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

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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.

Growth is change. We should intentionally manage it that way.

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I was talking with a senior leader the other day, and she was discussing the hyper-growth environment that her organization was experiencing.  Importantly, she was describing the strain on the organization of continuous long hours, ever expanding teams, new responsibilities for existing roles, new functional departments that were created, and the new processes that resulted from all those activities.  It is full-blown chaos. 

I asked her a simple question.  How is the senior leadership team guiding the organization through the change management process?  There was a pause.  “We aren’t, we are managing growth,” was her response.

Growth Demands Change “

– Virend & Virusha Singh

The truth is that growth is a continuous process of change.  Moreover, the more aggressive the growth, the greater the need for an active change management process.  We, as leaders, do not consciously think about it that way.  Nevertheless, our teams experience it that way.

Consider the characteristics of growth.  There are increased workloads.  There are new team members.  There might be entirely new functional groups created.  There will certainly be new processes.  There will likely be teammates who take on new or increased responsibilities.  They may not receive any training or mentoring in taking on those new tasks.  There may even be a new business objective or strategy.  The common theme is “new.” Most people can’t handle that much “new.” It is overwhelming.

Driving growth is a change management process.  However, it is hidden under a veil of enthusiasm and euphoria over what is occurring for the organization.  For the leaders, the need for change management may be neglected due to aggressive goals or expectations.  Either way, we tend not to view growth through lens of change management.

 “If we are growing, we are always going to be out of our comfort zone”  – John Maxwell.

As leaders, what do we do?

There are an armada of books on how to manage change.  Maxwell.  Lencioni.  Drucker.  There is a long list of brilliant minds who will set you on the right path.  In putting those great works into practice, I have found that you can often simplify it down to a handful of items, and repeat them. This is my formula.

Identify a target, and keep it in sight.

Create a vision and a goal.  Sometimes the vision could be an aspirational goal for what the organization will become.  “We will become that finest innovator in the industry.”  Most often, it is a target that can be easily measured.  “We will reach $100m in revenue by year’s end.”  Either way, you must have that target for people to track.  I’ve found that many times we as leaders wait for a “perfect” version. The reality is that often it doesn’t have to be. We all like to have a north star.  Give it to your team.

Provide a map to get there.

This is a strategy.  Experience has taught me to that having “A” strategy is better than having a perfect strategy.  Sometimes you simply do not have the time to devote to a fully baked strategic planning process.  Creating a strategic framework that your teams can use to prioritize their efforts, and develop their operating plans, is enough to keep everyone on-track. If your team is growing, the organization is maturing and succeeding, that strategy (or framework) will morph over time to suit your needs. Often is simply gets more focused. The point is, people need the map to plot a successful course.

Give people clear ownership.

Most authors stress the need for individual clarity when effectively managing change.  This is true.  But, I have found that you can provide even greater clarity by going beyond a job description or organization chart.  Provide a clear statement of ownership.  “I own the processing of orders for Walmart.”  It is simple.  It is easy to remember, and even easier to reinforce.

Now, that is not as comprehensive as a full job description.  However, as a teammate, that simple statement allows me to take ownership of my part in achieving our goals.  Ownership of our role brings with it the potential for innovation, as the teammate is bought into our collective success and will seek creative ways to deliver. Serendipitous innovation is my favorite kind. We can build a foundation that fosters it by establishing individual ownership.

Establish behaviors.

Often, leaders will move to process at this point.  I have found that in times of change, process development can be very difficult.  A group is too new.  There is a missing leader.  The optimal final outcome is not yet well understood.  And of course, process development takes time.  Sometimes you do not have it.

If a team is behaving correctly, you often do not need process to thrive. 

How do you establish behaviors? 

First, set expectations.   I always “call my shot” before I embark on establishing behaviors.  Whatever those things are that you expect to see, make sure that everyone knows what they are up front.  Then when you are reinforcing later, there is no guessing and certainly no surprises.

Second, you should only focus on the behaviors that will yield the greatest impact.  For me, I have two that have universally worked well – partnership and cadences of accountability.

Partnership sounds like a no-brainer.  I am always surprised how many groups say they “partner”, but when you observe the behavior, it often defaults to someone simply handing off to another group, without any meaningful engagement.   For me, true partnership has to meet a clear litmus test – are we bringing everyone along in the journey?  If the organization’s bias is toward bringing every impacted group along in the journey, by default you will be partnering.

The second behavior is utilizing cadences of accountability.  Within the recurring meeting structure, teammates make and review commitments toward completion, discuss roadblocks or resource needs, and finally confirm the next meeting.  The cadence can scale and contract based on need.  Daily.  Weekly.  Monthly.  Whatever is necessary.

The key is the ruthless enforcement of the cadence. (Yes, I typed ruthless.) But you must stick to it. If we meet every Tuesday at 10am, then we meet. If someone can’t be there, send a surrogate. We are teaching everyone to stay on task, keep commitments, and make sure the right people are involved. The power of cadences of accountability is remarkable and cannot be underestimated.

Reinforce.  Reinforce.  Reinforce.

The enemy of most organizations unlocking their full potential is usually a lack of communication.  Successful change management is anchored in consistent communication.  I have modified my communication styles to suit the needs of the organization – size, maturity level (of the organization), business conditions, etc.

My current cadence includes a weekly all hands meeting, where we reinforce strategic priorities, provide functional updates, and reinforce behavioral expectations.  Within each functional leaders staff, there is a review of those same strategic priorities, along with accountability tracking, to again reinforce partnership and cross-organizational collaboration.  The net effect is that each week, every team member is exposed to elements of the vision, goals, strategic priorities and key behavioral expectations at least twice, and sometimes more.

Where ever you are in the change management process, you need to reinforce continuously.

Driving it home.

With your vision and goals readily apparent, with your strategies understood, and with behaviors established, you can then begin to look to processes. But, I won’t delve into that here.

All these change management techniques have been very well documented. For me, leadership is about staying ahead of your team – strategically, in organizational and individual development, and cultural development. The key to managing change has been about being aware of the strains you were putting on the organization (and yes, we put those there), and proactively preparing for each step. Being able to synthesize the others’ great work, and making it my own, in the form of these 5 steps, has enabled me to step into different organizations, industries and market conditions, and adapt my playbook to our collective needs.

I hope you find my specific examples useful.

Mike Ulwelling

Ask for Help – Trust – Collaboration

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Several years ago, I had the privilege of joining Kevin Carroll and Jamie Mustard on their morning radio show in Portland.  Kevin is an internationally recognized performance coach.  Jamie is a communications consultant and thought leader. (I was in rarified air.)  At the end of the conversation, Jamie asked me a simple question, “What advice would you give to other entrepreneurs?”

My answer was relatively straightforward:  Ask for help.

Since that time, I have come to understand how often people and organizations ignore those simple words.  People almost never ask.  In our pursuit for excellence, we wrongly assume that we need to develop solutions ourselves.  Somehow, we convince ourselves that no one else has ever faced the challenges we are tackling.  Worse, we assume that we can do it better, even without the relevant experience.

The truth is someone has likely invested the time, resources, people, and even engaged a network of advisors to tackle your problem.  They have already faced your challenge, and conquered it.

Why don’t we ask for help?

I believe the biggest reasons we don’t ask, are that most accomplished people don’t want to admit they have an issue to begin with.  Worse yet, they might have to admit that they don’t readily have the answer. 

In addition, most people also wrongly fear that their organization’s leaders want them to build the solution themselves.  They incorrectly assume that an admission that you don’t have the best answer calls into question their competence in their role.  I believe our fears around both of these reasons are generally unfounded.  In over 20 years of leading in organizations, I have never experienced a situation where a senior leader punished someone for looking outside the organization to come up with a better way to do something.  Leadership wants the best solution, not our best solution.

How do we give our teammates permission to ask for help?

Removing fear and shifting people’s search for excellence beyond themselves can be a challenge.  I believe it begins with modeling the behaviors we want to see.  How often does your team or colleagues see you asking for help?  I try to bring my real world examples into situations where we are exploring options – inside and out.  I have a personal board of directors, that I am intentional in engaging.  They are very wise counselors, and often have better answers than I do.  I reference them a lot when encouraging my teams to grow beyond what they know.

There are times, when we have to force our teams to use external advisors to “kick start” the process.  Recently, I asked two of my teams to develop a new process to improve coordination of our go to market activities.  After several conversations, it became clear that they were going to be challenged delivering on my request.  I connected with a very experienced former colleague, and asked if he would be willing to share his wisdom.  I then connected my team with him.  The result, they had a much better understanding of the project, and were able to move very quickly to deliver.  Not only did our organization get better, but now I have a recent example of how using external advisors can deliver outstanding results.

Questions are key as well.  Do you understand?  Have you done something like this before?  Do you have an idea who you might ask for advice?  These questions need to become part of our normal repertoire.

“He that is taught only by himself has a fool for a master.” – Hunter S. Thompson

Why does it matter?

I believe that the pursuit of excellence requires a holistic gathering of information.  I also have found that most breakthroughs are built on the expertise and achievements of others.  When we continuously looking inside for our best answers, we create smaller and smaller opportunities for excellence.  We also reinforce a behavior of pursuing expediency instead of excellence.  I think of it as if we were entering a cave.  With each decision, we get deeper and deeper inside, with fewer and fewer choices.  In the dark, with the walls closing in, our opportunities become narrower – and our chances for a world-class breakthrough almost nil. If we can create a behavioral norm, where we – and our teams – are constantly pursuing the very best solutions, from an ever-expanding group of wise counselors, our ability to achieve breakthrough results improve.  With each victory, we will also seek to replicate the behaviors – often.

1 Simple Behavior to Build Organizational Trust

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Building trust is critical to the health of any organization.  There have been numerous publications discussing the requirements for building trust.  Being authentic.  Listening.  Collaborative decision making.  Act with integrity.  Improving communication.  But what does that look like?  Because trust isn’t something you can schedule.  There isn’t an agenda.  In a world which reveres processes and cadences, building trust seems antithetical behaviorally.

Go to their Gemba.

I have found one simple behavior has a significant impact.  Walk around and talk to people.  Engage with them informally.

I first learned the impact of this behavior while working at HP.  As part of a multi-billion dollar company with 120,000 employees (at the time), getting things accomplished took more than just following processes.  It was imperative that ideas, especially significant departures from the norm, needed to be pre-sold.  Over the years of working cross-functionally with key partners, I subconsciously created a “route” through the various campuses.  Catching 10-15 minutes with key partners.  Asking questions.  Sharing ideas (even half-baked ones).  Exploring.

“All truly great thoughts are conceived by walking”  – Friedrich Nietzsche

The results were remarkable.  Even controversial ideas were being accepted.  The more successful at gaining alignment, making quicker decisions, and growing the business I became, the more I doubled down on this behavior.  To be honest, at the time I was operating more on instinct than intent.  But the behavior became embedded.  And as my career developed I not only continued this routine, I began to encourage the organizations I was leading to mirror that behavior.

What was happening?  Why did this simple idea prove so effective at building trust?  I think there were three reasons why this approach has been effective.

First, the meeting is informal, casual, unstructured, (and really by default) authentic.  You are not only discussing the key ideas you want to explore, but you are engaging on many more levels.  You are understanding your partner’s world.  What are they working on?  What is their honest assessment of your idea, and how might they tweak it?  Even what is happening with their families.  You are genuinely understanding their perspective not only on this issue, but in general.

The second, is that it is happening in their space.  The act of going to them implies respect and genuine care.  You are taking your valuable time to go to them to seek wise counsel.  This small, but important act can quickly build relationship and trust.  This cannot be underestimated.

The third benefit is understanding their discipline.  Most of us like to “stay in our lane” at work.  Marketers talk with marketers.  Accountants to accountants.  By having informal conversations with accounting, manufacturing, supply chain and many more, I actually gained tremendous knowledge about what they were doing and how they were excelling at it.  This cross-functional understanding helped me both make better business decisions, and to more clearly understand their points of view.  This dramatically improved communications.  I had a colleague at Benchmade comment on my ability to foster cross-functional partnership.   “You already speak their language which gives you remarkable credibility.”  I speak their language because I created an opportunity for them to teach it to me.

This trust building behavior creates two critical benefits.

The first is speed.  When a team is communicating this way as a group, the speed of decision making increases dramatically.  They are already aware of activities and ideas of their cross-functional colleagues, so the time it takes to make and implement decisions is radically reduced.  In a world where predictive analytics are all the rage, having this level of proactive cross-functional engagement delivers remarkable old-school results.  At Blount, I had a leader cut product development time by over 50%.  The foundation of that breakthrough?  He started informally engaging his key cross-functional partners “offline”.  Together, they built an improved system.

The second, is that it pushes organizational decision making downward.  A wise leader once told me that if three critical cross-functional groups agree, there isn’t actually any decision to be made.  At HP, it was marketing, finance and engineering.  At Blount, it was product marketing, sales and manufacturing.  Every organization has their “trifecta” of decision making authority.  As leaders, when that “group of three” has already vetted a decision, and brings it forth as their recommendation – all that is left is to approve it.  That downward pressure on decision making becomes infectious.  Teams will accelerate their willingness to take on tough issues, identify best path forward and implement, all by themselves.  They become self-sufficient.

As leaders, isn’t that what we are all driving toward?

Bottom line is that if we are attempting to build trust within an organization, there are simple ways to make it a reality.  Encourage your teams to engage with their cross-functional peers where “they” live.  Model the behavior yourself.  They will catch on.  The results will be remarkable and sustainable.

– Mike Ulwelling

5 Keys to Cross-functional Partnership.

Business team giving a high five

In organizations, silos are the norm.  Most organizations just don’t collaborate cross-functionally very well.  Most managers and leaders assume that their teams are working together as part of the “normal process” of the company’s operations.  Unfortunately, its rarely true.  The results are predictable.  Confusion.  Alienation.  Dysfunction.  Blame.  Low morale.  Poor performance.  Addressing this organizational malaise is actually simpler than most leaders realize.

No blame, just solutions.

Before a group can collaborate at a high level, the members have to trust each other.  Bringing the groups together is not enough.  When beginning a journey to harness  cross-functional partnership, the first thing a leader must do is set expectations that will blossom into trust.  What I have found most effective, is establishing ground rules that 1) no one is to blame, and 2) we are focused in finding solutions.  Those two simple ideas have way of freeing team members from the history of organizational behaviors, and unlocking new ideas and approaches to solving problems.  Organizations don’t build these silos intentionally.  There are good reasons for the behaviors that drive us.  What we need to do as leaders, is give our teams the freedom to jettison that baggage of the past, and architect the new behavioral norms, free from fear of retribution.  Being declarative about the new expectations, along with consistent repetition, can begin to change behaviors quickly.

Understand the common goal.

“Never tell people how to do things. Tell them what to do and they will surprise you with their ingenuity.” – Gen. George S. Patton

I love this quote.  Most cross-functional groups do not clearly understand what they are trying to achieve.  This lack of clarity allows each individual participant to assume their best outcome is to focus on what benefits their particular group, and not the organization as a whole.  At the beginning, leaders should set a clear expectation for what is to be achieved.  That goal will be most effective if it is focused on something external, bigger than any individual participant or group.  “Our goal is improve how we deliver products to our customers.”  “We are going to design products that better meet the unspoken needs of our consumers, while improving our time to market.”  These are real world examples which have galvanized teams to work together.  Bigger than any one individual.  Focused and external.

Let the team solve the problem.

The second part of Patton’s wisdom is about letting the team dazzle you with their genius.  Far too often, we as leaders believe we have the answer.  Our participation in the cross-functional process becomes more and more directive.  It is our responsibility to encourage our content experts and organizational leaders to come up with their own solutions.  We must repeatedly encourage them to continue investigating, to find their own answers, to make the solution their own.  I have found it most effective to encourage small “offline” groups to develop their own recommendations and solutions, away from the prying eyes of senior managers, managers and other authority figures who are not the content experts.  At Benchmade, we had several groups ask the leaders to accelerate the pace of implementation for their solution.  They had identified their own best path forward, understood the benefits of a full implementation, and became impatient with our pace.  In allowing them to lead in the solution, they were able to launch a product with only a two week delay, when the original recommended path was a 6 month slip.  Their plan.  Outstanding result.

Establish a cadence of accountability.

The hardest part of building organizational trust and cross-functional partnership is keeping the group focused on the task at hand.  Everyday priorities get in the way making progress on the project, and allows the team to drift back into their bad “siloed” behaviors.  You have to force them back together.  At Blount, we described it as maintaining a “ruthless cadence of accountability”.  No matter what, we met.  Everyone had to participate.  Depending on the scope of the challenge, you can set an appropriate cadence – daily, weekly, monthly – whatever is necessary.  But you must force participation on a recurring cadence.

Group members make commitments to each other.

It is not enough to have people passively participating.  They must be engaged.  If I ask you to complete a task, your might do it.  But, you won’t feel ownership.  If a member of the group commits to deliver something, the likelihood of an emotional commitment to deliver is much higher.  I have used this method at 4 different organizations, and it’s never failed me.  (FYI – Stephen Covey first exposed me to this idea in his book “The Four Disciplines of Execution.”  Great read.)  Make part of your cross-functional project a report out with participants making commitments, and reporting their progress.

Once an organization gets used to partnering, to trusting each other, the synergistic effects multiply very quickly.  Distrust fades.  Proactive engagement replaces silos.  New capabilities are unleashed in individuals within the organization.  At Blount, I had a team member from another part of the organization chase me down in the hallway to talk about a solutions she’d developed.  At the beginning of the process, we had to physically go get her to attend meetings.  That team learned to cross-functionally identify and resolve problems so well, they began to outrun their oversight.  Not in a frightening way, but an amazing one.  The benefits to the organization, and our customers, were outstanding

The solution seems simple.  Gather the cross-functional experts; free them from the past to build their future; set a clear vision; empower the team to take action, ask for commitments; and develop a cadence.  And, it actually is.  As leaders, we have to have the courage to empower them, the willingness to create the necessary clarity, and the patience to allow the team to find their own way.

Mike Ulwelling



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