Twenty-one years ago, Tony Spurlin was finishing up coursework for his bachelor’s in business administration. But unlike many of his fellow students, he was motivated by his two small children to take his career to the next level, so he sped through the program by overloading his coursework and taking summer classes.
That drive to succeed has been infused in his career ever since. Only two decades after earning that BBA, Spurlin has already worked through seventy mergers and acquisitions. Nearly half of them came during his tenure at The Home Depot, and the moves have only kept coming since he joined the telecommunications industry.
But Spurlin has taken all of those massive changes as learning experiences, which have further strengthened his role as communicator, team-builder, and leader. So when he came into his most recent role as vice president and chief security officer of Windstream after the company merged with fellow telecom organization EarthLink, Spurlin quickly gathered his new team and explained what would happen next.
“I sat every one of my team leaders down and said, ‘Listen, we need to pull all of this together with thirty-nine people,” Spurlin recalls. “There are four stages of team building: forming, storming, norming, and performing.”
More than fun, rhyming words, the four stages acted as the initial, big-picture outline of where the newly formed team could bring Windstream. Spurlin and his leadership team first assigned the team members, according to their strengths, into individual functions based on his organization’s core services. One team would focus on engineering and administering capabilities; one would focus on operations and evaluate and test security perimeters; another team would be dedicated to security architecture; yet another team would focus on risk management; and a fifth team would work primarily on identity and access management. “We wanted people to be interested in their new role, to be successful, and to wake up enthusiastic to come into work every day to learn and deliver more,” Spurlin says.
Although this might seem like “forming” the teams, that stage really started once the teams came together to do their jobs. “We had put names in boxes, but the team truly forms when they have their meetings and start working together,” Spurlin says.
In those first few weeks, communication and shared language—frequently a challenge for organizations undergoing a merger—were key. Even when two companies are in the same industry, cultures and vocabularies may differ so much that getting everyone on the same page can be a real struggle. Luckily, that wasn’t the case with Windstream. “Part of the success was that Windstream and EarthLink leadership ensured honesty and transparency and kept everyone informed of the essentials,” Spurlin says.
Next came the ominously named “storming” phase, in which every functional team needed to get into the nitty-gritty and work out how best to face the future. “The storming phase is something we all wish we didn’t have to go through,” Spurlin says with a laugh. “But it is necessary to help find the team’s culture and define its norms.” The storm would be a six-month process, he estimated, but he assured his team that working together would get them through it.
“Once we start to see the storm evaporate, that’s when the norm occurs. This is an uneven process as some teams or areas move through storming faster or slower than others,” Spurlin explains. Once each functional team and individual therein had established its processes and strengths, the “norming” process would solidify. By first arranging the teams as functions and assigning members based on strengths, this norming would be easier than haphazard teams arranged based on location, previous roles, or some other arbitrary designation. From there, of course, the teams could just continue to perform their strengths, having built up the proper norms.
More than any other achievement in the two years since he joined Windstream, Spurlin is proud that his directors and managers have helped bring the teams through the process and become better leaders themselves. “They’ve learned more about organizational behavior, the science of leadership, and how teams are formed,” he says. “They better understand how a healthy, functional organization works.”
In addition to setting up the big picture for his team, Spurlin assessed the challenges that the organization as a whole would need to face in the immediate aftermath of the merger as well as down the road. For starters, the technology base across the newly more complex organization was very disparate, with different solutions and antiquated technology spread out inconsistently. As an early step, Spurlin had his lead security architect identify areas of material efficiency breakdowns. As another solution, he had the team move toward automating identity and access management, both internally and externally, in order to deliver stronger security, save money, and free up human talent to do other important work.
In addition, both Windstream and Earthlink were moving toward providing PCI-certified services for their customers. However, neither company had found success in getting those products and services certified by the council. “One of the things that we did was set up a PCI compliance program,” Spurlin says. “We ran through five or six products that are now on the market, bringing them online in fully compliant states that will serve our customers. To me, all organizations should be thinking about how they can help support generating company revenue. By building PCI compliant capabilities for our service delivery teams to provide to our customers, we are in a unique position for an information security organization in that we are delivering value beyond our core responsibility to secure the enterprise.”
The team has worked toward improving its centralized view of security monitoring for internal operations and customers alike. The team also performed an enterprise risk assessment to gain an understanding of our current risks and put together a road map to prepare Windstream for the future.
That laundry list of tasks may have caused some stress and anxiety for most teams, but Spurlin’s leadership not only helped the team find their way on the road map, but it also helped them to feel empowered and become stronger professionals. “Honestly, I really work to win their trust, give them a goal that they can achieve, and give them the inspiration to achieve that goal,” Spurlin says. “Deep down in my soul, I really do believe that we’re all put on this earth to help each other. There will always be challenges in front of us, but with this team and as long as I can focus on trying to help Windstream and our people achieve their best authentic results, there’s nothing we can’t handle.”
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