Building a Culture for Success

Having spent most of my professional career in the technology world, I’ve seen, and been a part of bringing some pretty amazing innovations to the market.  Some have truly changed how we get things done, and some others were just plain cool.  What has always been interesting to me, though, is why some companies make it and some do not.  I don’t mean those who get gobbled up and become part of some other company; I’m talking about first-to-market companies, market leaders, name brands that just…go…away.  You can name them in every industry, and it can be a depressing exercise. Yes, there are market forces involved, strategic missteps and technology changes (think VHS vs. Betamax) that do in many apparently thriving companies, but there’s one other that can be just as deadly to a business’s health: company culture.

In my experience, a company’s culture, it’s approach to getting things done, decision-making, customer service and how employees are treated can trump many other factors in determining long term success or failure of the business.  As part of the leadership teams of quite a number of companies over the years who wrestled with driving positive cultures, I can boil the topic down to two points: it starts and must be led from the very top of the organization, and it’s really, really hard to change.  As it happens, I have recent experience with both points.

A friend of mine runs the leadership training program for a globally known, very large company which designs and builds big metal things we all see every day.  This company is in an industry that has its ups and downs and the company has been generally successful, especially of late.  But in a conversation recently, my friend mentioned that while most of the people he works with are bright, open-minded and eager to improve, there is an unshakable fear of failure. In spite of efforts from top management, the company’s culture is such that even a single failed effort can spell doom for the person’s career.  The result is that things move slowly, cautiously, and innovation is limited to special groups within the company—everyone else plays it safe and works hard to prevent the boat from rocking.  Hierarchies are rigid, there’s an unfortunate amount of corporate toadying to superiors, and the status quo is maintained.  This company isn’t going out of business, but it’s leaving so much opportunity behind.

On the other hand, I work with a company with a similar scale, albeit in a different set of market segments.  Yes, it too is a huge enterprise with byzantine processes and its share of “30 year men” whose key job function seems to be to get one year closer to retirement.  The difference is, there is a very strong commitment from the very highest levels of the organization to innovate, think outside the box, collaborate internally, and stay focused on the best possible products for their customers.  It’s hardly perfect, and the inertia of a large company is roughly the equivalent of a black hole, but through actions and deeds the company is making considerable progress in pushing this credo throughout the organization.  The result is that people are willing to propose ideas, try new things and if they don’t work out they’re considered learnings that inform the next effort, not a death knell for their career.

Ok, so those are two different views of really big companies, but the points remain the same for any size business.  If you want engaged, energetic employees, you have to actively ensure the work environment you set up—as the executives or business owners—fosters and reinforces that behavior.  I’ve worked in too many companies where getting to the office early turned into a competitive sport, and leaving late became a game of chicken to impress the boss.  If it’s important for you to be perceived as the big kahuna, with the power of employment life or death over people, you’re going to get compliance, not commitment. And your results will reflect that dynamic.

On the other hand, if you’re so laissez faire that a herd of cats would look organized and disciplined, then you’re never going to grow, and neither are your staff.  Key is to bring your leaders and your team together to understand the company’s goals, its objectives and its targets for the year, and make sure everyone knows how and where they contribute.  From there you and your management, right down to the lowest level supervisor, needs to both be engaged in supporting that playbook, and consistent across the team in what behaviors are reinforced and which are discouraged.  There are many reasons why companies succeed or fail—don’t let a bad corporate culture put your business at risk.


Overcoming the Challenge of Summer

For many businesses, the summer is a particularly complicated time: it’s hard to keep sales and marketing momentum up when the beach beckons, prospect and customer email vacation autoreplies load up your inbox, and those you do manage to connect with are often reluctant to move things forward “until after Labor Day.”

On the other hand, there’s still the need to close business, somehow, and to keep the sales pipeline filled.  When I ran a sales team, I’d hear all manner of excuses about why deals were slipping, and usually summer-related excuses predominated. But just like time and tide, sales quota attainment waits for no one, so there is a need for smartly applied pressure to advance deals, but that has to be balanced against a fair recognition of the season.  A good sales and marketing team will work together to notch up the creativity a bit to keep things moving.  With that in mind, let’s consider what can be done in the summer months that will help sales efforts, if not perfectly in-period, at least near-term enough to make up for summer deficiencies in the months that follow.

First, think about ways in which you can engage with your prospects.  Now is the perfect time to suggest meeting up for coffee or lunch or a chat about future plans or just visiting because you were in the neighborhood.  Relationship building should never be put off, so use the summer’s slower pace to your advantage by working on the relationship at the same time you’re trying to advance the transaction. Summer is a good time to set up executive meetings to talk more deeply about the future product or service plans of the company.  It does take more work to coordinate, and you certainly want to avoid Friday meetings, but remember they run businesses as well, and they can’t just go fishing for the summer either. Use this time to inform, educate, and continue building bonds.

Second, don’t take customer or your team’s delays as an inevitable part of the season.  As I said earlier, there’s always work that can be done, and that’s as true for your prospects as it is for you. Yes, there’s seasonality in many industries, but chances are you already know that and have set your sales plans to match the dynamics of your industry.  Budgets still need to be worked.  Software still needs to be implemented.  Parts still need to be fabricated.  Shelves still need to be stocked and goods still need to be shipped.  So yes, it may be a little harder, and time frames might get stretched, but summer’s not the time to surrender productivity entirely.  If you’re a sales leader, hold your team accountable to perform to their commitments.  If you’re a sales rep, hold your prospects (politely but firmly) to their commitments.

Third, use the summer to do your own planning and organizing, especially the stuff you never seem to get to.  Reflecting on previous quarters’ performance, and thinking through what worked and what didn’t go as planned is enormously productive, and puts the business in a better position when everyone is back and engaged.  Pull your team together and think about who, where and how you will execute your next big push for sales.  Balance the frustration of out of office messages with your own proactive planning for success.

Summer is a particularly good time for the marketing team to step back and review results and refresh messaging.  Talking with the sales team to get the latest input about what is resonating with prospects and customers is easier to accomplish when the pace is a bit slower, and there’s an opportunity to test new things out of the glare of “prime time.”  Whether it’s a simple set of tweaks or a new program, summer is a great time to get the work done and tested—and it keeps your momentum going, something that is often overlooked.  Especially these days, even a short absence of active marketing makes you invisible faster than ever before.

Lastly, don’t forget to give yourself a break as well.  Far too much research says that we don’t take anywhere near the vacation time we have coming to us.  That doesn’t mean shutting down for most of the summer like our colleagues across the Atlantic do (though I wish it did), but do take some time off, even if it’s just long weekends.  Change up your routine.  You’ll find it freshens the mind, uncovers new ideas, provides more energy to get back to turning over rocks in search of new business, and herding cats to get the deal done.  Summer’s differently paced, for sure, but it can be a productive time as well.

Managing Change

True story: some years ago I was on the management team of a fairly large international tech company. The business’s culture was known as a very intellectually and inter-personally aggressive one, a sort of work hard, play hard place.  Because of this high energy environment people were reluctant to take vacations and spent much of the time off either checking in just in case, or fretting that they’d be walking back into a maelstrom.  It was with that backdrop I returned from a week off.  I tended to come in early, so my routine was to go to my office, drop my bag and then cross the floor to turn on the section lights. Imagine my surprise when I put my foot down in my dark office, and instead of feeling carpet I touched hard tile!  Flipping on the light, I saw what was my office a week ago, was now a copy room. Okayokokayokay…a few hyperventilating minutes later, I figured that if I had been purged like Trotsky my security card wouldn’t have worked so I went about figuring out what happened…and also where my office went.

My great office/non-office adventure might have been a shock to the system but it was harmless, and easily navigated once the adrenalin stopped pumping.  That’s not always true, though, and is a caution to companies of all sizes that introducing change should not be a one step process from thought to action.  In a mature organization roles tend to be fairly well thought through and time has honed them so that even if they do not create a fully optimized organization, at least there’s been time for the rub points and conflicts to have been smoothed.  It may not be exciting or poised for rapid action but these organizations are at least predictable and that works for some people, companies and industries.  But what happens when it’s time to kick things up a notch?  Competitive pressure, new executive management with a board mandate to grow, retirements or departures can all set up the need for doing things differently—not just in the marketing and sales organizations (though that’s where a lot of change-focused energy is often expended), but across the business.

The easy path, and the one most often followed, is to look at your current high performers and give them more responsibility.  That seems like a great idea, but often putting someone in a new role is the kiss of death for performance.  A concrete example is that of a top selling salesperson being promoted, by virtue of their excellence, to sales manager.  While that can occasionally work out, most often the traits that made that person such a sales rock star are exactly the attributes that make him a misery to work for.  Add the that a likely disdain for the administrative overhead that comes along with management, and you’ve just blown up your highly functioning team.

Impatience and lack of a clear view of what success looks like can plague companies. To put it in simplistic terms, if you have a company vision you know what you aspire to. If you have a mission statement you know what you will do to get there. If you have a strategic plan and a team to execute it you’ve got a shot at succeeding.  But success takes time, and a bad month or two is not always a good reason to shake things up.  As an executive or an owner you have to match your reaction time to the business cycle, get metrics in place, see what’s happening with your competitors, then read and react.  Change may be needed, but you’ve got to plan for it, and get the right people in the right places, not just drop available bodies into the slots you’ve created.

If you’re struggling to understand why none of the great sales reps you’re hiring, or the brilliant marketing person you brought in aren’t getting the job done, maybe the problem is deeper than talent.  If you’re working on your third set of people in any key role in the business and no one is living up to your expectations then you might want to consider that the only common denominator to these failed employees is you.  Maybe that’s where the change needs to happen.


Be What You Are–And Leverage It!

Having spent most of my working life in the tech industry, I’ve seen and been part of a lot of change.  Some was good and exciting.  Some change was not very good but definitely exciting. Some wasn’t really change at all.  Through it all I’ve seen new categories of products come onto the market and flourish while others, equally promising, live short, brutish lives and become supplanted by the Next Big Thing.

That said, there are a number of lessons I’ve taken away from these ups and downs that have applicability for business owners and leaders in any market.  First and foremost, is to know what you are as a business. Without that clear understanding, it’s hard to be successful.  I know that sounds self-evident, but often owners or leadership has a different sense of the business than the public’s perception, or for that matter, the perception of their own employees.  As a crude example, if you’re a late night burger joint, be a late night burger place.  Don’t think of yourself as a fine dining establishment.  If you do, you’ll invest in the wrong things, prioritize activities incorrectly, and most likely spend way more money than you should.  This is a silly example, of course, but the core message is not: be clear about what market need you serve, whether it’s food, merchandise, technical or creative services, whatever.  Being grounded in knowing what you are here and now is foundational to thinking about the future, whether it’s more of the same or aspirational.

Second, don’t invent a category for yourself unless it makes sense to an audience broader than yourselves.  There’s a fine line between differentiating your business by describing it in a way that makes it appear that you are something else (more, better, different) than your competitors and describing it in such a way that potential customers can’t understand what you do. This is a particular problem in the tech-related world where companies have a tendency to swarm around a category until the market picks a winner or consolidation takes hold, but it can happen in any segment.  The last thing you want is to have to say “well, we’re sort of like company x but we’re different…” that brings you right back to the mainstream but also on the defensive.

Third, as long as you are clear about what you are and what you truly offer, spend the time to make sure the world knows it.  Yes, market your business.  Whether it’s social media, print advertising, email marketing, sandwich boards or bus wraps, if you don’t take the time to let your market know you’re out there, all you’ll have is word of mouth referrals and dumb luck.  There are some business segments where referrals and networking are the preferred ways of being known, of course, but the world’s noisy place and decisions are often made quickly—don’t be left behind because you’re not visible to your market.

Fourth, be sure to test the market through both current customers and prospects. Make sure what you believe you are offering in terms of products and services, reputation and value are, in fact, what they perceive.  If yes, you’ve got a good path to grow the business pipeline.  If there’s a disconnect, though, you need to head back to the whiteboard to understand the misalignment and correct it.  Not only do you as a business leader have to look in the mirror, so to speak, you have to face your customers and prospects and let them reflect their perceptions back to you.  Such clarity is critical.

Lastly, know where you want to go over time. You’re not compelled to capture a market, expand across the country or the world, become the biggest name in a category unless that’s really what you want for the business.  If it is, then build and work your plans to get there.

Even if that’s not your goal, however, you still need to plan.  Without a plan and metrics to provide input about performance your business is at risk.  Customers, even longstanding ones, can disappear or change direction.  Mergers happen.  Acquisitions happen.  Changes in leadership happen. Competition gets fiercer. Especially if a handful of customers represent a large portion of your annual revenue, you had better have a plan in place to diversify your customer base in order to have a healthy revenue future.  As the saying goes, if you’re not growing, you’re dying.  Never stand pat with what you have, since it can disappear without warning.

Let’s Talk About Faster Horses

In a quote attributed to Henry Ford (albeit with weak evidence) he famously claimed “If I had asked my customers what they wanted they would have said ‘a faster horse.’”  Accurately quoted or not, the comment brings up an important topic: getting input from your customers. The depth and breadth of customer input necessarily varies depending on your type of business, but broadly speaking, taking steps which bring you from speculating about their needs, interests or wants, and outright asking them can be at the very least informative, and at best, transformative.

You’re most likely already getting input whether you connect the dots or not.  If people stop coming to your restaurant you’ve got a problem.  If customers consistently return a given product or product line, you have a supplier problem. If your customer stops using your software in favor of another company’s there are issues.  In our 24/7 connected world of thumb typing and “likes”, not to mention the increasingly odious Yelp, everyone gets to be a critic, so there’s a lot of separating the fly specks from the pepper to find some useful guidance.

More useful is a focused and proactive approach to your customers.  Reaching out for input can help you adjust strategy, offer valuable guidance to suppliers or partners and tighten the bonds between you and your customers.  Key is to garner information which informs the business–ahead of time.  Customers tend to “vote with their feet”, so you don’t know if there’s a problem until it’s too late—they’ve already taken action.  Why should they go through the effort to let you know why?

Getting out ahead of things is critical.  Keeping the good Mr. Ford’s quote in mind, however, just opening wide the doors and asking your customers what they want isn’t a particularly good way to go either–you need a plan, and that plan has to start with what you’re seeking to get from any input process.  That objective can be almost anything: testing a new product line, finding out how much people are willing to pay for a service, learning what kind of a menu would change a patron’s frequency, what features in a piece of software would make a user’s life less stressful, etc.  Multiple objectives can often be grouped together, but they key it to make sure they are related.

Next, consider the means of gathering the information you’re seeking.  We’ve all seen, and perhaps participated in, formal focus groups where an assortment of consumers are asked to try a product or share perceptions about a product, service or company.  These are great, but they are financially out of reach for most of us, and arguably are “too much” for most purposes.  The concept is important though: define the questions you want your customers to ponder, and ask for their responses.  This can be done in a survey form, face to face (singly or across groups), and can be a single event or an ongoing process.  Regardless, rather than leaving everything open-ended, it’s important to test your hypotheses against those questions.  Part of what you’re looking for is validation or correction of assumptions you’re using to guide your business plan.  Leaving them room for additional thoughts and input above and beyond your framing gives customers some latitude to offer up suggestions you may have not thought of.

One of the most valuable ways to engage with customers and gain insights and input is a customer advisory board or customer council.  Common in the technology world, a bargain of sorts is offered: in exchange for early access to your strategy and product/service roadmap and new product features, selected customers invest time to react, share their thoughts and provide input which can be extremely valuable in validating—and modifying—your plan.  Done quarterly, twice a year or even annually, these sessions can stop a company from heading down a rabbit hole.  Equally important, it can put the customer in a position to “put their money where their mouth is” relative to requested products or features.  Saying you want something and being willing to pay for it are often two different things as many companies have discovered over the years.

Getting your customers’ input in a structured and useful form takes work both ahead of and after the process is completed.  Managing expectations, filtering out the “faster horse”, and applying judgement to considering which input rings true are not trivial activities.  They are, however, very valuable ones and usually worth the work both in terms of information and strengthening customer relationships.