Bring them along. Translating Customer-Centered Strategy into Sustained Growth

Photo by Allan Mas on

The customer should be at the center of all strategy development for an organization. It doesn’t matter if you’re a huge multi-national corporation, a non-profit, or a tech start-up, if you lose sight of your customer needs, your organization’s results will suffer. Most of us take this for granted.

I fundamentally believe that for growth to work, the entire organization must be aligned around that objective.

But often, strategic planning and implementation devolves into each functional area pursuing its own agendas. Marketing has one strategy, separate and distinct from supply chain or finance, for example. The net effect is a disjointed execution, and the customer suffers. Ultimately, so does the organization.

I think there are several reasons for this. First, leadership doesn’t always openly agree – explicitly – that strategy should be led by the customer-facing elements of the organization. Second, no accomplished leader wants to surrender their autonomy and ability to control their own destiny. In the absence of explicit direction that “we will be customer-first” in our strategic orientation, they will take the initiative and move independently.

If everyone is moving forward together, then success takes care of itself.” – Henry Ford

But most importantly, I believe that most customer-facing groups are negligent in engaging with their operational and financial counterparts, and those resulting conflicts force independent strategy development.

“Bring them with you.”

When I joined Blount International (now Oregon Tool), in my first few months, I had a great conversation with then-President David Willmott. We were beginning the process of turning around a struggling business unit, and were discussing ideas both for the business strategy and implementation. At the end of the conversation he said, “You have a good plan, so you will win most of your arguments. All I ask is that you bring them with you.”

I didn’t truly understand what he was asking, until a year later. What David was saying, is that if you have the responsibility to lead the organization from the customer’s perspective, it is your responsibility to ensure that your operational and finance partners understand what you need from them, and are supportive of both strategy and implementation.

I have long understood that sustainable, healthy, scalable growth is only possible if an entire organization is focused on achieving growth. But, the breakthrough for me was that it was the customer-facing organization’s responsibility to ensure that.

What does taking responsibility look like?

Take ownership. First and foremost, your sales, marketing, DTC and product teams need to explicitly own that fact that they need to bring everyone along. That’s a heavy burden given your day job in these roles. However, if you don’t begin with that acceptance, you won’t execute against it. And along with that ownership, there needs to be the recognition that you – the customer-facing groups – create most of the chaos in an organization. Once you accept that fact, and understand that its your job to clean up the mess you made, executing what comes next is easier…

Lead in driving cross-functional coordination. Cross-functional collaboration is core to an entire organization mobilizing toward growth. The difference here is who initiates and leads it. If sales identifies a new channel to engage, it is their responsibility to bring together the impacted functions to ensure smooth implementation. If a new product introduction will materially impact warehousing and logistics, it is their role to engage to seek input into the best solutions. If marketing is creating a significant promotional push, they must ensure that supply management, warehousing and logistics know what’s coming. There have been so many times when engaging this way, you find an operational partner say “I had no idea” once they were included in the process. The customer teams must take the lead when they create opportunities to grow, and be the catalyst to bring people together to ensure you’re successful.

Socialize. Socialize. Socialize. No, don’t run off and party ’til dawn. This is the informal engagement of your partners in the discussion of ideas before they are final. If the customer-facing teams are actively engaging their operational partners with new ideas, new approaches, potential new directions – before they are finalized – you will have greater buy in. Your growth teams don’t understand the impact their decisions have on other elements of the organization. By seeking that feedback informally in advance, getting the best answer, and improving implementation will increase 10 fold. During my time at HP, I actually had a route through the Boise facility. I had 4-5 key stakeholders – cross-functional directors and VPs – that I would seek out in their spaces, to make sure they knew what I was thinking well in advance. Going to “their Gemba” to socialize has immeasurable positive impacts. And, socializing these ideas was not disempowering to these capable professionals. To the contrary, I was actively engaging them to use their expertise to better serve the customer. I was unleashing their brilliance to solve problems. As a result, there were rarely misalignments. Getting early stage feedback is paramount in creating alignment. So socialize – a lot.

Behaviors are often more important than processes.

Throughout my career, I have learned that how we make small decisions about our behaviors – as individuals and groups – are often significantly more impactful than the processes that could or should connect us. If a group of people is behaving in ways that drive collaboration, partnership, creativity, or resourcefulness, you may not need as many processes to execute. I believe when people say culture beats strategy every time, that’s what they mean.

What I’ve outlined above are truly behavior shifts. They are part of the “soft skills” that we as leaders need to understand in order to develop our individuals and teams into world-class, self-sustaining organizations.

Creating durable growth in an organization requires the identification and nurturing of these types of behaviors. In fact, I believe that the key to great organizational development is anchored around establishing and reinforcing desired behaviors.

If those behaviors are led by the customer teams and foster collaboration, coordination, and alignment, then the entire organization will successfully operationalize growth.

Bringing them along translates directly into sustained growth.

Author: Mike Ulwelling

I've had the privilege to have a dynamic career as both an executive in small, medium and large companies, and an entrepreneur leading my own companies for over a decade. I hope you find my thoughts and ideas interesting and thought provoking.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: