Meet the Patrons Q&A with Darren McGee, Poly’s Senior Alliance Manager EMEA

Posted by Learnovate

Darren McGee, Poly

As part of Learnovate’s Meet the Patrons series, we speak to Darren McGee who is Senior Alliance Manager EMEA at Poly, a global leader in video and voice solutions.

Poly creates premium platform-agnostic audio and video products that bring unified communications platforms like Zoom, Teams and more to life. The US company has its headquarters in California but has more that 6,500 people working in 75 office and remote locations across the world, evangelising the hybrid way of work for many decades for its own workforce. Poly has recently announced the establishment of an R&D Centre of Excellence in Galway, Ireland.

Darren is based in his hometown of Trim, Co. Meath and has worked with Poly for over three years. In his current role, he manages the team responsible for the Zoom relationship across EMEA.

For over twenty years prior to Poly, Darren worked at large tech companies – such as Lucent Technologies, Computer Associates, HP and IBM in strategic sales and marketing leadership roles. In college, he specialised in sales management and holds a BSc in Management from Trinity College Dublin and an advanced diploma in marketing techniques from DIT. His first role out of college was in sales with business data firm Kompass, which he says was really the very early days of big data and data mining.

A true lifelong learner, Darren says he “believes in taking personal accountability for  continuous professional development” and achieved an MBA in 2005 and a Diploma in Corporate Governance in 2011, both from the UCD Smurfit School. During lockdown, he completed INSEAD’s Managing Partnerships and Strategic Alliance programme with live virtual classmates from around the globe.

Poly’s headsets, video and audio-conferencing products, desk phones, analytics software and services are beautifully designed and engineered to connect people and spaces with incredible clarity. They’re pro-grade, easy to use and implement and work seamlessly with all the best video and unified communications platforms.

The company’s mantra is around a message of equality; how to make the collaboration experience equal for both those in the room and those joining remotely. “Our mission is to improve learning outcomes by providing a personalised and balanced experience across people, spaces and technology. More than ever before learners can choose how, when and where they want to access education resources. Education can take place anytime, anyplace, anywhere,” says Darren.

What are the biggest lessons you learned in your career?

Over my time in the ICT industry, I have the good fortune to learn from many excellent leaders – from start-ups through to some of the largest companies in the world. Over that time, I have observed three key tenets within the most effective and influential leaders.  Those who have worked with me know I love the power of a good quote, so here goes:

  1. “If I had six hours to chop down a tree, I would spend the first four sharpening the axe” (to paraphrase Abraham Lincoln). Like the following two tenets, this premise has been demonstrated by the best people throughout my career. To me, this speaks of continuous improvement – and taking ownership for my own development plans and addressing areas of weakness. On a practical level this means a mix of on-the-job development, reading and more formal courses like the MBA or INSEAD course that I recently completed. If I get one practical, implementable idea from a book or course I consider it to be time and money well invested.
  1. “Do what you said you would do” (and within your stated timelines). Sounds simple, but you would be amazed by how many people fail to deliver on their promises within organisations of all sizes. Failure to do this at an individual level leads to credibility loss. At organisational level, it can lead to corporate failure. People who get this right stand out as high performers. At a team level, I encourage my team (and those in the wider matrixed organisation) to ‘own’ their outcomes in a very honest way and believe this to be a great path to personal growth. If I’m responsible for a particular outcome, I am committed to the success of the project or business. This leads to intrinsically rewarding work and far superior outcomes for the individual and organisation.
  1. Embrace mistakes as an opportunity for personal and organisational growth. Or as we say at home “the person who never made a mistake, never made anything”. Traditionally within many organisations there has been a fear of failure and I believe this stifles innovation and impedes personal and organisational growth. Instead, I choose to view ‘failures’ through a different lens. Each ‘failure’ is a learning event. It is an opportunity for rapid experimentation. If we run an initiative and don’t get the expected result, we seek to understand the underlying causes, so that we can improve for the future. To be clear, I am not advocating chaotic risk taking, but rather the development of a personal and organisational culture that encourages calculated risk taking – without punitive sanction if things don’t go to plan.

What was the best advice you ever received?

“Start with the end in mind”. Although one of Franklin Covey’s original ‘Seven Habits of Highly Effective People’, its essence has been echoed by many authors including Simon Sinek’s ‘Start with Why?’. By starting any project with the end in mind, we focus on what we’re trying to achieve; be that a financial, learning, engagement, or wellbeing outcome.  The outcome drives all decisions and helps the team prioritise activities that bring us closer to our shared objective. In a team with devolved authority, it also allows individual members to self-correct and assess whether their daily activities support the strategic objective of the team or organisation.

How would you define your work style and how has this changed over your career?

Energising. Pioneering. Empowering. At some level, we are all a result of our environment.  I have chosen to spend the past 25 years building a career in sales, which by its nature is fast paced with empowerment and accountability at its core. In addition to keeping abreast of changes in our own (ICT) industry, sales organisations also need to keep abreast of sectoral changes at the level of our client’s industry or regulatory environment.  In this context a rigid, top-down management style restricts the team’s ability to react to (and sometimes anticipate) changes in its dynamic operating environment.

Although I continue to invest in my formal education and informal learning, my work style has always been consultative and entrepreneurial. I typically work with globally matrixed teams, most of whom are not in my direct reporting line but who choose to collaborate outside of the formal org structure, partly because of my record of achievement, and partly because I have a reputation for making work fun and rewarding – even in pressurised environments. This focus on intrinsic motivation has acted as a magnet to pull talented teams together, all to the collective benefit.

What have you learned about managing teams and individuals?

  • Lead from the front
  • Prioritise the wellbeing and motivation of your team and individuals within it
  • Hire for attitude and coach (or train) for specific skills
  • Once you hire the best people, get out of their way
  • Set clearly agreed objectives and use a robust set of metrics to measure progress
  • Celebrate the wins along the way – and learn from the losses
  • Encourage constructive challenge – once the challenge is backed by an actionable alternative
  • Perfection is the enemy of the good – so a ‘good start is half the work’
  • Keep the energy high and have a bit of craic along the way

What are your favourite tools and resources in work?

Shamelessly, and with a clear conscience, I have to say that my favourite communication and collaboration tool is my Poly Studio P15 running natively on Zoom. They just work so well together. Although I have worked in ICT for a long time, I’m not technical. I’m also a permanent remote worker/learner and my tech support is provided remotely. So, a single connection for my full video experience with cool, noise-blocking AI helps keep the background noise where it should be: in the background and away from my Zoom calls. As a back-up for, when I’m out and about, I rely on my Poly Voyager 5200 UC headset with wind blocking technology, so I can continue to actively participate while on the move, and not disrupt the other Zoom users’ experience.

Why is R&D important in the learning technology industry?

Over the past two years the ground has shifted under our feet when it comes to education and has accelerated the speed at which digital transformation takes place more broadly.  The paradigm has shifted irrevocably and, learning from the history books, we know there will be winners and losers. Remember, the railways in the US lost out strategically to the Telegraph because they mistakenly thought they were in the transport business – not the communications business.

The global pandemic has created myriad opportunities for educators and EdTech companies alike. Some soft skills are readily transferable from the ‘old world’ but right now there are significant opportunities for R&D including motivation, testing and verification, remote onboarding, IP rights, how to use AI and machine learning in education.

A robust approach to R&D, including a wider environment scan will help inoculate from this myopic way of thinking and help the transition from ‘surviving’ to ‘thriving’ in the new hybrid world. Leaders within the education sector could benefit from some advice I received a few years ago from a senior military colleague “what got us here isn’t going to get us there”. In other words, it’s time for reimagining and reinvention in education. Time to find new ways of imparting knowledge, preserving the brand equity of long-established learning institutions, protecting and growing revenue streams and verifying the integrity of learning outcomes as we go. Research and Development, and more importantly collaboration with a diverse set of industry and academic players, will be key to keeping education institutions and their industry partners ahead of the game.

From your experience, what are the current trends in learning?

As I have said above, the game is on and the barriers are down. Entry costs are low, buyers (learners) have more choice (power), and the threat of substitutes and competition are high.  In Michael Porter’s view this is the perfect storm. The risk for many institutions is that they become captured by legacy IT systems which are inflexible and costly to run. As institutions begin to implement this new operating model, they can benefit from the combined experience of organisations that have already been through this process. And the objective of the Zoom-Poly-Learnovate Digital Blueprint is to break the transformation down into digestible chunks.

The cost of effective transformation can be perceived as an impediment, but institutions should also understand that there is a very substantial and tangible cost of doing nothing. Spending on technology and the implementation of a full communication platform should be seen as an investment not a cost. Some mega trends that I’ve noticed include:

  • Accessibility and Inclusion – the move to online helps overcome many of the accessibility barriers associated with on-campus participation.
  • Barriers to scale have lifted – the move to hybrid now means that a university’s student capacity is no longer limited by its real-estate footprint or number of rooms.
  • Barriers to entry have lifted – institutions now face even more intense global competition for attention and subscriptions from discerning learners.
  • Skills challenge – the new model has implications for the management of systems while avoiding IT sprawl (the adoption of diverse hardware and software) by different schools or departments.
  • Pedagogical implications – how do we redesign courses previously delivered 100% in-person to the new hybrid model? How can we help students acquire new skills to manage in the hybrid world? These skills developed in university will transfer to the new hybrid workplace in many cases.
  • Engagement – the average attention span has decreased from 12 seconds in the year 2000 to 8 seconds today. In that context how do we manage distractions and keep remote students engaged?
  • Test and verification – how do we verify the learning outcomes in a world where much testing will move online?

How should we prepare for the future of work?

Refer to my ‘best advice’ from earlier – start with the end in mind. At this stage nobody can be 100% certain of what the future of work will be. And doing nothing is not an option. So therefore (refer to my book recommendation), your focus should be on developing a clear end goal for your organisation and developing the core agility to adapt to changes in the external environment.

Take a stakeholder view. In terms of implementing this new model generally, institutions need to look at how they can differentiate themselves while addressing the specific requirements of its full complement of stakeholders.

Organisational agility should be reflected in your structure, systems and culture. Above the choice of hardware and software, institutions will need to consider the system design, rollout and management of change associated with any transformation program.

Working with Zoom, we have developed a Zoom Blueprinting service – a 20-minute free consultation to help education customers understand the logical steps towards a transformation in their UC environments. For those institutions seeking to assess their readiness and understanding the elements of transformation they can take register for a consultation here

What book would you recommend on learning, technology, business or understanding people?

‘Team of Teams’ by General Stanley McChrystal. McChrystal offers an approach for organisations to adapt legacy hierarchical structures and systems to address the challenges of a complex, interdependent, fast-paced environment. His approach supports my own views around corporate entrepreneurship in the context of highly complex organisations.  His core tenet is that the best organisations think and act like a team of teams, empowering small groups that combine the freedom to experiment with a relentless drive for sharing lessons learned. In doing so, he focuses on building adaptability into the fabric of organisations while turning his back on a century of conventional management wisdom (top-down command and control).

Why is membership of Learnovate important to your company?

Innovation is often found at the intersection of industries and organisations and Learnovate is the perfect vehicle to explore the practicalities of bringing research-based ideas to life.

With over 50 years of communication and collaborations experience, we want to help educators and learners alike as they transition to the new world of hybrid learning. We also want to help education institutions struggling to fully exploit the digital disruption as well as extend our own network within EdTech. Within the EdTech ecosystem, we see Learnovate as the perfect vehicle within which to actively contribute to the ongoing initiatives to improve learning outcomes for all stakeholders.

For us, one of the main attractions for joining Learnovate was the opportunity to develop a credible thought leadership network and to be able to contribute to positive change from within. Central to our brand promise are the principles of equality and inclusion, so I felt we could bring a lot of practical insight from an industry partner perspective.

Why do companies in Ireland & NI need the support of a centre like Learnovate?

For larger organisations it is an opportunity to extend their ecosystem and networks. Often the opportunities for collaboration and breakthroughs exist at the intersection of industries.  Learnovation is one such intersection. The Learnovation community is diverse in its composition. Large organisations can benefit through exposure to, and collaboration with, smaller EdTech companies or members of the research community.

Smaller organisations can leverage the network of larger brands in Learnovate as potential sales, marketing or R&D accelerators. One word of caution – membership in itself is required but not adequate. To maximise the return on your membership, be prepared to show up, contribute to the discussion and be crystal clear on what your strategic outcome from membership is.

What does Learnovate do well?

The thought leadership circle is brilliant. I have also attended a couple of Learnovate events online and the content is always very relevant. So much so, that we have initiated our first Poly-Zoom-Learnovate collaboration underpinned by an EMEA-wide campaign. I am looking forward to deepening our links with Learnovate and its ecosystem of members in the coming months.

What impact has Covid-19 had on you and your organisation?

For many years Poly has had a hybrid working model. Most employees worked from home. So when Covid-19 hit we had an inbuilt Business Continuity plan. It was pretty much business as usual.

On the demand side of our business, the boom in Zoom and Teams adoption brought with it significant demands for our pro-grade headsets and video endpoints as the newly anointed home workers / home learners wanted to look and sound their best. This resulted in one of the busiest times in my career since the boom of the late 1990s.

In macro terms, the reduction in travel has presented a productivity bonus for employers.  Individuals have also had a quality-of-life productivity bonus with reduced commute times. And the environment got to literally take a breather from noise and air pollution. Before Covid, my role involved significant weekly travel, so for me, it has meant that my flight frequency has reduced to almost nil. On a personal note, flying undermines my productivity so when things go back to ‘normal’ I am electing to reduce my travel to a couple of times a month for many reasons including work-life balance, cost to the company and carbon footprint.