Tuesday, February 17, 2009

40 Years of Success vs. 40 More Years of Success

This is your opportunity to mentor a growing leader in need.

We will call him Duncan. Duncan called me the other day for advice, and I believe this blog community can help him. He is a schooled engineer, ten years into his career and has recently been hired by a well-established precision sheet metal firm to build and grow the sales and marketing organization. Just prior to this assignment Duncan spent a couple of years working in the Silicon Valley where he learned the speed of business, partnering styles and the need to stay current or die. He was asking me how he can influence his company’s leadership to change the way they view the future when they are sitting on a comfortable 40 years of success. It seems that every new idea is too risky, outside the comfort zone, working with partners that they never worked with before or just not their niche.

I asked some basic questions such as what sets them apart from their competition and do they have strategies, objectives and tactics to achieve them. His answers were less than clear because he said the senior leaders want him to develop these and bring them forward. When he does, they give the answers we mentioned above. He is clearly working with more of a leadership cultural item than a sales and marketing challenge. I provided some ideas but this might be a great opportunity to start to test the strength on this blog.

What advice would you provide Duncan?


Anonymous said...

Taking my life in my hands by commenting first...!

At first read, one might be tempted to go the "Tom Peters" route - skunkworks, under the radar projects, take risks and rely on the outcomes - but I think the level of conservatism suggested, and the newness of his position, make that too high risk. The first whiff of failure from a project that hasn't been sanctioned would be leapt on from a great height.

It's easy to comment glibly on a brief summary like this, but based on what we're told here I'd have to suggest "divide and conquer". Rather than presenting and being routinely rejected at board level, he needs to get close to one or two senior members of the company. Cultivate their friendship, trust, and bend everything he wants to propose to include some element of their thinking and language. Only by having an ally or two in the boardroom - ideally an ally who may even present the proposal for him, once the relationship has developed enough - is he likely to be able to get early ideas through.

If that can be achieved, each success will make the next proposal easier. One to address at the level of individual relationships, IMHO.

Kayla's Mom said...

There is a concept called the Sigmoid Curve that I think applies in this situation... the basic tenants are 1) Nothing last forever under it original momentum and 2) Success also contains the seeds of destruction... I have used this concept to help clients understand that even though they are currently very successful, success doesn't last forever. New approaches, innovation and change must occur to sustain the business.

Remi Cote said...

I agree with Stuart that Duncan needs to learn the language of the company before he can be successful. He needs to propose ideas using arguments that his superiors will understand and buy into.

Does he understand the problems that his superiors face? His proposals must address the problems that his superiors are facing otherwise, they will not see the value they bring onto the table.

What I would suggest would be to start by listing and prioritizing the problems that need to be addressed and get agreement from his superiors on this list. Then he can start working on solutions for these problems. He will have an easier time selling the solutions if they address recognized problems in the first place.

My 0.02$

Remi Cote
(Follow me on Twitter at twitter.com/remicote)

Anonymous said...

John, Getting leaders out of their comfort zone is always a challenge!

A few things that Duncan should contemplate:

1. Since its all about risk aversion, he needs to set an example wherein success is achieved by taking a Risk. As a starter can he undertake a small project either within his team or with a select group of enterprising people, stick his neck out, take risk and create an early success? This might not be a big success but just a small indicative that risk is worth taking.

2. Focus on the strengths of the leadership team. What are the new things that the leadership team can do by focusing on its own strengths. When individuals / teams operate from their strengths, they are much more comfortable and enjoy the process...hence resistance is negligible.

3. What are his roadblocks - may be he is not talented enough to create a vivid vision for the team. In the process he may not be able to clearly articulate how his ideas are worth the risk! In this scenario he can look at partnering with someone who is naturally talented for creating such visions.

4. Move one step at a time. Find people within the leadership team who might be relatively open to exploration. Create one supporter at a time. This may require investment of time and energy in building stronger relationships (one on one) and understand the real issues behind risk aversion.

Anonymous said...

Shakun, great response!
I agree 100% that Duncan needs to do some networking/relationship building. His greatest hurdle will be challenging the way things have been done successfully for so long. By gaining a confidant or two within the executive ranks, his job will be much easier.

Alex Kersha

Anonymous said...


I advise your friend to teleconference with me for 1-2 hours FOR FREE and see if I can solve a few of his problems, give him some intelligent business ideas and so forth. If he likes how it goes, he can become my permanent consulting client at a very low cost to himself.

The distinct thing about me, unlike many others on this site, is that I don't talk in glittering generalities. I talk SPECIFICS. I ask intelligent questions, I think about answers and I generate SMART ideas. Not moronic ideas, like all those out-of-the-mindbox execs of which there are many on LinkedIn, but ideas that are truly smart and workable. That's because I am a highly intelligent engineer, inventor, wannabe entrepreneur and brilliant thinker / writer, and they are people with 10 years of experience in being stuffed suits with a strong handshake. So if your engineer friend is tired of this category of people, why doesn't he try talking to me?



Anonymous said...

Duncan must see the future materially different than leadership. Not uncommon for a new member of the leadership team. My advise is...1) secure early business wins to deepen respect and trust....2) spend time deepening relationships with leadership on a personal and professional level to deepen trust....3) be patient and think in terms of evolution versus revolution.

Anonymous said...

Why not start with a small project that he can do 'under the radar' of the current leadership? If he can do several successful projects like this then asking the leadership to take risks on bigger projects would not be so hard.

Anonymous said...

One of the ways to demonstrate capabilities and show results would be take on small tasks related to your idea as part of an approved project. It doesn't have to be under the radar.
I have successful in changing the way things are done by taking on whole or parts of such visionary ideas as part of a ongoing project that has been approved. This allows the organization to gradually change with out addition too much additional cost and at the same time develop capabilities. Once they see the results it would much more easy to sell your ideas and get funding.

Hollace said...

Start where the management is now. They just want to keep their current peace and comfort. As the new guy, Duncan is in a great position to get them to identify the adjustments they need to make to keep their balance. He doesn't have to tell them they're wrong (no gain there) but to help them keep being right. Break their current platform down into major processes and walk them through re-balancing each one. Once they figure out that they're good at re-balancing, they'll be all over it.

Anonymous said...

I think Duncan should look for employment elsewhere. While I give the company that hired him some credit for realizing they need to change, this doesn't mean they will. The responses so far indicate they are merely going through the motions. What exactly is top management's motivation for changing? Is there reward/punishment built in for them? Or will they still collect their salaries and bonuses regardless. If so, it's not going to happen. When I was just getting out of school, I had an interview with a large well-known company. It had at least 40 years of success. When the interviewer asked what I could bring to the company, I said innovative thinking and original ideas. The response was, "there is no place in our company for someone like you". How did they get new ideas? Top management got them from committees formed from people who had worked for the company for many years. In less than two years that company was gone. Duncan' s company is at least aware that there is a problem, but that doesn't mean they have the wherewithal to solve it. Many companies don't and that is why the fail."

Anonymous said...

I have learned that whenever a new concept needs to be introduced, one way of breaking the barriers of established conventions is to educate your audience/marketplace/leadership team. Although those who are senior leaders in Duncan's organization may be learned and intelligent people, it sounds asthough they need a broadening of their thinking. Duncan may need to investigate how to introduce thought-broadening opportunities into his environment. Facilitated experiential learning can help. There are so many ideas and attitudes that are being shared now, many organizations/people are leaning to the side of caution and fear-based reactions. I am perceiving this whole transition that the world is experiencing as a 'Tale of Two Cities' - the best of times and the worst of times. Duncan can be the catalyst for his leadership by bringing them to the awareness of how to usher their company into the best of times.

Janice Coleman

Anonymous said...

Great responses, however safe some of them may seem. Duncan is searching for how to influence his company's leadership. A company and a position he has been with for 10 years, I say Duncan are you ready to be the leadership your seeking? I encourage to take a stand for the possibility that you see, get out of your comfort zone. Lead your company's leaders to do the same thing, be bold. If it doesn't work there, what's keeping you there?"

Anonymous said...

The challenge with implementing new ideas and concepts it that we tend to resort to old models of communication. Models that work can easily be introduced and this needs to be a powerful process. Convincing doesn't work as a rule. As an experienced professional in the area of transformational leadership, often I have faced the challenging process of steering an organization away from old "Dominate and Control" Management paradigms and to new models of leaderhip. In every organization this process is unique. The new model must be introduced in a way that offers opportunities the old timers to be more effective, not less. It also must be accompanied by real commitments to produce measurable results. Designing these is an art. Still, what senior manager would not welcome the rising leader who walks in and says, "If you give me the freedom to do this, I will promise to produce the following results beyond what is already expected" Often what Senior management believes they are being told is "your wrong, I'm right, do it my way". They interpret this as arrogant and foolhardy. After all the're the once who got the company where it is. New ideas are treasures and must not be bandies about as panaceas. Treat then with the care they deserve and the experienced people with respect for their existing mandates and expect extraordinary results. -doug

Anonymous said...

In a company such as yours, it is a fair bet that your managers are dealing with concerns about which you know little. I agree with Stuart, that you must get to know the people around you. Focus on identifying what conclusions they have come to about what it takes to survive or thrive there.

Many managers are playing it safe, fearful that a misstep will cost them jobs or prestige in the company, others may be concerned that if new ideas come from the field it will undermine their authority.

Developing a strategy prior to knowing what the issues are is premature. I assert that an effective communicator can anything to anyone if he or she knows the concerns of the other party.


Anonymous said...

That is an ugly position to be in. Honestly he either needs figures out what he has to do to be invited into the kosa nostra, or he needs to start cleaning up his resume

Anonymous said...

Hi John, Interesting case and often found in reality. You write "has recently been hired by a well-established precision sheet metal firm to build and grow the sales and marketing organization." and "He was asking me how he can influence his company’s leadership to change the way they view the future when they are sitting on a comfortable 40 years of success. It seems that every new idea is too risky, outside the comfort zone, working with partners that they never worked with before or just not their niche." This brings me to two questions: 1. Why on earth should the company want to change, if everything is going well, already for 40 years. What does the management want to achieve? And is building and growing the solution for that? 2. It seems that every new idea....Your friend might check if he is right in his suppositions. That means: talk to the managers. Challenge them to be honest on their expectations, their wishes and their dreams. And then choose a solution. Perhaps all the fears and constrain are only in the brain of your friend ;-) Lots of succes!

Wendel said...


Not much information is given on the specifics of what the company does.
I do think this is an issue of Marketing and understanding the business segment/industry.
Anyway, my suggestion would be:
1. To identify weaknesses and opportunities in the current company situation. He might find 'waste' that he could eliminate... possibly he could find parts of the process which could be improved - remember that there is always room for improvement!
2. And this is where a deeper understanding of the segment comes in. He might be able to improve what differentiates his company from the competition and create some technological innovation that could make their product fall into a whole new category, maybe creating a need for all their customers to go with the new concept. That might buy customers from other areas and hopefully from the competitors. Think the idea of a smart-phone transition, or the idea of Apple. Well, again, this is vague since we don't have any specifics.

I believe the key here is in understanding the market (including competitors), the company's weaknesses and improvement opportunities, and knowing about the interaction between innovation and need.


Wendel Silva

Anonymous said...

"Realistically, Duncan should not invest more than another 6 months trying to change the closely held precepts of his new company. I know too many people who went into similar situations, and wasted too many months (years) of frustration before moving on. There is a good reason why some companies adapt, and some fall behind - willingness to see change as an opportunity, not a threat. From your description, it appears Duncan is bumping up against some dinosaurs!"

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