The Secret to Leading Globally: Thinking Locally

Stephanie Harris Human Resources, Issue 10 - March/April 2014 Leave a Comment

Avaya Senior Vice President of Human Resources Roger Gaston shares his vision for activating a global work environment.

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“Avaya has been a valued Denison client since 2008 and is a true leader in global business communications. Roger understands how to align people, systems and processes to deliver business results; under his leadership, Avaya has grown revenues, market-share and margins. It’s an honor to work with Roger and Avaya.”
– Dan Denison, Chairman and Founding Partner, Denison Consulting

By Stephanie Harris

The business world today is truly global, with organizations becoming increasingly more geographically dispersed and a 24-7 workforce the norm. As Senior Vice President (SVP) of Human Resources (HR) for Avaya, a provider of business collaboration and communications solutions that keep businesses connected worldwide, Roger Gaston understands a thing or two about the challenges of leading a business function for a global company.

“The first thing you learn working in a global organization is no matter where your employees are located around the globe, they tend to have many of the same fundamental issues and concerns,” he said. “While there are cultural differences, you can be sure that people think very much alike when it comes to the employment relationship.”

Gaston has come to learn, however, that there is no universal solution to employee issues, regardless of how similar they may seem. “The ability to address issues globally—you must look to deliver solutions locally,” he said.

Addressing the concerns of employees worldwide, all while meeting the business needs of an organization, is the constant challenge Gaston faces in his role at Avaya. But with more than 30 years of HR knowledge under his belt, he has successfully implemented a new HR business model that effectively satisfies the needs of the organization while consistently meeting the global needs of the firm’s 15,000 employees.


From Hunch to HR

Since his college days, Gaston had a hunch he wanted to work within the HR field. He began his career in the retail industry, initially hired into an HR role for Federated Department Stores Inc.


“NGA is honored to partner with Roger Gaston and share his passion, commitment and drive toward World Class Human Resources at Avaya.”
– Keith Strodtman, President, North America, NGA Human Resources

“As I look back on it, my career could have taken a number of different directions, but I followed my instincts and passion I had developed while in college,” he said, “and it’s all paid off.”

After working for a few years in various HR roles for Federated, Gaston was recruited by a competing company, The May Department Stores Co., where he spent the next 14 years of his career.

“That 14-year period was the most important learning and role-defining period of my career,” he explained. “The company thought highly of the HR function. May was a very successful organization, and you always felt that HR played a key role in that success. I learned what it took to manage a business and to make money, as well as how to execute the HR initiative to drive and support the business success.”

But after nearly a decade and half with May, Gaston began to feel somewhat confined within his environment. “I thought it was time for me to jump out of that execution-driven model and move into another organization where I could take what I had learned and put it to good use,” he said. “I wanted to test my capabilities and being on my own outside of the May structure.”

After holding the senior HR role with a subsidiary of Dutch retailer AHOLD and also with the Midwest department store retailer Carson Pirie Scott, Gaston culminated his tenure in the retail industry as the global head of HR for Toys “R” Us before embarking in the technology industry, where he has remained for the past 13 years.


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“Avaya was very forward looking in deploying our fully integrated talent management suite. Their collaborative approach and willingness to adopt best practices enabled them to bring their new systems live quickly, accelerating their “time to value” and allowing us to benefit early on from their user feedback.”
– Tom Sykes, Director of Product Management, Peoplefluent.

Shifting Gears

When Gaston first transitioned from retail into the technology industry, as the Corporate Vice President of HR for StorageTek, there were several noticeable differences to which he had to acclimate.

“The obvious one was the retail industry is one in which the workforce is made of a large part-time contingent and a sales force populated with transient employees,” he said. “However, as you come into the technology space, these companies are an accumulation of innovative and functionally focused knowledge workers. They are a different breed, and the way you approach this cohort is very different than my days in the retail world.”

The second difference Gaston experienced was the longer lead time for performance evaluation. “In the retail business, you received a scorecard every day in terms of how well you performed. You knew exactly where you stood from a business standpoint and could make real-time decisions based on the data you had,” he explained. “In the technology business, we may not know what the results are going to look like until you get to the end of the quarter.”

Gaston was used to knowing exactly where the business stood on a daily basis, but now he relies heavily on projections. “That was a very different model for me, and was challenging to get my arms around and figure out how it all came together.”

The other noticeable difference between industries, per Gaston, is that there are more resources dedicated to the HR function at Avaya than he was used to working with in the retail realm.

“I learned HR growing up in an environment where we had limited resources—you really stretched people, expanded their capabilities and engaged them,” he said. “Here we have more specialists, and while that can be good and necessary for our business, I found that employing the model I was used to in the retail business provided me an opportunity at Avaya to hire people who had broader capabilities to take on more responsibilities.”

By doing so, Gaston explained, he is able to accomplish more with a smaller headcount and still get the expected and needed results.

Gaston_Roger_sidebarA Global HR Solution

When Gaston joined Avaya seven years ago, he spoke diligently with the business leaders, employee base and managers to understand how effective HR had been, what it was they needed that they were not getting, and what about HR was working well.

“Armed with that information, we set out to build an HR model that would serve to build on the strengths that were already here, as well as address the deficiencies that management had identified in order to build a more influential and impactful HR function,” he said. “In a short period of time, we set out to build a traditional HR model, with centers of excellence leading corporate functions and business partners who, in the U.S., were aligned across functional lines and, outside the U.S., were aligned across geographical lines.”

This model has been working well for Gaston. As business needs change and become more globalized, however, he conveyed that his team is working to revise the business partner model so that it is built upon creating greater intimacy with the functions. The centers of excellence, which have been in program development mode for the past several years, are also being restructured to align functionally with the business versus sitting as corporate support groups.

“Underpinning all of that is a strong core of fundamentals that begin with manager/employee self-service; second, utilizing and unifying the collaboration with the third parties we engage to provide services to employees creating a one-stop shop for employee inquiries; and then a third tier, staffed by our own employees in a call-center environment, addressing more employee questions and employee relation concerns for first-line and middle-level managers,” Gaston said. “This tiered structure will support the business partners and centers of excellence who are now aligned on the functional global model. That’s the evolution we’re moving to, and we are almost complete with this process.”


In a Global Business World

Facilitating a global work environment is key to the success of a company such as Avaya, and Gaston aims to accomplish this through an HR function that promotes worldwide collaboration.

“By taking programs and ideas from local entities of an organization, then rolling them out globally—that gives you a cornucopia of great ideas that have a lot of the cultural underpinnings and can be applied in all parts of the organization,” Gaston said. “When you work in a global organization, it allows the globe to share its experiences so individuals from other parts of the world have the opportunity to learn from their counterparts. That is a rich experience that provides global companies distinct advantages if they choose to take advantage of it.”

And that is exactly what Gaston is doing: taking advantage of the company’s global position to create a better work environment for all employees, regardless of where in the world they are located.

Stephanie Harris is a freelance writer based in Chicago, Illinois.


Stephanie Harris

Stephanie Harris is a freelance writer based in Chicago, Illinois.

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