Leadership Series> Print PDF
A Discussion with Hewlett-Packard’s Sasha Bezuhanova«| Page 1 of 1 |»
Boyden’s Leadership Series presents discussions with business and thought leaders from organizations across the globe. The series focuses on topical issues that offer executives, political leaders and the media insight into current trends in business and talent management in the global marketplace.
This issue features a conversation with Sasha Bezuhanova, Hewlett-Packard’s Public Sector Director for Central Eastern Europe. Heading HP’s government business in 27 countries across Eastern Europe and Central Asia, she offers her perspective on the roots of Eastern Europe’s success in engineering and technology, the new ecosystem of cloud computing, and the responsibility of educating and developing talent in the next generation.
Sasha Bezuhanova is Hewlett-Packard’s Public Sector Director for Central Eastern Europe. She manages HP’s government business in 27 countries, including Russia, in Eastern Europe, the Western Balkans and Central Asia. She started her career with HP as General Manager for Hewlett- Packard Bulgaria in 1998, leading it to become the country’s most successful company in the ICT sector.
Under her leadership, the HP Bulgarian team successfully developed the infrastructure and key services of the three largest telecoms, industrial organizations, public and financial institutions in the region. Another of her remarkable professional achievements was the implementation of a personal identification card project, which helped in the generation of visas for Bulgarian citizens in the EU. She has driven important investments of HP in Bulgaria, including the launch of a Global Delivery Center, which employs 2,700 high profile engineers in Europe, the Middle East and Africa.
Prior to joining HP, she served as Country Manager of Austria-based S&T, which was the exclusive distributor of HP in South East Europe. Her international trade and operational management experience also includes the role of Bulgaria Country Manager for the German medical concern HELLIGE. She began her professional career at the Central Institute for Computer Technologies after completing her Master’s degree in Electronics in 1985.
Discussion with Sasha Bezuhanova
Boyden: You are considered one of the most powerful business women in Europe. What do you think are your top traits that have helped you become such a successful leader?
Bezuhanova: I follow the ideas that I believe in, and I have been successful in making my teams pursue these common goals. Together with peers from different organizations, we make important things happen.
Boyden: What are some of the unique circumstances that have led to your success?
Bezuhanova: There are a couple of circumstances, in combination with personal skills that I have developed over time, that I believe have helped shape my career. I was lucky to be exposed to important tasks and opportunities quite early in my life. I was 26 years old when I became country manager for a German company here in Bulgaria. This not only gave me a chance to drive a big agenda, spearhead innovative projects and have the freedom to implement ideas, but also gave me the opportunity to be part of the development of modern Bulgaria. By doing both things, the professional and social dimensions come together, and you develop the ability to see the big picture and find interesting solutions.
Boyden: What are the challenges or opportunities you encounter in working in what is typically considered a “men’s world”?
Bezuhanova: The challenge is that there are prejudices. I see a professional ground laid out for men and most management positions are normally made up of men. Obviously, you still need to be good to succeed in this environment. The opportunity for women is that if you are good at what you do and have good ideas, you get much more visibility and opportunities to implement your objectives. But of course, you need to prove yourself and this is what I encourage young professional women to do. Don’t stop or get slowed down by the fact that the environment is not made for women. Believe and pursue your ideas, prove that they work, be a professional at what you do and you will succeed. There are very few women around, and if you are good your successes will be even more evident.
Boyden: What is your favorite motivational quote or phrase?
Bezuhanova: What I say to my employees is: “Be yourself, follow your ideas, don’t be afraid to fight for them and be prepared when you have an opportunity — or create an opportunity to introduce them.” That’s my formula for success.
Boyden: Studies have shown there is an expected shortage of skilled employees in Information and Communications Technology. As a regional leader of a top global technology company, how do you bridge this gap and where do you look for your talent?
Bezuhanova: I am a strong believer that big global companies have the task to generate and develop talent by educating the next generation. This is what we have been doing at HP and I’ve been striving to do throughout my career. At HP, we sponsor programs at local universities to offer IT courses for young professionals and even students. We also work with schools to develop computer literacy, general business and entrepreneurial skills at a young age, so kids have an informed choice on what they can do professionally.
Yes, there are studies noting the shortage of IT skills and that is because the world has became so computerized. Today IT is not a standalone industry. It is knowledge that is at the base of many multidisciplinary needs. Today there is a shortage of people not just with an IT or ICT specialty, but of talent that has a much bigger platform and can interpret the solutions for the needs of specific businesses. That’s certainly a challenge not only for Europe, but the whole world. This will require a lot of collaborative work between industries and IT to build interdisciplinary knowledge and be creative in how skills are developed. At the same time, today’s advanced development of technology provides the basis for optimization of certain processes and activities, which enables IT professionals to expand their skill sets.
Boyden: How do you rate the talent in the CEE compared to other global regions, particularly in your sector? Would you say it is among the best or does it need to catch up?
Bezuhanova: In this region we have very strong engineering educational programs that stem from the old days, and you can find good academic knowledge and qualified talent in software and IT. Where we still have a ways to go is in linking business needs with education. Universities need to qualify people to have skill sets that match the needs of industries.
Boyden: Do you think talented executives from Eastern Europe need to leave the region to play a global role? Was this the case in years past, and has that changed?
Bezuhanova: In the old days it was mandatory for everybody who was in an executive position to relocate to the headquarters of a company. These days, thanks to advancements in technology, that has changed. Today you have teleconferencing facilities and you can get online anywhere. This provides a better platform for making decisions, and communicating with larger groups of people, and just makes business much more efficient. I see this as being very powerful and it also provides talented people and leaders from Eastern Europe to have a work-life balance. They can live in their home country, but still pursue a successful career. I am an example of this. I do have to travel extensively, but I don’t need to relocate.
Boyden: Getting back to education, are there some things that can be done to get more young people to pursue IT and ITC fields?
Bezuhanova: It is very important for young people to get introduced to IT and engineering careers early in their education, when they’re still flexible and haven’t made a career choice. This needs to be done in a way that is easy to understand, that intrigues them and shows them the opportunities. IT is often viewed as a “back office” job, which is not the case. IT leaders need to make themselves more visible, for instance in the news or as company spokespeople, to be good role models of what can be achieved in their positions.
At HP we have “Shadowing Days,” where we invite teenagers to visit the company, speak to engineers and see the creative work that they do. The other program that is also having success is Junior Achievement, where young people get a high level of education, collaborate with other students and compete with kids from all over the world to build creative products. I believe there is more to be done to make IT/ICT fields more attractive. We also need more science programs and to attract more women to technical fields. This requires a strong partnership and collaboration between business, academia and the government.
Boyden: What do you view as the next most important global IT trend and business opportunity? What are we going to see that hasn’t been discussed as much in the next few years?
Bezuhanova: Cloud computing is a major trend. It is a style of computing where scalable and elastic IT-enabled capabilities are delivered as a service to external customers using Internet technologies. Cloud technology exists today, but to take full advantage of it, we must address the ethical dimension of accessing private data, and this will require legislative action.
This is less of a problem in countries such as the US and maybe the UK, where there is critical mass for building Private Cloud. But for smaller countries that could potentially benefit the most by using the global cloud, this will require significant regulation and education on the benefits of cloud implementation as well as guarantees for security of the data. There is a need to coordinate legislation on a global basis that will allow security measures to be equalized, and sensitive topics to be clearly defined and agreed upon, so that both enterprises and governments can take advantage of cloud technology. I also see other important benefits — usage of cloud technologies secures access to high quality IT systems and support. It elevates the role of IT professionals and addresses the shortage of skilled IT workers in a positive way. I see cloud computing as the new ecosystem for our life in the future.
What I also see as a very clear trend is the mobility that technology is supporting today. There is no limit to the services, dreams and new ways of doing business in nearly every field because people have their computers in their pockets and can access their banks, legal advisors and anybody else that matters 24 hours a day, seven days a week. And this requires a revision of business models, how institutions are working today. Telecoms are obviously in the driver’s seat of this process. They have completely revised their operational models. But again, legislative support of the cloud border operation needs to be a component of these changes.
A third clear trend that I see is that the Internet and the accessibility that everybody has is stimulating selfprofiling in terms of the services a person wants access to. This is driving the development of computer literacy, and challenging companies, government and ICT professionals to develop new ways to position and market their services and products.
Boyden: Have you found it necessary to introduce an entrepreneurial style into the culture of HP in Bulgaria or other companies you’ve worked with in CEE, and if so, was it a challenge?
Bezuhanova: It is an advantage to work for a corporation like HP, because HP provides a framework and a culture, and has processes and a style that apply worldwide. That helps people get up to speed faster no matter where they sit in the world. I joined HP in Bulgaria in 1997 — a few years after the start of its democratization, when there was very limited entrepreneurial culture in the country. Business people were still in the planned economy frame of mind — thinking that somebody would “pre-cook” it for them.
In such an environment, being able to transfer the leading entrepreneurial knowhow gives you an enormous advantage. I remember in those early days we were not only training our local partners into the HP product portfolio, but also organizing management academies where fundamental business management skills were taught by professionals in the field. This pretty much created the beginnings of the IT entrepreneurial culture. Of course we benefitted business-wise from this investment by attracting the best companies and skills for partnering in the HP business.
Today our country is at a different stage. We have been working to build entrepreneurial skills early on with programs such as Junior Achievement, which now boasts about 30,000 young students.
So, is it a challenge when operating in emerging markets to find ready-made entrepreneurs? Perhaps, but this is also a big advantage if you are among the first in the market, because you have easy access to people and you can be part of developing the culture. I personally see this as an important competitive advantage for companies that operate internationally.
Boyden: As a leader, what are your biggest challenges and satisfactions?
Bezuhanova: In different stages of your life you have different needs and you follow different paths. You can be a good leader in a company, which is very satisfying — seeing results by applauding success and driving people to take on big goals. You get recognized by influencing bigger processes and also help develop the society in which you live — beyond your professional life. I see the latter as one of the elements that makes me feel stretched and positively stimulated right now, coupled with my professional agenda. I am also very happy to see the countries that are now opening up to new markets such as central Asia and some Balkan countries. You feel part of the development of these societies and know you are really contributing to the country’s competitiveness.
Challenges — you always have them on the path, but you cope with them as you discover where you are going.
Boyden: What are the best ways to motivate people, and how do you hold them accountable?
Bezuhanova: The role of the manager and leader is to create productive systems that guarantee business results where motivation and performance of the people plays a key role. There are four aspects to people management that need to be addressed and be in balance:
First — competency: People need to be equipped with the right knowledge for the markets, customers, and products. Companies need to create an environment for keeping those skills up to market standards. This is the instrument for people to be successful, and it is the role of the manager to create the right environment.
Second — the operational dimension: You need to track business processes to secure predictability in the system and to plan investments, resources, and partnerships. Employees should be given a clear operational framework that they understand and can work with. They should feel encouraged to propose optimization, changes and investments. This makes people more accountable and secures better results.
Thirdly — measurement: There should be clear performance metrics for every employee. They should be developed in the context of corporate goals and targets, and results should be revised on a regular basis, both individually and group-wide. People want to know exactly what is expected from them on the job and how they can achieve goals.
Finally — motivation: Motivating individuals is critical. It means fair treatment against common standards. It means recognition of success and taking corrective measures when needed.
The style and regularity of communication is also a critical factor.
On top of this management framework and structure comes leadership — those skills and approaches that make people ready to go the extra mile and achieve exceptional results as a team.
The true leader has a vision, can inspire people, and make them follow him or her. There is a different chemistry in the relationship when respect and aspiration are happening in both directions.
In my managerial practice, I have been successful in building good teams and achieving special results. Part of it has been having a very good understanding of people on a professional level, and also on a personal level — knowing the drivers and limitations to help them develop, to be honest and fair in good and bad moments, to dream together and make them part of decisions. The list can be long, but maybe I can share on a more practical side some of the programs and approaches that have proven to be successful in my experience.
I motivate people by giving them leeway, space to decide and manage their own projects and feel responsible for their country, industry or sub-domain; to have the freedom to be creative, and the authority to accomplish their objectives. I also like including them in innovative projects where they can contribute their ideas on which direction the company can take to be more progressive. That’s a very, very important stimulus in my experience.
Also, of course, I give them exposure whenever possible to higher management, highlighting their successes or even to present some of their concepts. This is what makes people feel part of the corporation, part of the “family,” and keeps them motivated to work for the company.
Boyden: What do you think are some of the key things that need to happen in order for Central and Eastern Europe to continue to grow economically, politically, or otherwise?
Bezuhanova: First of all, the potential for economic growth in CEE is huge. And I believe that the financial and economic crisis gave new potential for Eastern and Central Europe to benefit.
All of the European countries started to optimize and were stimulated by the effects of the crisis. Companies started to think about how to best improve the efficiency of their operations, which leads to near-shoring, off-shoring some activities, centralizing some back-office operations and outsourcing some business processes.
Eastern and Central Europe are in an excellent position to take part in this process. If China and India are natural choices for mass outsourcing or for logistics outsourcing, CEE has the capacity for more “boutique” outsourcing of sub-production or back-office operations because of multilingual-skilled people and good engineering skills at competitive prices.
At the same time, classic production and manufacturing are still very competitive in Eastern Central European countries. I see this competitive advantage continuing for at least 10 more years. Coordinated legislation has also come into play, making it easier for European and US companies to invest in these countries.
Boyden: Which country in Europe do you think is doing the best job at fostering talent and stimulating economic growth?
Bezuhanova: I see Poland on a good track, having a very clever strategy to attract, selectively, investments that focus on keeping the country’s economic competitiveness and developing the right skill sets.
I also see good progress from the Scandinavian countries. They are developing innovative concepts for business operations and collaborative initiatives. This is backed by education and qualification programs that develops the right skills.
Boyden: What is the most important piece of advice you would give to an executive rising up through the ranks?
Bezuhanova: Continue learning, no matter how high in the executive ranks you are.
Keep contact at all levels of your organization and make sure you get fresh ideas from newcomers and young people.
Create an environment with a consultative trust, and go cross-border so you can study new business practices, and adapt your management style and also your strategies according to the diverse ideas available in the market today.
The views and opinions expressed here do not necessarily represent the views of Boyden; only those of Ms. Bezuhanova.