Hindsight Series - Doug Hillary

Doug Hillary recently retired as Senior VP of Performance Analytics at Dell after over 35 years in corporate America. His career has included Northrop Grumman in the 80’s, Motorola in the 90’s, and Dell since 1997. He was instrumental in creating and building Dell’s global services capabilities and led large global service delivery organizations. Over the last several years, he was responsible for leading a strategic transformation for the company in the way Dell leverages data, business intelligence, and analytics to improve decision-making across the company. He prides himself on being the father of three daughters as well as being a promoter for women in technology leadership, and was an early adopter and leader for MARC (Men Advocating Real Change) at Dell. He is also a longtime supporter and board member for Girlstart, an Austin-based charity dedicated to helping to inspire girls to learn and engage in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) programs.

How do you define Great work?

"Good question. Sometimes you know it when you see it. It could be simple, like a breakthrough idea, process, or piece of innovation that is unexpected. It could be going 'above and beyond' either in delivering a work product to someone that thrills them, delighting customers, or delighting senior executives or stakeholders. The common element is delivering thoughtful, meaningful work that exceeds expectations in such a way that it truly delights those who are impacted. You know it when you see it."

What advice do you give others to maximize the amount of Great work that they do?

"You need to understand what is expected. Not just what is said, but if you truly know what is expected, what is meant or what isn’t said and how can you proactively deliver against those requirements? This is not to say you need to go far afield or significantly broaden the scope of a given body of work. That can create other challenges. However, are you just answering the question, or are you exploring, pushing, asking and seeking to know more so that what you ultimately deliver meets the stated and the intrinsic needs of whoever asked for the work or the product? There was a theory called 'total quality management' that took hold in the US in the 80’s. Essentially it was a management system based on the principle that every staff member or employee be committed to delivering a high standard of work in everything they do. For example, if your boss asks you for a report, you deliver it professionally, on time and perhaps you anticipated a question or two he/she might ask and proactively included responses. It could be how you interact with staff, admins, senior execs, or customers. If you treat everyone like a customer, understand their needs/requirements, anticipate their questions/challenges and proactively address them, then the whole ecosystem would be better."

What is something that you know that it seems to you that others often get wrong in business and/or life?

"You are only as good as those around you. All too often I have seen leaders surround themselves with friends, allies, or people who have compatible opinions, upbringing, etc. I think that is severely limiting, if not debilitating, to the organization. Instead, hire the best and brightest, even if they may outshine you, the leader, in some areas. If you choose wisely and hire intellectually talented, agile people who have diverse backgrounds and opinions, I think you make a stronger organization. If the organization is stronger, it is more capable of delivering on the leader’s vision. If that is successful then I believe that by default the leader will be successful. All too often I have seen leaders who did not think this way and placed themselves above those who they lead, or were short-sighted in not hiring the best and the brightest. Ultimately, I think it’s an ego thing and to me, the strongest leaders will put their ego aside for the greater good. A weak leader is unable or unwilling to do so."

What was your greatest life accomplishment? What did you learn in the process of achieving it?

"I’m not sure I can point to one professionally because I was fortunate to have the opportunity to make an impact in many areas of the company. It was one of the greatest attributes of working in my prior company. I think my greatest life accomplishment is my family and my girls. They are all grown, graduated college, have good careers and two of them are happily married. Having a strong work/life balance was always important to me. I was willing to take a slower path with my career or schedule my time or travel to minimize the impact on my family. I think I was able to balance it pretty well. I have a great relationship with my girls and I was able to rise to a senior executive level in one of the largest corporations in the world."

What was your biggest failure? How do you cope with failure or setbacks?

"Having lived, survived, and largely thrived in a corporate environment for 35 years, there were a lot of failures or setbacks along the way. It’s inevitable, and it’s what you do with the setback that matters. Do you let it sidetrack you? Do you get discouraged, distracted, or do you give up? I was fortunate to work for many great leaders throughout my career and they were willing to let me learn from my mistakes or coach me through the lesson. In one particular example, we went through a leadership change. One of my greatest mentors was retiring and being replaced by a new leader whom I had known but not nearly as well. We were also going through some very challenging transformation work to radically improve our business performance. Although we had made great progress, I found myself on the 'outside looking in' with the new leader. Whether it was politics, relationship, or other factors, I found myself in a situation where I needed to make a career change. Fortunately, I had established a strong track record and brand that allowed me to navigate the change relatively easily so a potentially insurmountable challenge became a speed bump in my career."

What keeps you up at night?

"I used to worry quite a bit about things like the pace of innovation in my operation and whether we were moving fast enough, yet making a sustainable and lasting impact and I also thought a lot about my team and my organization and what I could do to be a better leader/boss/mentor. Now that I am 'semi-retired', I have fewer worries but I do often think about how can I 'give back' and leverage my experience, knowledge, and passion for helping others while remaining challenged and continuing to learn."

What is the advice you would give the Pre-Career version of yourself?

"Take more chances with my career and be more willing to take on risk and explore new areas or seek new roles to broaden my experience. Although things worked out well for me, I tended to stay in roles for a long time and gain relatively deep domain knowledge which is good, but at what opportunity cost? Could I have accelerated my career if I had pushed myself to explore other roles/companies sooner in my career?"

What advice do you have to give the next generation of business leaders?

"This may sound like a contradiction to my advice above, but you also need to be patient. My sense is there is such a strong desire to succeed and succeed quickly that I’ve noticed a tendency with younger employees/leaders to be too eager to move and do so before learning enough in their current role to gain domain knowledge or build a foundation. Don’t stay too long (like I probably did in some instances) but don’t be too eager to jump too quickly or too often either.

Books/podcasts/other education sources you recommend:

"My favorite book is Execution by Larry Bossidy & Ram Charan. It outlines how to execute a strategy in a very pragmatic, easy to understand (and implement) manner.

The other book that is a favorite of mine is Wooden by John Wooden. I grew up in Los Angeles and I was a huge fan of UCLA and John Wooden (I graduated from UCLA), and I always admired his leadership principles, and his 'pyramid of success'. This book is filled with common sense, practical lessons and insights to be successful in life."

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