Creating a Leadership Experience to Align on Strategy at TSYS

Ryland Harrelson
Executive Vice President
& Chief Human Resource Officer

Since 1983, Total System Services, Inc (TSYS), one of the world’s largest payment-services firms, has been a leader in payment technology and processing, providing solutions to the financial services industry. We have grown in a company servicing more than 300 processing clients and 80,000 direct merchants worldwide. Naturally, both TSYS and our clients were greatly affected by the recession, regulatory challenges, increased risk in data security, and the speed of technology changes. In addition, we had grown rapidly, particularly in our last 10 years, expanding to customers in over 80 countries and offices in 20. We still had a good balance sheet, but it was apparent that unless we made a significant change to our business model, we would be unable to sustain our growth and profitability. We needed a transformation in how we aligned our activities to our strategy.

We introduced a new strategy about five years ago. Although it was a good strategy, we were having trouble gaining traction for it. When we looked for reasons, we realized that we had made a fundamental mistake. We assumed that everyone understood the strategy and could operationalize it. Even though we used the usual methods to roll it out – a brochure, posters, and other internal marketing tools – we hadn’t really thought about how to get people to make it happen. With Root, we created a series of three Learning Map® modules to teach everyone in the company about our position in the marketplace, our financial picture, and our new strategy. The modules were well received, but we suspected we still had a problem. The strategy still wasn’t gaining traction.

At about the same time, we realized that even the people at the highest levels weren’t sure how to make the strategy happen. We decided that our transformation had to start at the top. We designed a Leadership Experience program as a way to engage those who were responsible for translating the strategy to every level.

The Leadership Experience was one of the best things we ever did to build energy and excitement for our strategic efforts. The original event was a four-day process intended to get all senior executives together to discuss our current state – what was working and what was not – and the leadership behaviors that we practiced. This session included the top 15 leaders and many long-tenured leaders as well as many new people. We weren’t sure how the conversation would go. But as a group, these leaders realized that they were all working “in” the business instead of “on” it. The workshop and the insights it provided served as a catalyst for designing the Leadership Experience.

We decided we wanted to do something similar with all senior leaders in the company. Our president really bought in to the process. He committed to being the champion for the project. His support made sure that the leadership sessions would be sustained and invested in, and that people would be held accountable. We also wanted to make it fun, engaging, and interactive. So we designed a session for 50 more leaders, executives who ran the various parts of our business. We got more enthusiastic feedback, but the leaders were still asking, “How do I make this happen?” The change we wanted to see wasn’t happening as quickly as we wanted or gaining as much traction as we had hoped. In late 2010, we kicked off an initiative called “n>gen for Change: Bridging Strategy with Execution.” The n>gen for Change initiative represents our commitment to transforming our behaviors and habits of execution to align with our desired future state. Among many other activities, we’ve designed a Learning Map® session that will go to every employee at every level. In it, we review internal and external realities and the need for change. We describe the future state of TSYS, explore the strategy, present the metrics and milestones for tracking our progress, and discuss the behaviors and culture necessary for us to succeed. We’re still finalizing the experience and are excited about the opportunities it will provide us to engage our team members with our strategic direction.

Change is hard work. But our leaders are concentrating on their behaviors every day – striving for transparency, making fact-based decisions, collaborating, executing with intent, and demonstrating trust, clarity of purpose, and unrelenting leadership rigor.

If Your Company Is Going Through a Transformational Change
We’ve learned some lessons that would benefit any company that’s transforming:

  • Take adequate time to gain alignment on the vision of the future state at the executive leadership level, with influencers.
  • Don’t assume that because objections aren’t raised in a meeting that everyone is on board with a change effort.
  • The appropriate executive sponsorship is critical. You need someone at the top to run interference for you so everyone knows this is a priority.
  • Change is hard, even when it’s positive. Recognize and accept that nobody is comfortable with change, and move on.
  • Communicate your messages consistently and often. Repeat the messages so often that you’ll hear people talking about them in the hallways and elevators.
  • Create a culture of accountability at every level.
  • Keep reinforcing the “why” as you point out the “how,” and don’t forget “what’s in it for me.”
  • Keep up the momentum. Even if the steps seem small, do something and do it often!
  • Share your successes.
  • Include your teams at every step – it’s a great way to build energy and excitement.

tsysAs chief human resources officer, Ryland partners with the TSYS business units to design and implement innovative people engagement strategies to improve the competitiveness of the organization. As an advocate of change readiness, he is responsible for aligning the corporate people strategy with the company’s business strategy. Ryland actively supports the TSYS philosophy and mission by staying attuned to the cultural needs of TSYS’ global work force.