Talent Talk with Niels Grootscholten

We’re back with another instalment of our Talent Talk series. Today we’re joined by Niels Grootscholten, Director of Product & Development at Henry Schein One, who talks us through the importance of empowerment in fostering a culture of innovation, and how the most challenging learning journeys can often be the most rewarding. Let’s jump into it:

Q1: Tell us about the journey you’ve taken to get to this place in your career.

I joined the Royal New Zealand Navy at 17 as a Weapons Engineering Officer.  The Navy is spectacularly effective at building teams, which was really important learning for me – until then, I’d been more of an individualist!  My training included the usual military ‘basic training’, but also a Bachelor of Computer Systems Engineering at the University of Auckland, engineering management, and leadership training.  A few years after completing uni, I found myself leading a team of software professionals building Naval Information applications where we made some exciting breakthroughs in providing a first class information environment for ship-based personnel. 

In 2010, I joined Online Learning and Assessment company Janison.  Whilst there, I had the privilege (or foolhardiness) of doing what you’re not supposed to do in a software company: rebuilding your core product from scratch!  Fortunately, I was part of a great team of passionate and talented people, and we were able to build a world-leading learning and assessment platform. I eventually became a director and Chief Product Officer there.

After leaving Janison, I took up my current position at Henry Schein ONE, leading our Auckland-based Product and Development teams.  In the last few years, our development teams here have really embraced the DevOps mindset of ‘seeking the global optimum’, ‘creating feedback fast loops’, and ‘building a culture of experimentation and learning’.  This journey has resulted in a dramatically faster release cadence, and much better flow of delivering value to our customers.

As I look back, on my career, I see a pattern of passionately taking on steep learning curves in challenging environments: certainly not a comfortable journey, but a rewarding one. 

Q2: What are you looking for when hiring for your team?

We look for a hunger to learn, and evidence that candidates have mastered substantially difficult things in their past.  This can be demonstrated by good grades at university, a sport, or musical instrument (for juniors), or open source projects, and career achievements.  We also look for the skills you need to be part of a team.  

Software development is a team sport.  When you watch a great sports team, you will notice that players communicate well with each other, and understand each other’s responsibilities, strengths and skills. This does not always come easily to people interested in software development. 

Above all, we need people who want to make a difference.  Thanks to Amazon, Apple and other tech giants, customers have high expectations. Tech giants can share development cost across millions of customers and spend millions of dollars making one screen great.  With a niche market, we can’t do that, yet we must nevertheless deliver.  That makes it even harder and more important to find talented people who show up to work to do great things.

Q3: How have your teams needed to evolve, particularly during this year, to increase agility and resilience? 

Being contrarian: very little.

Technology has a long history of rapid change.  Even young software professionals have seen the shift from waterfall to agile, the change from working in silos to cross-functional teams and DevOps. They’ve seen applications delivery change from Desktop to web-based. Dozens of programming languages, frameworks and technologies have come (and some have gone). We’ve gone from on-premise to cloud, to hybrid. Software teams have been exposed to disruption and change for decades.  

Successful software teams already had the agility and resilience needed to handle the change in our daily work due to COVID, which was a real privilege for our industry.  

There were definitely some challenges related to working from home: a minority didn’t like it, and struggled to be successful.  There were new protocols to learn: for example – meetings with half the people in a meeting room, and half the people joining remotely really doesn’t work - but these challenges paled in significance to what great software teams must deal with in a ‘normal’ year.

Q4: With this in mind how have you had to evolve as a leader to support this?

Actually, I was one of the people who struggled working from home.  I love to walk the floors, and visit our offices in Melbourne and UK, and just talk to people about how their work is going. This helps me ‘keep my finger on the pulse’, and stay in touch with what’s important for our people and the company.  I found it much harder to guide our teams through the change we need to make to stay competitive remotely. Luckily, to date, New Zealand’s lockdowns have been short, so I’ve had an easy run compared to many of our colleagues in Europe and the US.

Q5: How do you foster an environment of innovation and creativity?

Innovation and creativity require two things: alignment with the company’s ‘why’, and empowerment for each team to make a difference.  We spend a lot of time on both.

At Henry Schein ONE, we have a very clear ‘why?’.  We believe we can elevate the health of the communities we serve if every dental practice runs a great business. Our practice management solutions take care of business, so dentists can focus on delivering great care.  This clarity around our ‘why’ creates the context for innovation: so we can be confident that our people all understand the problem space to operate in.

We also spend a lot of time empowering our teams, and mastering our technical practices.  Fast feedback loops, high shipping cadence, and working on customer feedback every day result in more engaged and empowered people.

These conditions really unleash the power of our people’s creativity. In 2020, those background conditions contributed to the fastest and most successful new product rollout in the company’s history with over 50% of our customers choosing to purchase and subscribe to a new product service.

Q6: What’s the most valuable leadership lesson you’ve learned in your career?

I have two: 

  • Leaders are made, not born.
  • There are no shortcuts for hard things.

Read more stories of leadership in tech in our latest publication, Human 2: Bold leadership through crisis and change. Check it out here.