Lexmark International’s Vishal Gupta on next gen tech leadership

Lexmark International’s Vishal Gupta on next gen tech leadership

Gupta discusses his new tech organisation, and the leadership traits he looks for in his successors.

As software and data move to the center of a company’s products and services, the background and skills of the executive leadership team must evolve. When IoT becomes the driver of a new solutions PL, the general manager of that business will need more technology acumen than general managers of the past. And when software shifts from enabling the revenue stream to being the revenue stream, the focus of the chief technologist must expand from internal productivity to the external market.

Lexmark has explored these paths by moving into the solutions business with IoT platforms and IoT Edge devices that provide predictive services for connected devices, taking the company well beyond the printer market.

As the CEO of a search firm dedicated to developing this “next gen technology leadership” talent pipeline, I’m always on the lookout for executives on the edge of change, so I spoke with chief information and technology officer Vishal Gupta to learn more about Lexmark’s growth strategy.

“Our history is being a leader in the imaging market, but with people printing less, we knew we needed to shift our strategy toward a growing market,” says Gupta. “We’re bringing our history of excellence to adjacent areas and redefining ourselves as a broader technology company.”

Lexmark’s redefinition and growth agenda is driven by a three-part strategy. The first is to expand its managed print services business beyond the traditional large enterprise market into small- and medium-sized businesses.

The second is to bring IoT and AI-driven predictive maintenance services to adjacent markets. “By putting IoT sensors on our printers, we provide predictive maintenance that allows our printers to last much longer than others,” he says. “This also means we can provide predictive maintenance solutions for other industries with connected products, like transportation and medical devices.”

Lexmark’s primary entry into connected device management is Optra, an IoT platform that allows manufacturers to operationalise data from their connected devices for insights, asset management, and predictive maintenance. “With Optra, we’re using the same technology that drove outcomes in our core imaging business and applying it to other manufacturers, retailers, and transportation companies,” he says.

The third part of Lexmark’s growth and transformation strategy is Lexmark Ventures, a separate LLC that operates with the agility of a start-up. “We fund the business with seed rounds and can decide very quickly whether to kill an innovation or double down on it,” he says. “This way, we can move quickly into any market, including consumer, which is new to us.”

Uniting key technology groups

Lexmark CEO Allen Waugerman realised strategy alone won’t transform the company. Strategy must be accompanied by a structural change in the organisation.

To this end, the IT and software teams need to be tied closer together. Traditionally, IT would deliver the employee and partner experience, with the software teams developing the software products.

“We thought about IT and software as different teams with different technology, principles, and audiences,” Gupta says. “We decided to bring the two teams together with a common architecture and Scaled Agile (SaFE) approach to user design and software development.”

That decision led to the realisation that other key technology groups needed to work more closely as well. Today, Gupta leads the Connected Technology and Ventures (CTV) organisation, which includes IT software and platforms, data science analytics, ventures, and even corporate strategy. “Traditionally, corporate strategy would be under finance or legal organisation,” says Gupta. “But today, we’re a technology company, with corporate strategy and technology strategy closed linked together. The silos were inhibiting our velocity. With CTV, we can build microservices once, use them many times, and launch new products very quickly.”

The Lexmark leadership team also created a Product Delivery organisation, separate from CTV, that combines RD and supply chain teams for hardware development, since the working relationship between the hardware and software groups needs to be very tight. “In the past, RD and supply chain would be pulled in two different directions, either to the printer or software business,” says Gupta. “With both groups on one team, we can design both for manufacturing and for services. This was another way to remove silos and move faster.”

As a result of the new structure, Lexmark, which had been an imaging company for 32 years, was able to launch Optra, its first major commercial software product outside imaging, in just 12 months. In the past, the product would have taken three times as long.

Fostering an inclusive culture

IT, software engineering, strategy, and venture teams tend to have very different mindsets, so Gupta has been intentional about creating one inclusive culture. First, he leads a strategic offsite every quarter. “We have a lot of communication throughout the week, but we need to pause from day-to-day work to have a transparent discussion about what is and isn’t working,” he says. “Are we moving too quickly in some areas? Are we taking too many risks? Is our talent enablement aligned with our strategy?”

Second, understanding that innovation can bind teams together, the senior team created a customer advisory board, for the first time in the company’s history, comprised of 16 CIOs from its largest customers. “We want our customers to co-create with us,” says Gupta. “The big ideas need to come from them, and then we need the courage, velocity, and ability to execute.”

Third, Gupta has increased investment in training, especially in data science. When the team formed CTV, they had only five data scientists, and knew that, with data as a key part of their growth strategy, they’d need a much bigger team. “Each data scientist costs a quarter million dollars so we can’t hire 50 of them,” Gupta says. So he and his team partnered with North Carolina State University and the Department of Labor to build an AI Academy where Gupta enrolls a cohort of eight current Lexmark employees to train in data science. “They train for four hours a day for the entire year, are assigned a mentor, and receive coaching from professors at North Carolina State,” he says. “We’ve taken 50 people through the program so far with zero attrition.”

Technology leadership skills for the future

With software transforming businesses, as with Lexmark’s, boards need to be thinking differently about the skill sets and roles of their leaders. Leaders who have technology depth, a commercial lens, leadership skills, and an innovative mindset, like Gupta, don’t grow on trees.

In looking at the skills of his own potential successors, Gupta identifies three. Courage, technology curiosity, and collaboration.

While growth through acquisition is hard work, says Gupta, it doesn’t require much courage. But for companies that grow organically through innovation, leadership courage is key. “People can be afraid that if they try something new, and it fails, they risk their reputation,” he says. “We need leaders who will stick their necks out in pursuit of innovation.”

Second is a deep appreciation of technology and its commercial impact, which comes from curiosity, not necessarily a background in software engineering. Gupta encourages his team to speak at industry events, which requires them to dig more deeply into a technology topic, like generative AI.

The third skill is collaboration, or the ability to bring people together and let them know their voices are heard. “You need EQ not IQ to drive transformation,” Gupta says.

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