Bob White; APAC President for Medtronic

Leadership Lessons with Medtronic's Bob White

Published 24th October 2017
Bob White

President, APAC, Medtronic

Published 24th October 2017

HQ Asia speaks with Bob White, APAC President for Medtronic, about leading during times of change and uncertainty, and how to create organisational culture. White also shares the book he gifts to employees, and a fable that seems familiar for those of us operating in a dynamic and ever-changing environment.

What lessons have you learnt about how to effectively lead and manage in Asia? How is this different from leading in Europe or the US?

For the past three years, I have had the privilege of leading over 6,000 Medtronic employees in Asia Pacific, who are part of more than 90,000 employees around the world. Given the diversity within the region from languages to cultures to economies, it has been important that leaders continue to be adaptive to change day to day.

Despite these differences, there are commonalities in what is expected of leaders whom employees can trust. Over the years, I believe the following leadership characteristics have remained constant requisites no matter where I have worked across the world. These characteristics are:

  • Maintain absolute integrity
  • Know your stuff – get into the details – deliver results
  • Expect positive results
  • Take care of your people
  • Show uncommon commitment
  • Be the “energiser” for your team
  • Lead from the front
  • Cultivate a fierce sense of urgency
  • Be the teacher they remember
  • Never stop being a student

The personal touch in Asia is also incredibly important. My leadership team and I make every effort to understand cultural nuances and take them into consideration as we provide strategic guidance, resourcing, and other forms of support. We also work with the teams on the ground to develop customer intimacy, which enables us to deliver a truly global, yet local, value proposition.

How do you train managers to be good leaders?

Training managers to be good leaders is absolutely critical to taking care of our talent. At Medtronic, leadership expectations are set for all employees and are customised for individual contributors, people/project managers, and senior leaders. These set the tone for our company culture and apply to how we work and collaborate with others both inside and outside our company. These expectations are:

  • Shape: we are committed to being experts in what we do, with a clear vision of where we are going and the plan to get there.
  • Engage: we partner with and involve others, knowing that diverse talent, skills, and perspectives lead to better outcomes.
  • Innovate: we create new ideas and bring our best solutions forward.
  • Achieve: we deliver results with the highest standards.

Additionally, we provide in-person training for our managers as well as access to online knowledge and training, such as Harvard ManageMentor and GetAbstract, a website which shares key insights into over 15,000 non-fiction books.

What culture is cultivated at Medtronic? What is your role in cultivating this culture?

The Medtronic Mission is our culture’s foundation and our first and foremost priority is to contribute to human welfare – to alleviate pain, restore health, and extend life. For more than half a century, the mission has served as our ethical framework and inspiration goal for our employees around the world. Six tenets guide our day-to-day work and remind us that our efforts transform the lives of millions of people each year.

Among the six strategies that I set for Asia Pacific, talent is the number one strategic imperative and I am intensely focused on ensuring that our employees have a meaningful career at Medtronic. This focus is aligned with tenet five of our mission to recognise the personal worth of employees by providing an employment framework that allows personal satisfaction in work accomplished, security, advancement opportunity, and means to share in the company’s success.

Building a mission-focused culture requires mutual trust between leaders and employees. To ensure that our employees’ voices are heard, we rely on a quarterly Medtronic Organizational Health Pulse Survey which provides a signal to what employees think we are doing well as an organisation and what we need to do better so that we can continue building our culture.

Lastly, a big part of Medtronic’s culture is a commitment to diversity and inclusion. We firmly believe that diversity of thought and the inclusion of a broad range of ideas, backgrounds, experiences and orientations makes us more innovative and creative and, therefore, fundamentally stronger as a company. For example, we have the Medtronic Women’s Network, both globally and in Asia Pacific, to drive and fulfil Earl Bakken’s dream of a world where women lead. We are also working towards the aspirational goal of having 40% of all leadership roles within the company filled by women by 2020.

Given your experience in many high-performing and successful organisations, what have you learned works with maintaining positive relationships with customers and employees?

It has become more important than ever to build trust and credibility for Medtronic – in partnering with our customers externally, and engaging meaningfully with our employees internally. I always go back to the ‘big four’ defining traits which work in building strong and positive relationships and they tie back to our leadership expectations.

  • Be authentic: Be true to what you believe in, and exhibit honesty and transparency in all communications and undertakings with customers and employees.
  • Stay humble: Be open to others’ opinions, admit mistakes, and never stop being a student.
  • Show confidence: Believe in your capabilities, know your work, and deliver results with the highest standards.
  • Work with passion: Work towards the same goal to transform healthcare around the world.

Additionally, maintaining a strong relationship with our customers and employees is mentioned in tenet three of our mission: to strive without reserve for the greatest possible quality, reliability and integrity in all that we do. Doing what we say we are going to do builds trust and credibility. Doing anything other than that is not an option.

Resilient employees are able to take an active and creative approach to problem solving, perceive experiences constructively, and focus on positive engagement.

How do you lead during a time of uncertainty, like in a merger?

There are a few key mantras that I always share with my team:

  • Keep learning and changing: To challenge ourselves to be open to change and ensure we are not stuck in the past. In order to thrive in today’s environment, we need to become a better learner so that we can constantly re-evaluate our approach and keep our skills fresh. This goes back to our Leadership Expectation Innovate – to embrace, endorse, and engage in change.
  • Ask yourself these three questions: What should we do more of? What should we do less of? What should we do differently? This is how high-performing teams are built – by taking time to step back, reflect, and then move forward aligned and focused on what needs to be done. It helps us to engage by working across teams and embrace diversity and inclusion.  
  • Build Adversity Quotient (AQ): Resilient employees are able to take an active and creative approach to problem solving, perceive experiences constructively, and focus on positive engagement. Our collective efforts to raise AQ can help the organisation be more productive, more positive, more creative, and more resourceful. It helps us to shape what we do by thinking beyond the role and stretching yourself.

What insights can you provide to other leaders who have to manage change in their company?

A leader’s main role is to help their teams navigate through constant change with resiliency and determination. Being able to see things through the employees’ eyes can also provide valuable insight:

  • How are you making accountability, roles, and responsibilities clear for the team?
  • Are you asking yourself and identifying where the problems and gaps are?
  • Are you communicating enough in these times of change?  
  • Are you making communications simple, memorable, and repeatable for the team?

What books have impacted you?

Recently, I gave each member of my leadership team a copy of The Obstacle Is the Way: The Timeless Art of Turning Trials into Triumph by Ryan Holiday.

One of the stories in the book was particularly memorable for me and I have shared it with employees around the region. The story (and I am paraphrasing here) features a king whose people had a pretty straightforward life and were accustomed to the status quo. So, the king thought it was time to remind them that they needed to stretch themselves once in a while and get out of their comfort zone.

The king placed a large boulder in the middle of the main road, completely blocking entry into the city then hid nearby to observe their reactions. Person after person came upon the boulder and turned away without even trying to get past it or only tried for a short time and without a lot of effort before giving up. Most of them complained or cursed the king, their misfortune, and the inconvenience, but nobody managed to move the boulder successfully.

Finally, one person succeeded although not until he had tried for many days to push it out of the way through sheer strength. He managed to move the boulder by finding a large branch in the woods to use as a lever. Underneath the boulder were a purse of gold coins and a note from the king, which said:

The obstacle in the path becomes the path.
Never forget, within every obstacle is an opportunity to improve our condition.

I am sharing this as we are operating in various dynamic yet challenging environments across Asia Pacific. Obstacles, challenges, and roadblocks are going to be plentiful. By reflecting on this reminder and adopting this mentality, it helps us focus and commit ourselves to finding ways to move obstacles aside, and turn these obstacles into opportunities.

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