybe it’s a softer approach there. There’s off and on.

Debbie Forster MBE:

Absolutely. So when I hear that you brought that into Salesforce, so is you went, and there’s lots of things, this is planet Salesforce we’re talking about, but you really had that bit on focusing on people and digitization. How did that come about when you got to Salesforce?

Stuart Mills:

Yeah, I guess my experience with Salesforce and tech at the time, it started with finding the technology and buying it for the companies I worked for. Before Salesforce, it was two organizations where we were using the technology to deliver on a mission. And it was mainly about really being able to understand sales, marketing, commerce in a deeper way and therefore being able to get better at it. Well the people who needed to get better at it, but they were being enabled by the technologies and it was an observation. I was in business leadership roles in those organizations. And so when the opportunity came to join Salesforce 10 years in, it was to come in as a consultant and to help other organizations embrace the technology and how it could add value to their organizations.

And I joined, and within a few weeks I was flown into a red project, so it was a customer who’s really struggling with the mission that they were on with our tech, and I was asked to try and see if I could fix it. And it was obvious within hours of arrival at this customer, that the key issue was the dynamic between the team that we’re using and building the technology. And there was something quite inherently disconnected about them from how the technology… It was nothing to do with… There were technical issues, there were all sorts of different things to do that, but the fundamental bit was if I could work on enabling the team, and help them understand how to leverage this technology for the best, then the implementation in that particular case or the use case would get better.

And we often focus on the technology and blame the technology in a way, just like your example of the printer a few minutes ago. If you blame that technology, you’re not going to get the thing out. It’s a system. The whole thing’s connected together. And so, after a few years of consulting and then the opportunity came to do this role that I do now, was to really focus on the people side and the enablement around capacity, capability, and even some of the cultural elements that are needed to enable people to use technology brilliantly.

Because if you do get the two together, this has been my observation, then you get the most out of everything. Technology adds value to us humans and which is meant to be its purpose and the technology itself improves and gets better in doing that.

Debbie Forster MBE:

That really resonates with me. And it’s so often left out. When we are specking big projects or like you, when we’re coming into projects that are going into amber, going into red, our first focus is on what’s wrong with the technology? What are the bugs we’re trying to fix? I love those three C’s, that capability, the capacity and the culture, that rarely writes up on the radar with some teams, with some projects. Do you see that often? I see that as a problem. That is the last thing that people are trying to do when they’re working diagnostically. Is that what you were seeing?

Stuart Mills:

It’s a differentiator. Is it a problem? Yes, absolutely, but it’s a differentiator. If I observe the businesses who get it, who grab hold of this and go, right, and this is a lesson of leadership. If you are going to be a great leader, you are serving your teams and you are enabling them to have the capability, skills development, the capacity, we all manage resources, and then you set a culture in a standard by which those people step into that space to deliver on something. So for me it is a problem often ignored, and too many businesses are driven by numbers only and looking very simple spreadsheet views of the world, and not really getting into leading something. I’ve learned this in the Navy. You don’t lead by numbers, you lead by inspiring sailors in my case, to step forward and do the thing that they do.

And that’s where I see this. It’s incredible how many organizations do ignore this, and there’s lessons in that. How do you lead change and how do you make change stick if you like, is by embracing these sorts of talk conversations that we’re having now.

Debbie Forster MBE:

And I think that’s huge, because when I have heard about these terrible projects going wrong, there are times when they will say, oh and people were the problem. But it’s a very [inaudible 00:09:51] way of talking about it. People were the problem. As if that is an immutable thing, just get rid of them or it’s never going to be fixed. The way in which you are talking about unpacking that as a leadership issue and bringing it through creates a real growth mindset, isn’t it, about changing? And if you can build it in one project, you’ll reap the benefits in others. But that’s not often what we ask of our tech leaders.

Stuart Mills:

It isn’t. No. There’s a bit of this which is that you’ve got to be willing to learn and be iterative, which is critical in this, is that there’s real comfort I think in simplicity. And leaders of course will say, I want do this first and I want to see this result, and then move on to there. The problem is that life is not simple and the world is getting more complicated probably, not less, so it’s a bit of a naive point when you’re managing a whole and complex programs. And digital transformation is today’s and the past 10, 20 years latest complexity is the thing that we’re working ourselves through.

It’s always been true though, complex projects don’t often deliver the results that were predicted at the beginning. So we’re sort of living in that. And thinking through this as a system, yes you buy a technology like Salesforce to solve for or deliver on the opportunity that you’ve got, say that’s improvement of sales, that’s your target or something like that. Okay, right. Let me go buy Salesforce technology. Well you’ve got to think, well how do you sell things today? You sell things by people being brilliant at sales and having customers who are brilliant buyers in a bizarre way. But that’s a truth that you see from the Amazon world we live in, et cetera today.

So you’ve got this system of the things interacting together. So if you just said, okay, I’ll plug this thing in and it’ll do what I expect, there aren’t that many things. So you’ve got to think of the whole system of change. So if you think of buying a technology, the way I think of that is, you’ll think about who is owning the technology? I.E. I bought it to improve sales. So they’re the owners. Who’s building it, who’s actually going, I’ve got this thing now I need to adapt it to configure it into what I need for them? And then there’s the use of the system and you’ve got the users. So if you think of those three different roles and then the technology itself, then you’ve got it all and you could start to work out how do those things work together, and how do you inspire people to learn their way into something that’s new? Because that’s the other dynamic.

Debbie Forster MBE:

And I think that is key, isn’t it? It’s the understanding the people aspect and the impact we can have, and the shift and changes. When we are talking about people, we’re not talking about finite, permanent resource, we’re talking about something we can shape and change, and build, and evolve as we go on.

Stuart Mills:

Absolutely. Absolutely. And you pick up at a good point in there, which is that the technologies of today are usable by people in ways that the engineering of an aircraft back to go back then, there was a lot of people involved and not one individual could say I built that aircraft. There’s a complexity to it to adapt it. Whereas today’s technology is you can buy Salesforce on the shelf, one person spin it up in an hour, you’ll be using it to do your business a bit better. And that’s different, right? And so it brings people back into this in a way that perhaps aircraft feels like you don’t necessarily need to understand each individual, if that makes sense.

Debbie Forster MBE:

Trailhead is part of solving that problem, isn’t it? Can you walk me through that?

Stuart Mills:

I think it was 2014 where Trailhead formally got launched. Salesforce is 23 plus years old now and it’s always been true that we’ve been trying to share the way that you make the most of this technology and make it as accessible as possible, and as we’ve grown up, as the world has got more complex in different ways, there is more complexity to Salesforce’s stack today than there was back at the beginning. But we’ve always shared this accessibility and try to convince that you want to configure things first and then code second. For example is low-code, no-code will be another terminology used. And it’s the sense that you take something that’s kind of built up on the experience of hundreds, thousands of other organizations and millions of people and you’ll make a better thing of it for your use case.

And what we spotted over the years has been that help and training resources were always really key to getting the most from technology. And so you could have these big expensive implementation programs, but if you could put more of the skills development and the knowledge into the hands of the users and those people who are administering the system, et cetera, then you would have a bedrock of skills, a foundation if you like, that could make the projects you do just sing and just be incredible investments. And so Trailhead was set up to say let’s democratize this access to knowledge for our systems, and we encourage many other organizations to do the same. To say there’s no cost in fact to you going to find information and be inspired by it. So Trailhead is a gamified learning platform. It’s not just about finding data, but it’s being inspired to keep going and to make it accessible to anybody who could then do a bit better with their Salesforce technologies and actually digital technologies broadly.

And because they can do a bit better, the projects, as I said a minute ago, are better. And so you’re building this foundation, and now nearly 10 years later, are seeing this push and inspiration to take it to the next level. So because everybody should know how the system works, you’re now saying, okay, well how could it work? You are asking next questions, which I love because it’s the, why do we educate at all? So that we can ask the next question and make better decisions on what we know. And so Trailhead has been set to be that, and then there are many other bits to it, but that kind of philosophy hopefully comes across.

Debbie Forster MBE:

There’s lots in there that I want to unpack that I think people are starting to discover that becomes that multiplier effect. I think the first one’s really powerful is that democratization. There was a time wasn’t there, that training and skills and how to get the most of, was that trade secret, that monetizable secret that you would put, that democratizing of it is powerful and putting it in the hands of the user. Because as you were saying later, it moves people from merely being able to implement into innovate, to think and create those next level questions. And then I love also, we all remember the old style learning right? Click here, there were PowerPoint presentations that you click through. I’m really interested to see that you’ve got that gamified, that we’re taking the best of what we’re learning in other fields about how do we learn as humans and putting it in. And Salesforce being and thinking about a creator of skills is not what software providers used to be, is it really? It’s a real shift in mindset

Stuart Mills:

That shift in mindset’s a pathway. I think it is the sense that in order for the technology to be as good as it can be, you need those that are involved with it to be pushing you all the time. If you like, there’s a customer centricity to this, for an organization like Salesforce who’s just saying, if I can get my customers to be more knowledgeable and to give me the blessing of feedback on our system, we will get better at it. We’ve got probably 70,000 odd people today, lots of people who are working Salesforce technologies, but they’re not as inspiring or as amazing as the millions of trailblazers we call them, out there that are using the system every day, feeding back on it. And so Trailhead and the programs that democratize our access to the learning around this is providing that cycle of feedback that’s a blessing to the business, our business growth to be honest, to be selfish about it, but also there’s an aspiring different use cases.

Obviously, the last few years with the impact of COVID and everything was forcing us to digitise in all sorts of activities that were sort of taking forever. Now we needed that enablement to be there through… It does put an interesting thing on education for me, which is that if you suddenly say, now all of the knowledge is open access, democratised, the negative which is how do you manage quality? Because paying for something manages quality to some extent, but the benefit of courses is that, well what is teaching now? And we start to see that actually what our teachers, or instructors in my case need to be is, excellent at pulling people into these spaces to get them to learn.

And which I think is a great and inspiring future for teaching full stop. Is that, forget that you are the access to a book or a piece of knowledge, because know it and you deliver it to some PowerPoints deck as your example to somebody else. Now you’ve got to really inspire people to want to look, to listen, to learn and so on, which is the critical thing that most teachers around the world are inspiring for, is their ability to bring material to life and make it inspiring. But there shouldn’t be any boundary to that knowledge, but we do need to manage quality.

Debbie Forster MBE:

And I want to build that in, because I think that’s something that our listeners can start to use in their company. Whatever they’re looking is. That shift of really viewing our customers, our users, our clients, in a very different mindset. They are not someone just to keep happy and build sales. This is something that you’re really moving it into where they become your innovators. And as such you get that benefit of a happier customer, more satisfied customer. But this starts becoming an exponential R&D department if you get those relationships right. And are you seeing that, are you feeling those benefits now of clients are coming up with ideas and innovating in ways that are surprising you internally?

Stuart Mills:

Yes, definitely. And I suppose it builds on it. So the examples were fewer at the beginning of our investments in Trailhead and building that community, and now it’s sort of an inspiring set of activities and big ideas are coming from that. Still of course you get the incremental, I’d like my system to be better at this because my specific use case needs it, but actually it’s some of the bigger innovations that you need. COVID, at the beginning of COVID, we had never thought of Salesforce as a system that could help with vaccine roll-outs for example, or keeping people safe when they’re returned into offices in a controlled way. And yet very quickly between our engineers and our customers and some new customers coming into this environment, to your exponential point, we’re sort of coming, hang on. There’s a role to be played to try and understand a person and the things that they connect with, a vaccine, at the right time according to a schedule defined by a process that a government’s defined.

That’s a process. Well, sales is a process. So you can certainly service a process and you just change that process to adapt it to there. And suddenly we’ve got technologies that have helped a number of health services around the world to really evolve. And where does that come from? It comes from this community of connections. We call it, in my title is ecosystem. And ecosystem’s often treated as the core organisation, just our partner base. Whereas for Salesforce, it’s our customers, our partners, ourselves, and then a ton of trailblazers who are independents or just interested parties who’ve got engaged with what we talk about and learning with us, and with Trailhead and some of the programs. It feeds itself if you like, and keeps working.

Debbie Forster MBE:

No, of course. And it that’s what you’re saying. So I would say it’s both of those things. It’s the quality control, because you can’t go mad. But also the expectations because that opening up, well how about? What about? You’ve got to think from a business systems way and what’s scalable, what’s sustainable, et cetera. Fantastic.

I think it’s something for our listeners to really go away and think about re-looking at how can we impact that capability, that capacity, that culture for our customers and try to move towards that, from trainer to teacher, inspiring teacher and then to build an ecosystem that becomes part of that R&D cycle that you’ve got.

You and I have been in and around tech for a long time. We’ve seen a lot of things change, a lot of things go through. If we do some future gazing, our audience likes to hear from different places within tech, what that viewpoint is. If you are looking at the future and some of the things we’ve been talking about, what worries you most or frustrates you most or what we see coming up on the horizon?

Stuart Mills:

Yes, it’s a great question and particularly right now, isn’t it, with war in Ukraine still and all of these things in the world, it’s a tough place. And with economic worries. I think what worries me is that people will get more conservative as things become more risky, particularly the economic concerns at the moment seem to be creating an image of, okay, we need to cut things that might be seen as optional at this stage. And training and development and people that we’ve been talking about is one of those things that often is easy to see on a spreadsheet and then you remove it. But for me, that’s you just fundamentally put your business back years if that’s where you starting with these sorts of things.

So that worries me, because actually we need to be braver in these sorts of environments. We need to be truer to our values and our purposes, organizations and as ecosystems, because the world will not get better if we’re not. But we need to be braver, we need to stay brave if you like. And that worries me that we might get more conservative and start to cut some of these more obvious things out, rather than embrace it, because this is work that you can get on top of and it doesn’t cost that much to do it, but it does take some time and effort.

Debbie Forster MBE:

But it requires that shift in mindset of, what is the purpose of training and development? What do we get out of it? I think what’s powerful in this space is to stop thinking about it as a cost, and start thinking about it as an investment, because it doesn’t go away. If I’m up-skilling my team, if I’m up-skilling my clients, my users, that doesn’t go away. So it’s not a cost, it’s actually an investment that we want to be instead of looking at, how do we get the most from that investment.

All right. And I’d like to end on a positive. So that’s what worried you. I like that you still made it sound kind of positive by the end. Looking at that same horizon, is there anything that you see coming up on the horizon that you’re excited about, that fills you with some enthusiasm and excitement?

Stuart Mills:

Absolutely. I think the more we work with different communities of people all over the world, and the more that we see that as you embrace learning and development as a way of life, a continual learning, as you embrace diversity and you welcome more people in, the more powerful ideas come from that. And just that there is more and more coming from it. So while the concerns of people being too cautious, for example, we’re also seeing that just there’s this ability to take the capacity and the different capabilities that are showing up and inspire different and new ideas. And that really is inspiring. And I honestly go through most weeks of the year I’ve met somebody new who’s from a different path in life, who’s been displaced for example, but bringing something. And when they’ve got a chance and they’ve come into a community, wow, it goes to a different place.

So I think it’s in the people, on the technology side and the technologies are moving so much faster. And I think that we are being more intentional. Certainly Salesforce is being more intentional about how these technologies are built to think about some of the negatives that are coming out. And I think broadly we are getting better about being intentional about how technologies can help society and communities be better places to be. Well, those things are happening so fast, that if you combine this sense of new people coming in, who’ve got new ideas with the pace of technology, and you embrace the positivity of it, then I think we can manage through the risks and take those chances. But you do need to continue learn and be willing to move fast at fixing things, and moving things, from learning from those things that may have not gone quite so well.

Debbie Forster MBE:

And I think one of my favorite phrases that I always go back to is Churchill’s, never waste a good crisis. And we’ve not been short of crises over the last few years, but if you as a company, as you’re suggesting, if we’re bringing that braveness, if we’re bringing that intentional quality, we’re investing in people, this is what great innovation can come, this is where the great leaps come through. And I think even greater leaps, because it’s constrained by the crisis, it makes us really focus on what’s vital, what’s important. We can build through there.

Listen, I really appreciate, I know how busy things are for you, Stuart. I really appreciate you joining us on this episode. It’s been great talking to you.

Stuart Mills:

Thank you. It’s been great talking to you, Debbie. Some insightful questions. I always love the answers. So to go through those, it’s amazing what you pull out in these conversations, isn’t it?

Debbie Forster MBE:

This is what I love, doing the podcast. It’s my sneaky little glimpse behind every curtain, et cetera. So I love learning on that piece. So thank you. We’ll probably have you back again some other time. Stuart, thank you so much again.

Stuart Mills:

Thank you. Take care.

Debbie Forster MBE:

Thank you for listening. If you are a tech innovator and would like to appear as a guest on the show, email us now, at xtech@fox.agency. And finally thank you to the team of experts at Fox Agency who make this podcast happen. I’m Debbie Forster and you’ve been listening to the XTech Podcast.

Speaker 1:

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