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Trailblazer Story

What Does Transformation Really Look Like? Personal Tales From 3 Trailblazers

We asked three industry leaders about their personal and business transformations, and got three inspiring stories about meaningful work, busting silos, and training global teams.

Daniel McCollum, CEO, Torrent Consulting; Karen Hughes, executive IT and digital transformation, Telstra; Jennifer Aaker, professor, Stanford University
Personal and business transformations are often intertwined. Here, Karen Hughes, executive IT and digital transformation, Telstra; Daniel McCollum, CEO, Torrent Consulting; and Jennifer Aaker, professor, Stanford University, share their journeys of growth. [Ana Matsusaki]

Training global talent

Daniel McCollum, CEO, Torrent Consulting

In 2009, newly married and burnt out by the post-recession corporate climate, Daniel McCollum turned in his key fob, returned his laptop, and quit his job as a nonprofit consultant. “Let’s go spend a year somewhere in the world, just together,” he remembers telling his wife. A friend had mentioned Malawi in passing, a country in southern Africa where families live on less than one dollar a day. 

“We showed up with two suitcases, and I wondered, What am I going to do for a year?” he recalls. “But I soon got introduced to the idea of social entrepreneurship and started helping some people in the community connect with banks that did microfinancing programs.” The resources were already in place to empower people. But McCollum realized he could help facilitate a broader connection to those resources. He soon recognized the power of a $50 loan, which allowed a local family to buy some hens and sell the eggs in town, or the impact of a borrowed laptop, which opened the door for a local university graduate to apply for a virtual job abroad.

When I went back to Charlotte in 2010 at 32 years old, I decided this is how I want to spend my life. I’m meant to figure out how to create businesses that impact people’s lives and make a difference in the world.

Daniel McCollum, CEO, Torrent Consulting

“When I went back to Charlotte in 2010 at 32 years old, I decided this is how I want to spend my life. I’m meant to figure out how to create businesses that impact people’s lives and make a difference in the world,” McCollum said. “But I had no idea what that meant.”

He needed a few more years to noodle on it before the pieces finally came together: As a consultant at Accenture, McCollum helped big corporations implement Salesforce and CRM software. The pay was good, and his skill set was in high demand. 

In 2016, the McCollums flew to Guatemala with an idea: What if they could train folks there to do what Daniel was doing in the United States? 

Today, McCollum’s boutique Salesforce implementation firm, Torrent Consulting, employs 88 analysts in the United States and 34 in Guatemala. Some were recruited from rural areas to participate in Torrent’s two-year program that trains locals in English, Salesforce CRM skills, and business management tactics.

“We eventually get them to a place where they can become a full-time Salesforce analyst for us and then work on projects or as a developer,” he said. “The average Torrent employee now in Guatemala makes two to three times what they were making before they started, and they are working for a company that cares about their well-being. It’s life changing for them to work in the 21st-century digital economy, and it’s good for our business.”

Busting through silos

Karen Hughes, executive IT and digital transformation, Telstra

At Telstra, Australia’s largest telecommunications company, Karen Hughes’ aversion to silos more or less catapulted her into a company meme. 

Here’s how it started: Hughes, then a leader in the company’s IT department, was tasked with reimagining the customer experience at the legacy telecom company. Her partner in getting the job done was Kieran O’Meara, who at the time led a separate division at Telstra Consumer and Small Business. Despite their different roles at the company, Hughes and O’Meara would be responsible for radically simplifying the customer experience.

Training customer service agents at Telstra could take upwards of a month. Today, with the company’s transformative simplification, training new customer service agents takes about a day.

“Kieran and I were set on approaching this as a united team. We even created an email ID that was ‘K and K,’” Hughes recalls. “This set a tone right through the organization that we were in this together – there was no IT, there was no business. We were a team.” 

That’s when Telstra Consumer and Small Business employees began referring to the silo-busting duo as K-squared. Clever nickname aside, their collaboration led to material changes in how customers interacted with the company. Perhaps most impressively, Telstra Consumer and Small Business reduced the different types of telecom plans it sold from 1,800 to 20.

“You can imagine the complexity that a customer would deal with, and an agent would deal with, in understanding 1,800 types of plans,” Hughes said.

Before the simplification project, known internally as T22, training customer service agents at Telstra could take upwards of a month. “It was very disruptive,” Hughes said. Today, with

the company’s transformative simplification, training new customer service agents takes about a day.

Reducing the number of plans Telstra Consumer and Small Business sold by nearly 99% is not something Hughes and O’Meara could have done on their own. Like any successful digital transformation, it required buy-in from the top.

“Without the CEO’s support, we would not have gotten there,” Hughes said of Andy Penn, the company’s chief executive officer. “This was very much our whole company getting together around this transformation. There were no silos.”

One way to secure the trust of the CEO and senior leadership was to break the ambitious plan into smaller increments: A detailed roadmap, six incremental customer releases, a communications strategy, and a team-resourcing model.

“I know it sounds terribly basic and common sense,” Hughes said of the idea to break Telstra Consumer and Small Business’s transformation into manageable chunks. “But at the time, it really helped to change the perception of us as a program and the value that we were delivering.”

Find meaning in work

Jennifer Aaker, professor, Stanford University

From a young age, Jennifer Aaker saw how people often reflect on their lives near the end. Her mother, who volunteered in patient care at a local hospice, would come home with powerful stories of people in their final days: The fear, the loneliness, and the way love and humor could help people through it. What Aaker remembers most about her mother’s patients was the deathbed regrets and wishes.

“They wished that they had lived in more authentic ways,” Aaker said. “That they listened less to what others expected of them and more to what was true to them. They wished they were more present, savored more, and laughed more. They wished that they had the chance to say ‘I love you’ one more time.”

Employees need to have a sense of autonomy to feel valued, control their time, and improve. They need that sense of connection and the feeling of “I’m on a team” right now, especially when so many have been working remotely.

Today, Aaker, a behavioral scientist, author, and chaired professor at Stanford Graduate School of Business, has made it her mission to ensure her students end up with no such regrets when they one day reflect on their own lives. For more than two decades, Aaker has taught courses on seeking meaning and purpose in business and life. She is interested in the difference between surface-level happiness and what really is meaningful.

Teaching meaning? Cynics may assume that meaning and business success have little to no relationship – and that only the lucky few actually land a meaningful job – but Aaker challenges these preconceptions. She firmly believes finding professional meaning is teachable, regardless of industry or role. One lesson she relies on is a simple research-backed mantra designed to serve as a meaning checklist for her students. It goes like this: People want to be valued members of a winning team on an inspired mission.

The sentence isn’t some PR slogan; it’s backed by Aaker and her colleagues’ peer-reviewed research on behavioral science. “You need every single one of these words working for you,” she said.

Employees need to have a sense of autonomy to feel valued, control their time, and improve. They need that sense of connection and the feeling of “I’m on a team” right now, especially when so many have been working remotely. They need to have a sense of excellence or of moving toward something that is winning or high-performing. 

Finally, they need a sense of a higher purpose or inspired mission – something bigger than their own self. “It’s a helpful framework, not only because each word is well chosen but also because you can flip the sentence and start to diagnose the ‘illness,’ so to speak,” she said. Does a highly-competitive environment compromise the team-oriented elements of work? Does an over-controlling boss reduce your sense of autonomy and agency? Is the higher purpose unclear?

“It doesn’t matter how far down the chain you are. As long as you can sort of squint and see the alignment of what your part is in this inspired mission, yes, you can absolutely have meaning, independent of what that role is at work,” she argues. “And if you can pull that off with boldness, authenticity, presence, humor, and love – you might also live a more fulfilled life.”

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