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Varun
Bijlani

The transformation storyteller

Varun Bijlani

Global managing partner, Hybrid Cloud Transformation

IBM Consulting

A business leader who’s lived and worked around the world, Varun Bijlani is on a journey of lifelong learning, constantly challenging himself to acquire new skills and new technologies. With a knack for developing productive business relationships with people from myriad cultures, Varun helps large enterprise clients use cloud technologies to modernize and transform their business.

How would you describe your job?

All my clients are on a transformation journey, and to that objective I help with two things — one, to “modernize the now” and two, to “build the new.” By that I mean migrating and modernizing their existing infrastructure and business applications, and building new applications and capabilities.

We help them create strategies that align with their business objectives and determine what to modernize or build, and then help instantiate and establish the right cloud operating model so they can achieve sustained value.

What are the needs that lead businesses to embrace a digital transformation?

No enterprise today can succeed on its commercial objectives — growing revenue, growing market cap, increasing profitability, reducing cost — without digital transformation. Hybrid cloud, data and AI are fundamental catalysts for that digital transformation.

Companies are either disruptors or they are being disrupted.

You have lived and worked in many places. How did that come about?

I was born in New Delhi, India, and I grew up in many different cities around India. I love living in different places. Very early in my working life I started traveling — spent a year in the Middle East, then a year in Paris, a year in Holland, a year in Budapest — as my work assignments took me to different places, and I thoroughly loved it. I loved the idea of being new to a place, not knowing a lot of people, and the anxiety, the feeling of being different, not necessarily fitting in. Work assignments took me everywhere, but since 2000 London has been home.

Does that love for new and different environments manifest in your work?

Oh, in many ways. I describe myself as a nomad, constantly trying to assimilate and integrate. I don’t expect other people to make the effort for me to be part of their team, part of their context. I take it as my responsibility to assimilate, and that opens me up to so many different perspectives.

My role is global, so my day might include virtual meetings with team members or clients in Australia or India, Japan, the U.S. — my ability to adapt to different cultures and different styles of communication is definitely an asset.

How do you bring creativity to that process?

I think the personal creative process and my fondness for drama and poetry have a big influence on my work. Words fascinate me — the meaning of words, why they are said, how they are said, trying to put a pattern around them so they construct emotions.

For example, I have a portfolio of services that we offer to our clients. And if you ask our technical teams, they’ll talk about API creation, how we code new things on serverless technologies and stuff like that. Now, those are complex statements and articulating them to a client in a way that is meaningful to them is all about storytelling. The creative process helps tremendously in simplifying and articulating the story.

If you start with all the technical detail, you don’t really connect with a client. But if you break it down to two things — modernize the now and create the new — that creates a sense of simplicity about what we do.

How does that storytelling help in dealing with clients?

The way I think about it is that large enterprises are just many human beings. I’m actually not selling to a company. I’m partnering with individuals at that company. And it’s all about connecting with them and understanding their priorities, their anxieties, and their dreams. And you make a connection with them because they are the ones setting the direction for that business, and you’re enabling their vision to come true. So it’s always about connecting at that human level.

In one case, we knew the clients very well, and one of them was fond of going on excursions to rainforests. When our team sat down to talk about how we were going to address their needs, one of the individuals on the team had the idea to anchor our presentation in terms of taking a journey on a boat through a rainforest. I never would have imagined that as a story we could use, but it worked because one of the people on the team is an artist, and we used their sketches to convey the story.

Now, of course, we can’t make it all about the rainforest — you have to get to the hard reality of numbers, of accountability. But you get to numbers and accountability when you connect with the person.

What’s your advice to someone starting out?

I think the advice I give myself every day, and I’ll happily tell other people even though it sounds pretty clichéd: just be yourself. When you talk to clients, they can see when you are overly selling or trying to be overly pleasing. Just be yourself. When you don’t know something, call out for help and you will not believe how many people will come and help you. This idea of allowing yourself to be vulnerable is extremely powerful, I believe. And, finally, nothing takes away from preparation. There’s no shortcut, unfortunately. Put in that effort. It sounds a little boring, but it has worked for me.

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