Episode 01: The Pilot

Episode 1 with OST President and CEO Meredith Bronk

In this episode:

Welcome to the Pilot episode of 10,000 Feet!

We’re coming to you from Vervint, a technology firm that’s been helping companies launch digital initiatives for almost three decades. Throughout that time, there have been several waves of change across organizations, but none quite as strong as the digital transformation facing enterprises today.

On 10,000 Feet, you can expect us to talk through the issues organizations face as they make the shift to a technology company, regardless of their industry. We’ll talk with knowledgeable guests and each other about the successes, the failures, and some hypotheses on what changes are coming next.

We kick off our first episode with Meredith Bronk. While Mer is not a technologist, she was with Vervint from early on and has a deep understanding of what technology means for an organization and how that continues to evolve. Her ability to understand the technology and the business provides her with the unique capability to come at things from a more challenging perspective: human behavior.

Mer is joined today by host, Lizzie Williams, Vervint’s Sr. Employee Communication Specialist, focusing on employee experience and communication. We will mix up hosts from time to time, but Lizzie had a really great pilot hat, so we had to take advantage of that.

On this episode, you’ll learn a bit about why we named this podcast 10,000 Feet and why the key to driving change is actually people. Mer also shares some tips to change hearts and minds to move in one direction.

Thanks for tuning in! We look forward to sharing more conversation with you. If you have an idea for a topic or guest, feel free to reach out.

This podcast content was created prior to our rebrand and may contain references to our previous name (OST) and brand elements. Although our brand has changed, the information shared continues to be relevant and valuable.

Episode Transcript

Lizzie Williams: Hey everybody. Welcome at Ten Thousand Feet, the OST podcast. On this episode we have Meredith Bronk, our president and CEO, here at OST.  

OST is a business and technology consultancy, headquartered in Grand Rapids, Michigan, but we also do have offices in Detroit and Minneapolis. Meredith actually joined the OST family over 21 years ago as a project manager, so she wouldn’t necessarily self-identify as a technologist, but she certainly is leading us in that space.  

On this first episode, we were able to talk about the name of our podcast, the true challenges with digital transformation and some tips for making that shift, so let’s get into it. Welcome to Ten Thousand Feet and I hope you enjoy our first episode. 

Lizzie Williams: This is our first episode of Ten Thousand Feet, the OST podcast. 

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Meredith Bronk: I’m so excited to be here. 

Lizzie: I’m excited to have you here. Do you want to set up for our listeners why we chose Ten Thousand Feet as our podcast? 

Meredith: I would love to, because I think it’s so awesome. When we were first talking about it, the thing that struck me about Ten Thousand Feet is when you’re flying– and I fly a lot, when you fly, kind of what happens at Ten Thousand Feet, right? Wi-Fi comes on, you get to kind of cruising, you’re still close enough to the ground that you can see the houses, and you can see the trees, and you can see what’s on the ground, but you know you’re headed toward cruising altitude, 30,000 feet.  

When I think about what we do and what we’re going to talk about, and what we’re trying to do on this podcast is, navigate that, kind of be at Ten Thousand Feet. High enough to see the details but not so high that we’re not relevant to what’s on the ground. 

Lizzie: Absolutely. I am so excited to be talking about it. We’ve got a bunch of guests lined up that I’m excited about, yes. Mostly we’re really going to be focusing on companies that are undergoing digital transformations. That’s a big topic area, but today I think the one thing that I’m excited to hear from you is, what’s your perspective on either the most difficult parts or the most exciting parts of those transforming companies? 

Meredith: Yes. When I think about digital transformation, and even the buzzwords and kind of as I listen to folks talk about it, and what’s happening in the market, so much focus is on the digital side, on the technology side, and my personal passion, and the thing that I talk to leaders about is the human element of that transformation, and how, in our desire to transform how we run businesses today, how we do what we do, the technology is the enablement, that technology might be the impetus, might create an inflection point. Really the transformation comes when you can change behavior.  

Lizzie: One thing I’m just wondering. You went through your executive MBA a handful of years ago at Notre Dame. 

Meredith: I did. 

Lizzie: Was this a conversation that they were having there even a few years ago? Or have you seen it shift recently? What’s your perspective on that? 

Meredith: I think we’ve been talking about digital transformation for a long time. I’d say mainstream adoption, it seems like it’s accelerated, maybe partially because the economic conditions that we’re in right now. It’s a good, strong economy, companies, a lot of them are thinking about transforming now, while we can and while they have capital, and if you’re not, maybe you should be thinking about that.  

I would say, for when I was in MBA, yes, we talked all the time about, “you have to stay relevant and what does staying relevant mean?” It might mean something different today than it meant 10 years ago, but companies that have the capability to continue to evolve are the ones that can in fact survive. 

Lizzie: Did they talk about the human element of it? 

Meredith: Not as much, not as much. Maybe an organizational change, and organizational behavioral pieces, but the connection between innovation and behavioral change is something that I think I’ve seen more of in the last few years, and talking about surely more broadly in the last few years maybe than before. 

Lizzie: Yes. It definitely seems like, as a company, it‘s something that we’ve shifted, our conversation and our lens on, having acquired a design firm a couple years ago. I mean, your leadership has certainly helped transform the way we talk about it.

Meredith: Yes, because when we try to innovate, the technology doesn’t fail the failure, and when it doesn’t work, it’s because of the human behavioral piece. In that MBA class, I think about Kodak.  The case study that was there, that Kodak had the technology, they had the patents, they had the capability to do digital prints, a long time before mainstream picked up on digital photography, and they didn’t change their own organizational behavior in order to take advantage of that, to be a leader in that market at the time.  

They didn’t go there, and the reason they didn’t doesn’t have anything to do with the technology, it has to do with the people, and what they chose to do from an organizational behavioral perspective. I mean, that’s where the limitation is.  

I was talking to a president of a manufacturing company a couple weeks ago, and we were talking about the digital transformation and the customer experience, and his vision for how he wants to evolve the entire customer experience, which also is something that is way more prevalent today in the market than it’s ever been.  

His conversation about the customer experience turned into a conversation that we had about how we change behavior of our sales teams.  

His team that’s out there selling his product, the guy that’s been buying his product for the last 35 years in a manufacturing plant, probably has his dude’s name written on a sticky note stuck to his computer. When he retires, when that guy that’s buying it retires, and the person comes behind with the whole experience that that new buyer is gonna want to have, with this manufacturing company is likely to change.  

I’m talking to Joe, this president of this company, about how does he change the behavior of his sales team, right now, to be ready for that inflection point when the customers’ expectations shift, because inevitably they are, and they will. 

Lizzie: Yes. I read a thing the other day where it said, “any experience you have is your new expectation.” It’s like, if you have a really positive experience, let’s say, on a flight, all of a sudden, that’s your bar. I think companies are feeling that right now too in that space. 

Meredith: 100%, I look at it with my own kids and the experience. My oldest is 18, she’s in college, and the expectation of how things should work. Who has access to what information?  

All of that has totally shifted, and our new buyers, right? We do have people that we work with, managers, people on our team, our leaders and other folks, the leaders that I talk to, the whole expectation is built on, “why? If I can have this experience with my rental car, why can’t I have it with my college? If I can have this with my bank, how come I can’t have it in buying flowers?”  

What are these things that it totally transcends? I was having a conversation earlier today with a bank, the financial institution, and they were talking about the policy changes that they’ve had to make, because you can check your balance on your mobile app, and you can get it when the ATM receipt comes out of the ATM, has your balance on it, and you could check it on your laptop. If you don’t have all of those systems getting their data from the same place, you’ve run the risk of getting disparate data, even though it’s batch processed at the end of the day, and one is real-time, you can’t have a different experience at the teller than you have through your mobile app.  

Those have to be consistent because people expect to get the same information and have the same experience regardless of how that works. Those are the kinds of things that we’re solving, because I can do banking on my phone, and it’s so much broader than that, it’s so much bigger than that. 

Lizzie: When you are referencing that humans, perhaps, are the barriers to some of those changes, tell me more about that.  

Meredith: There’s statistics that maybe some other people on our podcast will be able to talk about, other episodes, about the actual factoring and what you can do from a compute power perspective and what you hold in the palm of your hand.  

The limitations aren’t technological, the limitations are in our own ability to accept change, our own ability to get over our fears, our own ability to trust the information that’s out there. As businesses and as companies who are trying to change the way that we behave so that we can provide a different experience to our customers, we have to be willing to bring people in and bring people along that behavioral change piece.  

To me, when I think about the human side, it is about getting somebody along, finding a champion, who you know will take advantage of this opportunity that you have, to come alongside you.  

The folks who, in your organization, if you’re a financial institution, who use their phones for everything that they do, but it’s about making sure that you can get people’s hearts and minds, because if you can get their hearts and minds to change the behavior, to me, that’s the part that’s going to allow you to run confidently and take advantage of the technology.  

Technology is generally not the inhibitor, right? I think about autonomous cars and autonomous driving. The technology to be able to do that effectively likely exists. 

Lizzie: Right, yes. 

Meredith: It’s out there. Can we do it fast enough, cheap enough to make it marketable to the masses? We’re solving those problems, but you think about the regulatory issues and the compliance issues, and the rest of the infrastructure, and all of the rest of the things that have to go to actually get people to behave differently to take advantage of the technology and the technological capabilities that are out there.  

That’s the part that I get excited about, that’s the part that I also have to set expectations about. That, hey, we want to do this, we have this great vision. I’ll go back to Joe, right? In the manufacturing, he’s got this great vision for this customer experience and totally changing the customer experience.  

He has to find a sales rep who’s on board with doing that, and is gonna go to the guy who buys from him right now today, and has a sticky note and says, “Hold on, I want to walk through with you and how we’re gonna make this change. I want to walk through with you how this is going to be okay.”

If you can’t get your sales team to behave differently, it doesn’t matter what the technological capabilities are, it will sit on a shelf. Adoption won’t happen, and none of that will happen, because people don’t use it. At the end of the day, it’s not because the technology doesn’t work, it’s because it doesn’t work for the humans. 

Lizzie: Yes, I’m hearing a lot of change management. I wonder how many leaders are really prepared for that. 

Meredith: I would say, when I talk to other leaders, it’s our biggest challenge. It’s our biggest challenge. How do you get change? How do you get the right leadership that can lead through change? I was talking to a client that wanted to try, wanted to execute on this vision, and he actually started a group on the fifth floor where the CFO wasn’t allowed to go to, because they wanted to try this idea and create a pilot program or whatever, of this new technological advancement for their clients. They had some success you know in this little incubation phase, then the amount of leadership that it takes to get it, from that incubation phase to a broader adoption, and then from broader adoption to actual enterprise-wide. 

The amount of people that you have to get on board, who are willing to change other system changes, all of those things are, I mean, it’s a huge impediment. Huge impediment. 

Lizzie: In those conversations that you’re having with other leaders, what are you hearing as far as things that work? 

Meredith: Yes. I would say two things come to mind for me. First of all, is start small, when I’ve seen it be successful, it’s when you have an initial success, get that first win, find that sales rep, who you know is going to go out, maybe find a client that actually is having some turnover, because that new buyer is going to retire, you have somebody new. 

Find someone that you can have, that was willing, ready and able to participate with you in that process. So the ones that I’m seeing who are successful are finding ways to start small and incubate in their own organizations. 

Usually, in a really creative way, I mentioned that the one, seriously the CFO wasn’t involved, wasn’t allow up on the fifth floor like, “Hey, great.” You don’t know what those guys are doing because we wanted to be able to let it go, or I’m going to set up a team, a new team alongside the existing team, just to try some things out, so starting small, I would say. 

When I talk to leaders and I look at the ones who are, oh my gosh, they’re coming out with fantastic capability and innovation inside of a large institution, it’s usually because they’ve been able to carve out something small, and get a quick win. That then gets the notice of both the people who want to be part of that, “I want to be part of that thing that’s so cool.” 

It gives you the capability and the understanding that you can then take up to the management team. Whether it’s to a CEO, or to the board, or to some outside investors or whatever else that you might need. You need some evidence, starting small and getting a small win, usually can help to create some of that evidence that everyone else is going to need in order to change their own behavior. 

Lizzie: Do you think it is more of a trend now for enterprises to carve out those innovation hubs? Or do you think it’s still an emerging trend? 

Meredith: It feels like it’s full-on right now. I look at some of the biggest companies are splitting, I look at some of the organizations, billion-dollar companies that are becoming HP and HPE, and they split up. If you listen to and talk to those leaders, which I have, it’s to move faster, it’s to be able to innovate, it’s to be able to focus. 

Thomson Reuters in the financial sector, they’ve split so that they could grow; they split so that they could be more focused; they split so that they could move more quickly which sounds crazy to multibillion-dollar companies, but that is the trend. 

It’s the trend that I’m seeing in the market, it’s because we need to be able to move more quickly, and even a multibillion-dollar company when breaking off into smaller segments, gives more flexibility to allow for smaller pieces of those organizations to be able to move the ball forward. 

Lizzie: Yes, I love the idea of also thinking about innovation in these small ways too, and how you can build a – not just a tolerance but an appreciation and enthusiasm, around thinking through, using innovative solutions on everything from the smallest, “how do you email better?” Little tools that you can incorporate into a company to seed that culture of innovation. 

Meredith: Yes, and you just said culture, I think it is, there’s a cultural mindset that has to happen. When I talk to leaders and you think about behavioral change, we talk about what’s the organizational culture for that, if it’s a culture of fear, it’s difficult to innovate. If there’s a culture of power, it’s difficult to innovate. 

Pulling some of those traditional structures that have been very foundational for a lot of companies, and there are some out there that aren’t changing, there are some out there that still have a pretty good business, they think that it’s going to be okay, and they don’t want to disrupt what’s already working. The ones, who I believe who will be relevant into the future, are willing to disrupt their own business model, in order to be relevant. 

They’re changing the technological platform in particular, becoming digital companies and this digital transformation, becoming digital companies, beyond the physical part or other services that they offer, to reach their customers differently and to meet expectations. It’s just a necessity. 

Lizzie: In your opinion, Meredith, would you rather be if you weren’t the president and CEO here at OST. 

Meredith: I wasn’t like on the beach somewhere. 

Lizzie: Yes, right. Also not that. If you were going to be leading another company, would you rather be starting something brand new ground-up, a digital based company or shifting a traditional business into that space? 

Meredith: That’s a really interesting question. As I think about, what it takes to do each of those things, the startup and the idea of doing new, you don’t have the baggage of a cultural change, you have the opportunity to create it right off the bat. You have an idea generally, but you also don’t have a lot of the institutional capabilities that an existing company would through transformation. 

I tend to love the challenge of getting people to realize their full potential, and changing their behavior. I like the challenge of having an organization, and I would say even at OST, I’ve been here for over 20 years. I think about who we are and what we’re doing today, to change our behavior to do things faster and better and leverage technology to disrupt ourselves and to transform our own business. 

In addition to what we’re doing for other organizations that I love that aspect of how I do what I do, it’d be fun to build from the ground-up, but I think coming into something that is ripe for the change, is exciting to me. 

Lizzie: Nice. I can’t help it think, I’ve been at OST now for, just under seven years. When I first started here and I would tell people where I worked, they’d be like, “Oh, you work in IT, isn’t that interesting?” But I’m like, “Not going to ask you any other questions because I know nothing about it.” Unless they also happen to work in IT, then they might want to be like, “Oh, do your server storage?” I’m like, “Okay.” 

Now people say, “Oh, you work in tech.” It’s like a total shift on how they view what that means, and then it’s like all of a sudden, I’m a business owner, and I want to talk to you because I want to know what you’re doing for companies out that are changing, that are saying – I grew up in this one space and now I know I have to be a digital company, it’s a totally new world out there. 

Meredith: What it means, the fear and stigma too, even in that story that you told, I think has also shifted dramatically in the last few years, because we are using technology, not just in the back room on data center and behind to enable our work. It is, in fact, transforming how we think about the value that we can provide to one another. It’s totally changed and it is in tech. 

Digital is in marketing and digital is in manufacturing, we think about smart manufacturing and the capability. I was joking with my kids about they expect Amazon–like experience in everything that they do, they’re used to, “Oh, if you like this, then maybe you’ll like that.” The recommendations. In those little things that have happened, the presumption of what – and my kids make fun of me in tech too, they’re like, “Yes, you’re the CEO of a tech company.” “Yes.” 

What that means, what we’re capable of doing today, and what is happening in the world and how that’s being leveraged, has 100% totally shifted. I think, in the last five or six years, the change has been dramatic and it’s happening faster and faster. 

You look at block chain technology, you think about some of those things that are even out on the further horizon, those kinds of transformations that don’t require as much human intervention, or human change as just taking advantage of technological advancements, those things will happen fast. Those are happening faster than ever. 

The ability to change the underlying infrastructure in a lot of ways that doesn’t impact, millions and billions of how people think about it, those transformations are happening faster than ever, which is exciting. 

Lizzie: It is exciting. What would you say to a company who’s listening or thinking to themselves, “Oh boy, how do I start? How do I start helping my organization wrap their heads around moving forward faster?”? 

Meredith: I think one of the first things to do is do a little research, talk to your customers. One of the biggest dangers that we see, that I see when I talk to folks when they talk about transformation is, “Well, I think, blah, blah, blah. I think there’s something out there.” And you’re like, “Have you actually talked to a customer? Are you sure that this is something that’s going to resonate with them?” 

Get out, if you’re worried about it get out and talk to your customers, find out where the demand is, find out where the real need is, because at the end of the day, you want to provide something that’s a necessary part, not something that you think might be valuable. 

I would say, first step is, get out and talk to folks, do a little research. Research your market, research what’s going on, and then find an internal and external champion in those conversations to start small. If you’re thinking about it, try something, you want to change the customer experience, start in sales, start with a particular product, start with a particular line of business. 

Start with something very specific, so that you can have a quick win and test out whether or not you thought might be true is actually true, and don’t wait too long to get feedback. You think it might be valuable, cool, try it out, how long do you think that’ll take you to test something out? Go test it out and see whether or not you’re right. 

Lizzie: Yes. That’s great advice, Meredith, thanks for taking the time to set this podcast up, talk about digital transformation and how important it is to get the people on board, way more so than the technology can happen. 

Meredith: At the end of the day, I want to see behavior change to absolutely take advantage of the technological capabilities that are out there. 

Lizzie: Awesome. Well, obviously, you know this piece of information but our listeners may not, and that is that the OST headquarters are actually in an old game factory in Grand Rapids, Michigan. It’s called the Drueke Game Factory, one thing that we’re going to try to do with all of our guests is ask them, what is your favorite game? 

Meredith: My favorite game, it’s not a Drueke game, my favorite game is a game called Rummikub, I played it a couple nights ago, my daughter’s home from college and my husband, I and two of my daughters sat and played a couple games of Rummikub, fun game, easy for aged 7 to 97. 

Lizzie: Okay. Your favorite game is Rummikub. We actually have a conference room named Rummy. 

Meredith: We do have a conference room.

Lizzie: Maybe they made Rummy boards here. 

Meredith: Maybe, I’ll have to find out. 

Lizzie: Yes, absolutely. Well, thank you so much for your perspective and thank you to all of our listeners for tuning in. 

Meredith: Thank you. 

Lizzie: OST, changing how the world connects together. For more information, go to ostusa.com/podcast.