Robert Reeg knew a lot was riding on the success of this project. The sheer numbers at stake were enough to make even the most calm and cool leader break into a sweat.
MasterCard Worldwide handles more than 25 billion payment card transactions annually and is responsible for the transfer of more than $1 trillion between financial institutions each year. All Reeg had to do was lead the rewrite of the core transaction processing platforms that the 5,000-employee company uses to make all that happen. Oh, and by the way, this wouldn’t be the first shot at making this work.
“MasterCard had initiated programs in the past, three of them, to get to that new platform,” says Reeg, president of MasterCard Worldwide’s Global Technology and Operations headquarters in St. Louis.
“For various reasons, all three of those previous attempts were shut down. You naturally had a lot of skeptics in place to say why would this attempt be any different? The leadership challenge was making sure you had the right people involved at the right time and establishing champions to make sure this effort succeeded.”
Reeg says the Golden Rule is a great place to start when embarking on any kind of change.
“It just gets down to everybody responds to respect and integrity,” Reeg says. “As long as you are treating people the way you would expect to be treated and you’re being honest and open with people and welcoming ideas from all avenues, I think people respond to that.
The effort took five years and cost $160 million. But by encouraging collaboration and working through mistakes, Reeg was able to lead the delivery of the system on schedule and on budget. It gives MasterCard one of the leading payment processing platforms in the industry.
Here are some key strategies to keep in mind when taking on a major change initiative.
Set the tone
Entrepreneurial spirit is often hailed as the key to getting a small business off the ground when a man and an idea come together to provide something the world wants like a car or a computer. But you also need that spirit in established companies to help work through major changes.
“You have to give your people in key leadership positions enough leeway that they can go out and try some things that don’t take some kind of blessing from the top all the time,” Reeg says. “These are the big projects, the big investments that we’re going to make.”
Going into MasterCard’s data processing platform project, the prevailing thought was that the system, which makes sure transaction data gets to the right place, would be built on a client server architecture.
“As we went forward with this, one of the people raised the concern that we’re talking about a huge number-crunching application and wouldn’t we be better off doing that on a mainframe and treating the mainframe as just a huge client server to transition the data,” Reeg says. “That was obviously a huge change from the architecture plan. But in hindsight, it gave us a much more robust and cost-effective clearing system.”
You have to give your in-house entrepreneurs a chance to show you new ways of thinking about a problem, but you also have to be methodical in how you sort through them.
“Once you get things like this going, you do get a lot of ideas to throw on the wall to see what sticks,” Reeg says. “You have to have some kind of process in place that can help keep you focused so you’re not trying to do 5,000 things part way where you could be doing 50 things really well.”
But if you don’t first create a culture where ideas can be freely expressed, you won’t have those things to choose from.
“You give each of those proposals a chance to make their case,” Reeg says. “It really comes down to which of the efforts look to have the best short-term and long-term potential.”
One of the best ways to encourage creativity is often to get teams together with people who haven’t previously dealt with the topic at hand.
“When you put someone on a team that hasn’t been directly involved with a particular opportunity you’re looking at, it gives them an ability to put a different perspective on the table than if you’re continuing to use the same people that have been involved with it on a day-to-day basis,” Reeg says. “You want people involved in looking at opportunities who have a deep knowledge of the area impacted, but you don’t want to be so overly focused on that as the only solution that you lose sight of what someone from the outside can tell you. It’s a matter of making sure you have both sets of views on a team.”
The key to making it work effectively is to have a purpose that everyone understands and through which employees’ thoughts and ideas can be channeled. The purpose behind the MasterCard project was to “make every transaction more valuable.”
“What are they doing in their individual development plan that will make them more successful in making every transaction more valuable?” Reeg says. “It goes back to, in our case, trying to help everybody be rallied around that one objective and how does the work they do day-on-day support that.”
Take advantage of failure
Any sports fan can recall the phrases used when his or her team loses the big game: ‘Losing builds character,’ ‘They gave it their best shot,’ and, ‘We’ll get ’em next time.’
But the fact is that in business, losing or failing is often a step that must be taken to move ahead and find success, especially when implementing change.
“Whenever I’m talking or looking for a new position or interviewing, I like to find out what their biggest failure was,” Reeg says. “If someone doesn’t succeed in delivering something, but they were trying to do something that was really out of the box, I understand that.
“What I think you want to find out is, did they learn from that and are they able to now parlay that into other situations where they can really drive change and understand what can cause change to fail? That experience in having something not go right is really valuable.”
As Reeg launched his effort to develop a new transaction-processing platform at MasterCard, he was keenly aware of the past failures. If this project was going to work, his people needed to know what had not worked in the past.
“It’s establishing right upfront a tenet that every issue is thrown out on the table, no matter how painful,” Reeg says. “You can’t have an activity the magnitude and size of this effort and not assume there aren’t going to be problems along the way. You have to have a good problem resolution process built into the framework. You have to make it OK for people to raise issues.”
Your approach to the discussion of past mistakes and how to learn from them is crucial. Talk about mistakes you personally have made and how you responded to them.
“When I can talk about things that didn’t go right that I was leading, it makes it much easier for a project leader to talk to me about something that’s not going right for them now,” Reeg says. “You have to humanize that and bring it from a personal standpoint.”
It’s the idea of remembering what happened, but always continuing to push forward that will get you through and help you when the inevitable new mistakes are made.
“The first thing we always try to get focused on is, ‘Let’s get the problem fixed,’” Reeg says. “Then, assuming it had enough importance, we always do a lessons learned afterward. It’s not a lessons learned to find out who is guilty. It’s a lessons learned to say, ‘Here’s a process we put in place to make sure we never have to go through this again.’ Keep people focused on fixing the problem first, lessons learned second and what do we put in place to make sure it doesn’t happen again.”
Find your champions
It can be a delicate balance to find the right number of people for a team that is embarking on a major change initiative.
“If you make the numbers too small, then it impacts the buy-in that you have,” Reeg says. “If you make the numbers too large, it complicates decision-making and gets into group analysis paralysis that can permeate something that’s complex.”
The best approach is to have one person established as a champion for each of the key components of your project.
“That person is going to draw on the expertise, knowledge and assistance from a wide variety of sources throughout the company,” Reeg says. “For success, you need to ensure they have the necessary support and bandwidth. If that’s not in place, their success is in jeopardy, as is your own.”
In other words, if you put somebody in charge of something, let that person do his or her job and lead it.
Look for people who have demonstrated in the past an ability to dissect a situation into manageable pieces and put it back together as a solution.
“This person went out and did something completely different and worked with the business to help start domestic processing in a country where we never had it before,” Reeg says. “That’s something that helps give MasterCard a foothold.”
Be approachable and be out interacting with your people to get firsthand insight as to who has what it takes to be a leader.
“You’re not going to be able to unearth potential leaders without interacting with them,” Reeg says. “I maintain a regular schedule of what we call skip-level meetings that allow me to get to know some of the more junior people. We also rotate individuals from front-line customer-facing roles back into the product development groups and vice versa. It works as a fertilizer for the organization and the individual.”
When you get to the point of selecting a champion who will lead some aspect of the change, you need to have a clear idea of what you want the project to accomplish.
“The change plan needs to be as specific as possible, with the goals made very clear and measurable,” Reeg says. “You need to paint the picture for people so they can envision what things will look like in the new, changed environment. Then, that plan needs to be broken down into specific tactical components that you can match up with the leaders to advocate and advance those mini-plans.”
It’s that detail that can help these champions succeed.
“For me, when I can see firsthand how the change is impacting someone or some process, I have a lot better appreciation for what’s trying to be accomplished,” Reeg says.
The bottom line is that making change happen is not easy.
“No one should be surprised about how hard it is to make a significant change,” Reeg says. “But if you leverage the right people and give them a process and capability to get stuff done, that will drive change through the organization. When people see it working for someone else and good things come of that, it really does start to be a trickle-down effect and get embedded into the DNA of that organization.”
How to reach: MasterCard Worldwide Global Technology and Operations, (636) 722-6100 or www.mastercard.com