Support Functions: from Blues to Samba

Three months ago I had dinner with my friend Joan. She seemed pretty depressed. Since she had recently taken a CIO position in a global organization, I thought it probably had something to do with her engagement and frequent travels. But I was wrong. “It’s always the same story” she told me. “At the end of the day, we always hear things like ‘the solutions you’re proposing don’t meet our specific local requirements’, or ‘it won’t t work,’ or ‘it’s too expensive’. It seems like nobody appreciates the value we bring. And it’s hard for my country teams to resist pressure from local top management. This matrix organization is driving them crazy”.

I could see she was suffering from symptoms I had already seen in other support function executives. She had the “support function blues”.

Support Functions as “integrators”

As a matter of fact, while support functions play a strategic role they often have difficulty being considered as strategic business partners. They are expert advisors to the business, design and maintain processes and tools, provide numbers and data and contribute to transversality and performance. So why are things so tough for them?

During the dinner, in an effort to boost her spirits and give her some new ideas, I decided to share some of our recent successful experiences.

Function and trust building

“It’s all about trust” I told her, “and it starts with having a clear understanding of what your stakeholders expect from you. All global functions operate in a pretty complicated ecosystem so you really have to understand all the various needs. Try running a bunch of face to face interviews with your different stakeholders to get a better picture of what they want. That will also allow you to build relationships and understand what they see as the gaps between what is important for them and what you think is important. Then you can start having conversations around that. It’s not only about saying you’re a business partner. It’s also about behaving like one”.

I suggested she share this idea with her team and build a real strategy for how to approach her stakeholders. Joan was enthusiastic and I could see that old spark of energy coming back: “This could be a good occasion to review our own IT vision and check that it matches our stakeholders’ expectations” she said, “and also be a nice team building opportunity. We haven’t had that kind of meeting for a long time”.

Global functions must build their reputation

I took advantage of this to go even further and challenged her with the need to clarify and communicate the reputation she and her team wanted to have. “What do you want your key business stakeholders say about you 9 months from now?” I asked. Joan got it right away: ”This could be a fun way to identify our goals and translate them into objectives and KPIs” she said. “And get right down to the behaviours” I suggested. I knew that users often reproach support functions for forgetting they are not the experts. “One key behaviour could be “stop using jargon and take time to explain with simple words” I said.

“OK, but that won’t solve the problem I have with Raul.”Joan said.  “He’s Mr. Brazil and all I ever get from him is criticism and complaints. I’ve had several face to face meetings with him, but I don’t feel I’ve gotten very far. I don’t know what to do”.

Global functions must build up their strategy

I advised her to work with her team to define a specific strategy for this person and his team, identifying his objectives, his expectations and what they might do that might prompt him to change. I suggested she identify possible allies and supporters in his environment and contact them for help. “In other words, draw on your own team’s ecosystem and web of influence. This will help you determine the best strategy and who can help you.”

Joan asked me to run a two-day retreat with her team and we went through this program step by step. As we went along people started feeling less resigned and more enthusiastic and energetic. Things began to look much easier than they had before. The team started feeling they could have some control over their environment as they agreed on why, how and when they could contribute to the performance of their business stakeholders.

I ran into Joan at the Geneva airport last week. We didn’t have much time to talk–I was running to a meeting and she was changing planes for Sao Paulo. I asked her how things had been going since we last met. ”That team ecosystem of yours is great” she said. “We ran the exercise with my team and are now going to cascade it in the regions with the country teams. I asked her my burning question: “and what’s happening with Brazil?” She smiled “We’re working together much better now. We’re not on honeymoon but it really has improved. No more blues. Next step is the samba!”




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2 Responses to “Support Functions: from Blues to Samba”


  1. By Irene Rodgers
    on February 5, 2013

    I like this article. Companies need processes and practices that enable individuals and teams to be successful in a global context that is complex and sometimes conflicting. And so the narrator proposes ways in which Joan can develop these. But beyond all that, the narrator helps Joan see that the real key is people, understanding and relationships. I think the metaphor of “blues” to “samba” is so evocative. I especially love it coming as it does from a professional jazzman!

  2. Its like you read my mind! You appear to understand a lot approximately this, like you wrote the book in it or something. I believe that you just can do with a few p.c. to pressure the message home a little bit, however other than that, that is excellent blog. An excellent read. I will certainly be back.