WARNING: I have a SHORT FUSE

Mark is a senior manager at a reputed MNC and I’ve been his coach for the past few years. He recently took up a new job with a team of three reporting to him. But within the first couple of weeks he noticed one of them, Tracy, showing resistance to his suggestions and initiatives. Soon she escalated to their general manager that Mark is a difficult person to work with, and work for. In order not to “rock the boat” the general manager promptly re-assigned Tracy to a new manager. Despite this change Tracy continued to spread unpleasant words about Mark at the lunch table and water cooler. His attempts to be more sensitive and garner her support were all futile, driving him to consider a new job search.

When Mark called me for guidance I told him I will meet him at his office. Reaching his office I took a walk around and observed his team’s work desks. Tracy’s cubicle stood out with a loud poster on the wall which said:

i-have-a-short-fuse

Very often we, managers, tend to miss or ignore such early warning “signs” in our sense of urgency proving ourselves at the workplace or meeting deadlines. In the daily grind we tend to forget that we are all eventually dealing with people – and every individual is unique. What triggers one to stay motivated could be a total deterrent for another.

Further discussion made it apparent that there was a fundamental culture chasm in Mark’s company, and these were the telling signs:

  • Everyone knew the company’s “vision 2018” but had no clear idea how the management was executing to this vision.
  • Mark’s role and responsibilities were not properly communicated to the wider organisation by the general manager.
  • She gave him no orientation on the team, their attributes, attitudes, or background.
  • The idea of ‘change’ was alien to most of them. “It’s always been done this way” syndrome ruled their kingdom.
  • The general manager was too busy or inexperienced to coach the team, and quite often exhibited lack of professionalism in managing the people.

Managers Leaders

It is true – not all managers think or act as leaders.

Managers must demonstrate leadership by diligently communicating the vision and purpose of work, identifying what motivates their team, and keeping them motivated and committed. I covered these topics extensively in two of my earlier blog posts, you can read them here and here. Today’s leaders have an additional challenge at hand. As my ex-CEO John Chambers wrote recently, we have to go through “near-death” experience in order to make our companies great. In today’s digital world we have to constantly think of disrupting ourselves, else we will be disrupted and displaced. Managers have to act as leaders, and inculcate this culture throughout the organization.

The Culture of Change

If you want to be the best, you have to embrace change. From the top down, everyone in the organization must adapt and adopt this culture. In her most recent interview with HBR Indra Nooyi, the CEO of PepsiCo said “I told everyone that if they don’t change, I’d be happy to attend their retirement parties”. I encourage you to read the full article for the context of her statement, and also for some incredible lessons from her experience at PepsiCo.

When Lou Gerstner remarkably turned around IBM, it was through wide-ranging programmes of management culture change, and diligent focus on execution. In his book Who Says Elephants Can’t Dance, Gerstner says “The hardest part of these decisions was neither the technological nor the economic transformations required. It was changing the culture – the mindset and instincts of hundreds of thousands of people […] It was like taking a lion raised for all of its life in captivity and suddenly teaching it to survive in the jungle.”

Coaching Tips

Let’s re-look at Mark’s case now. It is apparent that his general manager showed poor judgement by instantly re-allocating Tracy to a new boss. A better approach would be to first have an open unbiased session with Tracy and Mark, and observe his communication style to learn what makes Tracy so sensitive about it. As a leader she should then coach her whole team to collaborate, ensure they all understand the company’s strategy and execution plan, clarify to Tracy why they hired Mark as a change agent, and reinforce that there will be more changes coming ahead, and for the better. Keeping Tracy happy is a myopic approach, because if she continues to light her short fuse the whole team’s future could be in jeopardy. As for Mark, building rapport with the team, and taking Tracy’s poster as a warning sign to adapt his communication and delegation style accordingly, could have saved him half the trouble.

Here are 3.5 things you can do as a leader to inculcate the right culture in your company:

1. Communicate

Communicate your vision, strategy and execution plan all the time… simply, and consistently. Garner feedback, get people involved and aligned. Make sure everyone’s roles and responsibilities are clearly articulated, but don’t let them build silos.

2. Set an example

Be authentic, passionate, decisive, demanding, consistent, impartial, and firm. Be a role model for the whole team. Get the culture right, and be maniacal about driving it through the length and breadth of the organization.

3. Coach

Stick to the strategy and demonstrate in execution. Don’t tell them “this is how I do it.” Teach them how to fish, don’t give them a fish every time. Give them the tools to do their job. Understand every team member’s motivational triggers and sensitivities, and adapt your coaching style accordingly.

3.5 Zero tolerance

Do not tolerate mediocrity, and certainly do not tolerate people who are unable or unwilling to operate within the values – no matter how talented, experienced, or apparently successful they are. Remember that letting small things go unfixed can have surprising repercussions.

So are you are a manager aspiring to be a leader? Go ignite your people’s passions, not their short fuses.

Unlearning the human nature – a Sales & Marketing conundrum

If you are a salesperson, skip this paragraph and go to the next. If you are a marketer, continue reading. Raise your hand if at least once in your work you came across a sales team complaining to you “Our competition has this new product X, why aren’t we making it?” or “So-and-so brand just launched this new marketing campaign, why aren’t we doing something similar?”. Looks like everyone’s hand is up in the air. Rest of this post is all about this real-life sales vs. marketing conundrum. And by the way, dear salesperson, I know you continued to read this paragraph despite my asking you to skip to the next. It was a test to make you understand the fundamental human nature – the insatiable desire to get what you don’t have, especially when you are told someone else will have it.

We humans evolved with desire. “This is the monstrosity in love, lady,” Troilus tells Cressida in arguably Shakespeare’s most vexing and ambiguous play, “that the will is infinite and the execution confined, that the desire is boundless and the act a slave to limit.” Human desire, in other words, is infinite – we are perpetually unsatisfied even when we get what we want, and we are capable of wanting anything at all. And when we get what we want, we usually start to wish for what the neighbor has.

Good sales people are generally relentless and aggressive in nature. They want to sell the best products and services (who doesn’t?) and that’s when marketers and product managers get thrown the question “why aren’t we making the so-and-so product, when our competitors have it?”. Reasoning about tight budgets and resource constraints and technology challenges and vendor issues won’t work in this context.

In my 15 years of international experience, I’ve come across salespersons who are blatantly ignorant of their company’s products and services – people who cannot even articulate the real differentiators of their own products – but are well versed and thoroughly knowledgeable about their competitor’s products. Why? Because of the fundamental human nature to desire and want what they don’t have. Remember how kids crave for a certain toy, and once dad brings it for them, they play with it for a while, toss it aside and start wishing for their next toy. Very often I see the same tendencies in sales people. Needless to say, this is not good for the organization as a lot of energy and creativity is being wasted on wishing and wanting what they don’t have yet.

When Airbus launched the A380 super jumbo, the Boeing sales force must have rained over their product team asking for a matching response. Instead of wavering from their course, Boeing stuck to their core message of fuel efficiency and eco initiatives, and developed the 787 Dreamliner which has eventually taken to skies earlier this month. At the same time they also worked on a new version of their own jumbo jet, the 747-8, which is slated to fly by year’s end. Industry analysts have obviously shared varying opinions about Boeing’s approach, their production delays etc. But I do see them as a great example in the context of this post, as they stuck to their strategy rather than jump all over the place. Agree, this may not be applicable to your industry as the capital investment profiles, production costs and timelines are very different (prohibitive) for an aircraft manufacturer to change course every now and then. So treat this as an example to drive home my point.

Enough of understanding the problem, you will now be asking “is there a way out of this?” Absolutely yes. But it demands both marketers and sales leaders stepping up and acting as a team. Here are some practical tips that can help your organization get out of this perpetual cycle.

  • Come together as a team and think about selectively unlearning the human nature of desire. Observe the usage of the word “selective”. Be aware that it is desire that drives the sales force to perform and outperform. So don’t spill water over the fire and make them lose their passion to sell and achieve. Instead, brainstorm together on ‘how can we sell what we have, instead of crying out loud for what we don’t have’.
  • Sales leaders could coach their field sales force to channel their resources and energy and emotions to selling “the bird in hand”, instead of fighting in vain for “two in the bush”. They must handle it sensibly and sensitively as some sales people may get de-motivated when they see their manager “take sides with marketing” (this is particularly true in Asian context).
  • Product managers could take the opportunity to clearly articulate the company’s product strategy. Explain in simple one-two-three steps, why they chose to make product A and not product B, unlike competitors.
  • Marketers could build sales force training materials that can be used for educating the team as well as for external client presentations. Re-deploy existing marketing collaterals to reinforce the main messages and themes, so the sales force is well trained on their product benefits and differentiators.
  • Leaders could encourage sales force to go for a solution-sell approach instead. If backed by deep customer understanding, a total solution offer would appeal more to the customer than a stand-alone product, thus eliminating product-to-product comparisons, sanity check of features and technical specs etc.
  • At the same time collectively investigate any possible quick product wins, so long as it doesn’t jeopardize the company’s product strategy or trigger a financial debacle.

Yes, it is human nature to desire… but channel your desire in the right direction and you could be the next sales superstar.