On the lighter side of things we ask Robert Speed, Vice President of Blackboard Middle East and Africa, about what makes him tick.
What would you describe as your most memorable achievement?
I was fortunate to be given the opportunity three years ago to lead the Middle East and Africa (MEA) region for Blackboard to bring back productivity and profitability and it has been a memorable and exciting journey to date. Re-establishing Blackboard in the MEA region, fostering closer working ties with customers and business partners as well as to build and lead a team of talented people in the education sector. This transformation has only been able to happen due to the leadership in place at Blackboard who have worked hard together to pivot the whole company to be focussed on delivering innovation within existing products and through new technologies and simplifying our business as we move towards being a fully SaaS business.
What first made you think of a career in technology?
Timing is everything, I am a firm believer in that. I was not at any point thinking of a specific career in this sector but was fortunate to get an opportunity in 2000 to join one of the world’s leading contract manufacturing companies Solectron Global Services. The technology manufactured for clients such as Nokia, Ericsson, IBM and Cisco enabled me to grow and understand the various attributes of the business from materials management, procurement, software, kaizen productivity philosophy – ‘constant, continuous improvement’ plant manufacturing and supply chain. I was fortunate to end up leading key customer accounts in this sector globally so really came to appreciate the technology business. This experience has given me the grounding and adaptability to work on various complex business challenges and to lead teams. Education technology was a step into a new sector within a UK company Promethean and then a pivot into education software with Blackboard.
What style of management philosophy do you employ with your current position?
I have seen and been a part of so many management styles throughout my career and have adopted the right ones that work. Trust, empathy, assertiveness, constructive dialogue, guiding and collaborating are some of the key attributes I apply. This for me creates the right environment for the colleagues I lead to be empowered and to be confident in their decision making. It has proven to be very successful and helps develop mutual respect between team members and leaders to achieve the desired business and personal goals.
What do you think is the current hot technology talking point?
Dealing with education continuity. The scale of the COVID19 shutdown has been monumental, with UNESCO stating that thus far some 188 countries have implemented nationwide closures, which impacted more than 91% of the world’s student population (about 1.5 billion learners). Much like the business world that has been forced to innovate to stay afloat, educational facilities across the globe are accelerating their Digital Transformation initiatives to mitigate the impact of the closures and facilitate the continuity of education through remote learning. This is where an education technology and services company such as Blackboard can play a crucial role in supporting higher education institutions in South Africa for example to quickly transition to digital teaching and learning modalities, as they implement their COVID-19 contingency plans.
How do you deal with stress and unwind outside the office?
Business never stops, education is a really enjoyable sector to work in and I like to think we are open 24 hours a day for our customers and partners to reach out to us. A good run each evening helps deal with unwinding for sure.
If you could go back and change one career decision what would it be?
On reflection I would not change any decisions I have made with regards to my career as each step taken has broadened my skills, knowledge and expertise to enable me to be positioned where I am today to add value to the business.
What do you currently identify as the major areas of investment in your industry?
Innovation is key. The steps in our journey at Blackboard reflect the success we’ve had in migrating clients from self-hosted and managed hosted environments to SaaS and our unwavering commitment to support and migrate the balance of our client base over time. Over the last few years, we’ve been laser-focused on moving clients to the cloud, delivering innovation within existing products and through new technologies and simplifying our business as we move towards being a fully SaaS business.
What are the region-specific challenges when implementing new technologies in the MEA region?
Through our on-going conversations with clients in the region, Blackboard is able to understand our clients’ specific challenges. We have learned that above all, institutions are looking to train faculty to effectively leverage the technology, and to ensure the content they deliver online is engaging, accessible and inclusive.
What changes to your job role have you seen in the last year and how do you see these developing in the next 12 months?
The biggest shift in the last year is really the last three months of COVID, really we live in unprecedented times with business travel ceasing, face to face meetings have stopped, shifts in budgets. The next six months will be spent ensuring focus and support for the customers and partners as well as internal teams at Blackboard to ensure everyone is safe, current projects and programmes remain on track to be delivered and we remain focused on delivering value during these challenging times
What advice would you offer somebody aspiring to obtain C-level position in your industry?
It is a great sector to work in so I would advise to focus and develop the deep knowledge and understanding of the education sector as a must, there are so many unique attributes to understand. Be humble, work on your leadership attitude towards people, customers, business and be aware of the culture. All the rest should fall into place.