Harvard in Tech Spotlight: Sunanda Pepalla, Chief of Staff at Dell
I spoke with Sunanda Pepalla, Chief of Staff and Operations in the Technology Strategy Office at Dell.
Sunanda received her masters in engineering and began her career in technical roles. Over time, she realized that she worked best at and most enjoyed work that drew on a blend of technical and soft skills. So she gravitated toward program management, where she started as an engineering program manager. In this capacity, she became exposed to and worked with many different departments from R&D to business planning. She took this same cross functional mentality when she joined EMC, delving deep into operations, among other areas.
A few years after, Dell acquired EMC, which represented an exciting but uncertain time. After the acquisition, Dell underwent a period of restructuring, which is when Sunanda joined the office of technology and strategy. In an entirely new company and department, Sunanda started from scratch, meeting and networking with a new set of people. In this process, she met an incredible ally who got to know her journey, strengths, track record, and ambitions. When the Chief of Staff role came up, this ally recommended Sunanda, and Sunanda moved into the role on the new emerging technology team at Dell.
Sunanda has found she thrives in changing environments and loves building and transforming teams. Over time, her role and the group have grown. She now serves as chief of staff of product and operations for all of Dell.
Sunanda shared her advice on building trust, communicating and managing up, and effective organization.
Put your brand out there. Sunanda came into the chief of staff opportunity in incredibly uncertain times following the EMC acquisition and Dell restructuring. Looking back, having the aforementioned ally who advocated for her when the chief of staff role was first created was crucial to her career growth at the company, but that connection was only possible because Sunanda made an intentional effort to get to know people in her new group and put herself out there, sharing her journey, track record, and goals. Through being open and building genuine relationships with others, she was able to be front of mind for leaders who could then serve as her advocate for key opportunities.
Solicit and incorporate feedback from everyone. Sunanda’s role is very cross functional, working with a variety of stakeholders across the company. While everyone is aligned at the high level of working toward the company’s success, different teams have different priorities, incentives, and goals. Trust is the key aligning factor. To build trust, show that you are truly invested in hearing everyone’s perspective through taking feedback from all stakeholders, regardless of their seniority. By showing that you respect everyone’s perspective, you create a mentality of cohesion, demonstrating that you truly are “one team” rather than disjointed departments. By actively asking for and incorporating feedback from everyone, you empower everyone to feel a part of the process and journey. In this way, everyone is authentically enrolled in the success of the project, which in turn powers effective collaboration.
Continue collaboration across projects. Too often, people discontinue this feedback process at the close of a project or milestone, but it is crucial to show people that you care about their perspectives beyond the scope of any one task. By doing iterate retrospectives and always asking for and incorporating feedback, you show that collaboration is not just a means to an end to achieve a particular goal but rather something that is core to the company’s culture.
Find shared pain points. When working cross functionally, always put yourself in other people’s shoes. Ask: what’s in it for them? What challenges do they face? How can this project align with their priorities and solve their pain points?
Shift your KPIs when moving from individual contributor to leader. As an individual contributor, you are evaluated on the concrete deliverables that you bring to the table. In contrast, as a leader, you bring something equally important but less tangible. Your success depends not just on your own outcomes but on the success of your people. Your contributions are intangible and achieved less through heads down work and more through strategic influence. Take time to get comfortable with this mindset shift. Catch yourself when you are optimizing for something individualistic. Ensure your manager and collaborators are aware of this shift in your KPIs and aligned and supportive of your transition.
Adjust your communication style for each circumstance. As Chief of Staff, Sunanda interfaces frequently with executives, who are often incredibly busy with meetings and travel. So, she has learned to adapt her communication style to meet their needs, explaining the value and the why right off the bat in each message. She has also adjusted the medium, sometimes doing direct phone calls versus always relying on email.
Plan your week ahead of time. Each Sunday, Sunanda takes time to review her schedule, projects, and priorities for the week ahead. She then formulates her plan to best optimize and delegate with this context. Although she does her own planning on Sundays, she schedules all emails to her team for weekdays whenever possible to respect their time away from work.
Send email reminders instead of email due dates. For example, if Sunanda needs a presentation draft from her team member by Friday, she will send them a calendar invite for that Friday morning. In this way, her team members do not need to dig through emails, messages, or call notes to find key due dates, and the due dates remain top of mind for them as they look ahead planning their own weeks.
Add read receipts to emails. Sunanda works with many busy executives who do not always have time to send messages acknowledging receipt, so Sunanda has set read receipts so she knows when information she shares with them has at least been taken in. Once she knows they have received the note, she can then move the process along and make key decisions.
Parse requests for your team. When Sunanda receives requests from other stakeholders, she makes sure to spend time asking clarifying questions at the outset, anticipating areas of ambiguity for herself and her team in advance. In this way, she can effectively parse the request for her team and communicate a much more actionable version to them when delegating.
Set up a standardized system. Help your team know what to expect. For example, Sunanda makes all program reviews on Wednesdays and requires a deck ahead of time the Friday before. While all new team members undergo an adjustment period, all team members eventually come to expect and instinctively stick to these timelines, which helps in their own planning.
Explain the why. When you set key expectations and timelines for your team members, give them a reason. Explain where their deliverable goes after they submit and how that ties to broader team, department, and company goes. With this deeper context, team members are more able and more motivated to submit deliverables in a timely, conscientious manner.
Clear your mental RAM. Sunanda keeps a dump book with her at all times where she writes down every thought that comes to mind throughout the day. If you do not write an idea down, it can be gone within 5 to 10 seconds!
At the end of the day, when she has a bit more time, she goes to organize and execute on these thoughts. She keeps a section at the back of the book for bigger ideas and reserves the front of the book for smaller reminders.