The experience of wearing the two different hats of finance and sales has made Hewlett-Packard’s Bruce Dahlgren a much better manager. By Richard Jones.
Bruce Dahlgren, Senior Vice President, Managed Enterprise Solutions, Imaging & Printing Group (IPG) with global giant Hewlett-Packard (HP) has spent 25 years in the information technology industry. This includes stints with heavyweights including NCR, Teradata, AT&T and Lexmark.
“I started in a management capacity with NCR, originally National Cash Register, on the finance side of the business,” he says. “NCR was a tremendous development company; they put a lot of energy into their employees and, especially, managers. I came out of my MBA into a high-potential program for NCR and was afforded tremendous management training.”
Dahlgren says that, unusually, he was given the opportunity at NCR to move from the finance and planning side into sales management. He’s never regretted it.
“Making the shift from finance manager to sales manager was actually a huge jump. Quite frankly, it just doesn’t happen that often.”
Two hats good
Dahlgren believes he became a much better general manager because he had walked in the shoes of both finance and sales, and understood different aspects of the business. However, it did provoke some comment.
“It’s funny because when I was in finance, the sales people would say, ‘You’re never going to get it. You’re used to putting numbers together and giving me quotas’. But when I went to sales, my finance colleagues said, ‘You’re not the same guy anymore, because you’re in sales now’. It was a very interesting experience.”
In the early 1990s NCR and Teradata were acquired by AT&T and NCR re-emerged as a stand-alone company in 1997. Dahlgren says he learned a lot about acquisition culture as he was heavily involved in the sales integration work involving both entities.
“Your eyes are really opened up. You start seeing the natural challenges when you go through these acquisitions. Sure, they worked perfectly on paper; the companies seemed a perfect connection. But when you get them in the same room, they fight like children. And being an integration manager, and trying to pull these different cultures together, really taught me a lot.”
In 2000 he left Teradata and went to work for Lexmark, before then jumping to HP in 2006, a move that made for a very interesting year for Dahlgren. It turned out Lexmark believed Dahlgren breached his contract and so they used legal council.
“I was restricted in terms of where I could work,” he recalls. “Here I am, in a new company, trying to have an impact, and at the same time everything I did was being watched.
“Looking back, it was one of those career-enhancing experiences. I got a chance to be very introspective about what I was doing, realise the importance of integrity, and think deeply about how you develop businesses.”
Dahlgren believes the current success of HP’s enterprise sales area – currently growing at 25 per cent compounded annual growth rate – is due to the varied management experiences that he had along the journey.
“At HP I started off primarily building up the enterprise sales area and then we enhanced that to build up all of the services area, and it’s been a great experience. Consequently, JPG is one of the real successful growth areas for HP.
“I had an appreciation for what it took to develop a realistic set of goals and an understanding of what it takes to make a profit, plus I had sales experience. So when I showed up with the sales force I could make intelligent sales calls and I think it’s that kind of broad-based experience that helps you when you run a new business unit.”
Dahlgren also has a philosophical approach to getting ahead in a major corporate environment.
“When I’m mentoring people early in their careers and within the HP culture, they say to me, ‘Bruce, it seems you need politics to move up?’, or ‘How did you become a senior vice president?’ or ‘How do I get from my step right now to your step?’.”
He believes there are two key areas to focus on. First, he says, you have to enjoy the journey, and, second, along that journey each step creates opportunities for success.
“I understand there’s politics in how you handle meetings, and there are opportunities that jump-start people’s careers, but, generally, it comes from that journey and focusing on success at every step. As an example, if I hadn’t been successful in my first district sales job at NCR, I’m not sure I’d be here today.
“At the time when I had that district, and I was working hard, did I have any appreciation of where it would lead? Probably not. But the reality is every one of those steps built my personality and my management style. So many times people want to skip over those experiences, and my message to them is to enjoy every step.”
Dahlgren also has his own views on management/leadership style. He believes a senior leader has to create a culture; a personality of the organisation.
“If you think about people, their personalities generally come from 50 per cent hereditary traits, and 50 per cent environment. If I bring in the best talent, then I figure I can handle the hereditary side!
“So my job is fifty-fifty: first, get the right people and continue to work on that. The other is to create an environment where they can be successful. And I know that sounds really simple, but if you look at the business unit I lead now, I truly believe we have the best leadership team in the industry. And I think we’ve created an environment where they can be aggressive within a very large company. We’ve created a culture that people want to be a part of.”
When it comes to mistakes that managers make, Dahlgren says two come to mind. First, he says, every time he has witnessed a manager holding somebody back, eventually that comes back to haunt them.
Second, he says, he disliked working for people who got involved when he didn’t need them, and were nowhere to be found when he did.
“I’ve always tried to build a culture where I show up when they needed me, or when I felt they needed me. They don’t always agree with that, but I let them do their job. And if they are working and it is going well, then let them be successful.
“Those are just a couple of basic concepts, but they’ve kind of stuck with me over time.”
Dahlgren says he had some great mentors during his career. “At NCR, I had an opportunity to work with an outside group called CEO Perspectives, and I went through a series of testing; it was all positive stuff, and they worked with me on style.
“For instance, I learnt how to carry a calm confidence even when things are hard, and how to get things done without looking overly stressed, and quite frankly, I still lean back on that.
“I know that things come at you every minute of every day, and you have to prioritise, but you also have to learn how to remain calm through the process, and create a confident environment.”
Dahlgren admits it’s a great skill to know when to force the energy level, and when to sit back.
“Just like anybody, I work on that all the time. There’s a lot of really neat techniques that you can learn as you go through your career on when is the time to be quiet, when is the time to show up.
“Quite frankly, I think a big thing for any manager is understanding the impact of timing. There are two types of good ideas: there’s the good idea that comes at the right time, and the good idea that comes at the wrong time.
“And, generally, the most successful people are the ones that can figure that out, and deliver good ideas at the right time.”