Creating the Future at Align Technology

Rethinking leadership and strategy at Align Technology

A ground-breaking leadership and innovation program designed by Duke Corporate Education for top leaders at Align Technology yielded surprising results.

Joseph M. Hogan, the CEO of Align Technology, has long recognized the importance of an engaged, innovative workforce. Before joining Align in 2015, Hogan held chief executive roles at GE Healthcare and ABB, giving him an intimate understanding of continual, nonstop innovation in dynamic spaces like medical technology. Accordingly, he and his senior leadership team are finely attuned to the unique opportunities that Align might be able to leverage – as well as the challenges that the company may face in the future. 

Like many companies in this digitizing, interconnected world, they can see opportunities for collaboration and challenges of disintermediation. More than any specific challenge, however, is the generic danger of being so busy running and growing the business that they spend insufficient time thinking creatively about alternative futures. Not on Joe Hogan’s watch.

Tony O’Driscoll, professor at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business, says: “I have had the privilege of working around the globe with many companies on key strategic issues. My experience in working with Align was truly unique in that the senior leadership team recognized the need to delve deeply into a thicket of complex strategic issues, despite the fact that they were the top performing company on the S&P 500 the prior year.”

The executive team took a progressive approach. They decided to harness the brain power of their top talent. Ten senior leaders from around the world (about 20% of the total at this level) were taken out of the business for eight weeks to work on a strategic challenge facing the company.

Not a day or a week here and there, but eight complete weeks as a team dedicated to understanding the challenge, analysing it, gathering data in the field, being educated in key helpful topics – such as scenario scoping and ethnographic research – and then presenting options for solutions to the executive team. The chosen ten needed to be good leaders. Their task was to reflect and think strategically. And their teams had to pick up the reins while they were out. The initiative was called, appropriately, Catalyst.

Catalyst

Raphael S Pascaud, chief marketing officer, and Simon Beard, senior vice-president (VP) & managing director EMEA, sponsored the initiative. Sponsorship meant being present or available, guiding the process and reassuring the participants, who were a long way from their homes, their jobs and their comfort zones.

Pascaud explains the reason behind Catalyst. “We felt we weren’t doing scenario planning well, yet our market is so dynamic but also immature – it’s a scary combination,” he says. “We need to prioritize because we can’t do everything, but we are also breaking new ground every day and have to try out new ideas. What we put in place with Catalyst was a disciplined process of external theories and examples from other businesses, combined with our leaders, tackling a real challenge facing our business. It’s a unique and powerful combination.”

Beard agrees: “We have big strategic questions we need to ask ourselves, and they get lost in the hurly burly of daily activity – especially in Align, where we are all about action. We briefed the team to look at different options. My expectations of them were high, and they exceeded them with the quality, depth and breadth of their thinking. They thought of things that we as an executive team hadn’t. Or at least thought of things we had only contemplated as individuals, and took the thinking to a more granular level.”

A key stakeholder in Catalyst is Stuart Hockridge, senior VP, global HR. He confirms that the aim is to build strategic capability for the business, with the primary goal of uncovering innovative solutions to a strategic opportunity. Personal development was a secondary consideration. “Catalyst is a strategic business exercise: we took some great minds and let them loose on a core strategic issue. I expected good analysis and sound recommendations. The surprise was how very effective the framework offered by Duke Corporate Education proved; better than I expected or had seen in other companies.”

Let’s get this done!

If there’s one aspect on which both sponsors and participants agree, it’s how the ten participants had to learn to slow down and reflect. They have the exploitation part of ambidexterity conquered. Learning how to explore was the challenge. Participant Casline Chu, managing director South Asia and Korea, laughs: “When I heard about the project I was sceptical. We run fast at Align, there’s a lot going on and I am caught up in day-to-day business, chasing results. Why work on something that may or may not happen? I argued with my boss and asked her to choose someone else to attend.”

Lee Taylor, marketing VP EMEA and another of the ten participants, had similar concerns: “This is a fast-moving organization where daily business is so important. It was humbling – a privilege to be given time to immerse myself in thinking. The sponsors were very clear that there were to be no late-night calls back to the office. I was given the freedom to think.”

The strategic question was provided to participants in advance and, in line with the can-do culture, many turned up with an answer ready-made. Pascaud describes the emotional rollercoaster: “The participants were delighted to have been chosen, but worried that the business would fall apart while they were away – a heady mixture of delight and panic. By day three of the first week, they had written the answer. The question most were asking was, why would it take eight weeks? By day five they had torn it up and started again, realizing that their first idea was wrong and very far from the truth.”

Beard concurs: “There were lots of individual answers, it got narrow fast. My role as a sponsor was to encourage a different thinking process, to help them to look at different options. It could have gone either way: a bunch of egos, or growing as a team. They really appreciated each other and the team won out. I was excited for their journey and I learnt a lot myself in the process.”

This wasn’t, as some had feared, a dog and pony show: going through the motions of strategic thinking with the outcomes filed away, or tinkered beyond recognition by the executive team. Taylor again: “We presented five recommendations to the executive team and all five are in play right now. In an organization with as many opportunities as we have, this is a great reflection on what we managed to achieve. At the final presentation, we were told that BCG or McKinsey would have offered half of our output. The respect the leadership team has given to us and our ideas is humbling.”

Participant Mary Kumar, VP global enterprise & platform IT, adds: “The humility of the CEO and the sponsors was impressive – they didn’t claim they knew it all already, and they made an effort to include me and to get my point of view. I’ve done lots of programmes, but having Duke Corporate Education there to help us build the muscle, solving a real practical business imperative for Align, was way richer than going to Stanford for a case study.”

Collateral benefits

Collaboration

Many organizations need better collaboration, and Align is no exception. The sponsors were pleased to watch as the participants learned to listen to each other better, to understand more about the whole business (not just their domain), and to develop a growing desire to think and lead more strategically. The Catalyst legacy is a tight network of colleagues who naturally reach out to each other across the business for ideas and inspiration.

Personal development

Although the main aim was building strategic capability, inevitably each individual also developed in different ways. Chu says: “Sometimes having the patience to take time to observe and look at things may be more productive and meaningful than going at speed. While I have the answer, I may not need to give it. My team tells me that I am more relaxed and not constantly taking decisions.”

Knowing when to declare, and when to step back and wait, sounds like a big step forwards in leadership wisdom. “I feel valued, that my experience matters,” says Kumar. “I respect my colleagues, they are awesome people. And I really think that if we take and apply the new vernacular and methods we learned, then our new language could be the start of a culture change for Align.”

Taylor adds: “The process we were taught quickly identified gaps in our thinking, and now we are being consulted on what challenge the next group should cover. I will always have a connection with these colleagues; and I reach out and ask for advice, as well as using tools from the programme.”

Customer insight

One of the biggest learnings from the programme was improved customer insight through ethnographic research. This meant spending time with customers in a wide variety of contexts, just looking at how the Align products are used in practice, seeing and learning up close what works and what frustrates.

“Meeting actual customers as well as non-users and understanding how they do their work was the opposite of theory,” Kumar reflects. “I learned about our business, our offerings, and where colleagues think we do well or not.”

Taylor adds: “The beauty was in meeting customers, not to sell to them, but to understand them better, the challenges they face in doing their jobs and how we might help. Some of the experiences were left-field. I even had a manicure, which was well outside of my comfort zone.”

Return on investment

There is huge gratitude for the executive team and the risk they took. “We need to recognize our leaders for having the courage to take us out of the business – it felt like a luxury, but now I think I’m walking a different leadership journey,” says Chu. 

And, in turn, the executive team can see the return on their investment. “It’s a heavy investment of resources for us: 20% of that level of leadership out of the business, plus the actual cost,” reveals Hockridge. “The executive team wants to do it again. Investment like this is a no-brainer!”

“I have experienced the power of giving ten talented people the time and resources to really answer a difficult challenge and to create an opportunity out of it,” says Beard.

Both sides reflect on the partnership that delivered the initiative. As O’Driscoll says: “The Catalyst participants jumped into the fray, leaning into the uncertainty and ambiguity of the challenge with curiosity and zeal. I have no doubt that the output they created will position Align for ongoing success. Having the opportunity to work with this team was truly a humbling experience.”

Pascaud sums it up. “Duke Corporate Education made this happen. We need to recognize that; the entire Duke team was absolutely vital,” he says. “Align is carrying on the journey we started years ago. We are successful, but we don’t rest. We drive on an increasing level of positive paranoia.”

— Faithe Hart is head of global talent management at Align Technology. Leah Houde is executive director at Duke Corporate Education.

An adapted version of this article appeared on the Dialogue Review website.