Insight into cost transformation
In an interview with Shahzad Saleem, managing director for cost transformation within BT plc, the subject of identifying, developing and nurturing talent was a central theme.
In a 12 year career with BT, Shahzad Saleem has been pivotal to the success of the whole concept of cost transformation within the organisation; enjoying seven promotions within this time as a result. MBA and CIMA qualified, his early career incorporated a finance role with Granada Media Group (now ITV) working between London and Manchester, prior to which he ran his own events management business. Shahzad attributes a great deal of value to the lessons and principles he learned running his own business in a very cut throat environment. That he has been able to apply these principles in a key role within a global conglomerate is a source of personal pride.
What is the cost transformation team and how has this remit developed over the years?
The concept of cost transformation started in BT Retail around nine years ago, whilst I was working for Tony Chanmugam, who at the time was Retail CFO. The success of the work in this division meant that the concept was then rolled out group wide when Tony assumed the role of group CFO in 2008. From an embryonic concept 10 years ago, we are now at around 80 heads, growing to 100 and annually deliver in excess of £500m+ in savings.
I established a small team to drive out cost and inefficiency within the organisation. By the nature of our work, our remit has evolved over time, as success and delivery by its very nature becomes more difficult – the savings are harder to come by; the challenges more complex. The low hanging fruit has largely gone and the nature of our work is more complex and challenging but as a result much more rewarding, especially given the scale and impact the projects are having on the bottom line
Our remit has also broadened, to take ownership of bottom up continuous improvement in addition to the existing complex and end-to-end transformation programmes within the group. Continuous improvement involves the rollout of Lean 6 Sigma across the entire global organisation and is focused on improving employee engagement and empowerment, customer experience and efficiency within the business. This is likely to take us three to four years to deliver.
The third aspect of the team covers the implementation of all our complex and end-to-end change programmes to ensure we deliver the benefits that are signed off.
In short, we effectively perform a range of functions for the organisation that an external consultancy would provide.
What exposure did you have earlier in your career that has enabled you to succeed in this role?
I learned pretty quickly when I was running my own business to recruit people with the skills to supplement my own, as opposed to recruiting people in my own mould. We all learn from each other that way and if you look at my team now it is hugely diverse.
The pressure of running my own business also pushed me to demand a lot from myself – and of course the people that I hired. There was really no choice other than to succeed. I would set ambitious targets for myself and my people and that principle has stayed with me throughout my career. What will I and my team be judged on and, more importantly, how can we exceed that? Also, what skills and building blocks need to be put into place to ensure that we succeed?
What does success look like for the cost transformation team?
Firstly, it is the sense that we know we are making a difference. On a personal level, I get so much satisfaction from knowing that we are making a difference and ultimately having a direct influence on the share price of a FTSE 100 business. In the last four years, £4.7bn has been driven out of the cost base overall at BT; the cost transformation team have been key in delivering on this strategy.
On a wider scale, we also see ourselves as a springboard for talent within the business – numerous people have gone on within the organisation to achieve great things as directors, managing directors and CFOs, having started their careers within cost transformation. The remit of the team has broadened and developed over time, which again is an indication of the value added. This team has been the most successful team in the last nine years in BT of bringing talent in and developing and nurturing them before they grow in bigger roles within the organisation
How have you been able to deliver this?
Through a mixture of hard work, tenacity and resilience. We do not compromise in the people that we hire and we are not afraid to leave gaps until we find the appropriate talent. We have attached a great deal of rigour to our hiring process, ensuring that cultural fit, key competencies and notable achievements are covered in great detail.
Again, our remit has increased as a result of these processes, as we now own the design and delivery of internal assessment centres to benchmark capabilities for all individuals in a change role: in order to give us a platform with which to then develop and coach current and future employees.
Personal development is absolutely key to what we do, with the ability to listen and the desire to learn being fundamental to this.
What do you look for in the people that you hire?
I would say that the basics are demonstrable ambition, a desire to learn, tenacity and resilience. Our team have exposure to some key senior stakeholders in the business and they can sometimes receive firm pushback. Resilience is a quality that I do think can be coached and developed however.
These qualities are key, as we run a flat structure and give people exposure and ownership very quickly. People will present their own work – we will not shield them and present it for them and all will be given regular exposure to senior people in the business including the group CFO.
We want people with the ability to ask questions, to listen and to take stock of feedback, however direct it may be. We will always look at potential as well as a proven track record, but a common denominator is evidence of being able to deliver on a big objective.
Who has been the key influence on your career to date?
Tony Chanmugam, our group CFO. I have been fortunate to work for Tony, one of the top CFOs in Europe, for a great deal of my time with BT. I like that he constantly pushes you, but he cares about people and is a great coach.
Could a dedicated, in-house cost transformation team work elsewhere?
Why not? It has worked for us in terms of delivery, but has also been fantastic as a breeding ground for talent as people cascade throughout the business.
What have you learned along the way?
I think that my two key lessons have been not to take a black and white interpretation of my remit and also to build a great team of people with skills that will supplement mine; as opposed to recruiting to my own mould. What are my responsibilities and how can I exceed them? What is my remit and how can I broaden this? What have we done previously and how can we develop this?
Furthermore, be true to yourself and stick to your principles. Always be prepared to make your voice heard: even if that means taking risks by articulating your point to an audience who may not want to hear it. Can you really add value to an organisation unless you are prepared to do that? I want people to think that I have pushed a business forward and left a legacy of talent along the way.
Always push yourself and solicit feedback; continually ask yourself what are the gaps. And trust your gut.