Thursday, November 10, 2011

Don't Roll Your Sleeves Up Too Far

“I’ll Do Whatever it Takes”
I’ve never been a “not my job” kind of person, whether I was a front-line technical services professional at Oracle or a VP at a billion dollar software company like Business Objects. If the team had a job to do, and if I needed to stretch outside of my basic job description to help get the job done, I’d gladly do it. Moreover, I truly felt that I was  modeling the business culture that I wanted my team to embrace and leading by example. It’s only in hindsight that I’ve become aware of the pitfalls and downside of that attitude, and how it could hurt me, my team, and even the company.

I was a VP of Marketing at a startup company. It was the day before a big trade show and we were inside a large convention hall setting up our booth. I had decided to run the event with minimal staff. That meant that there was only one other person from my team there to set up the booth. Not only would it take much longer with one person, but there were some sections that were physically impossible for one person to assemble. So I did what I thought any team-player and startup person would do. I spent hours helping to screw pieces together, hang graphics, arrange collateral, test demo stations, and more.

The new VP of Sales (we’ll call him “Rich”), who had spent most of his career in very large organizations, came by during the setup because he wanted to talk to me about an important partner meeting that we were tag-teaming later that week at the show. Rich and I got our game-plan together and outlined exactly what each of us would do to impress the partner and make them excited to do business with us. As we parted after our meeting, Rich said “Well, you probably have to get back and vacuum the carpet in the booth.” I thought it was a good-natured joke about how I was really “rolling my sleeves up.” It wasn’t. In hindsight, he was clearly concerned and maybe even annoyed that his executive wingman for the big partner meeting was also the guy with an allen wrench assembling the booth. In my mind, I was being a team player. In Rich’s mind, I didn’t know my role and had chosen to apply myself to low-value, manual tasks rather than strategic opportunities. He probably wondered why we hadn’t chosen an “executive” to be our marketing leader.

Consider Your “Stage” Presence
We’ve written about company stages and stage-relevant skills before. As your company grows and evolves, the way you execute your job and even the image and tone that you project must change.

Early-stage startups are often wary of “big company” executives coming in. They’re afraid that a new executive will join who’s no longer capable of doing real work, and instead just wants to build out a team, hire an admin, and set priorities and direction without helping on execution. When my startup was only 15 people in total, I often didn’t have any options when it came to handling mundane or administrative tasks here and there. To me, it didn’t matter that in my prior job at 4,000-person company, I had a global team of 35 and an admin. The work had to get done.

As we got more traction and our growth accelerated, we got into bigger deals, bigger customers, and bigger partnerships. We got on the radar of our competitors because they saw us as a potential disruptor in a very large market. The culture generally remained team-oriented, fun, and aggressive without being self-important or self-serious and I loved it. By the time the Rich came in, we were significantly larger and still scaling the business. In that world, executives didn’t set up booths.

My failure to recognize that perspective (which was also likely shared by other new-hires who came from larger companies) created unnecessary obstacles . In one sense, it’s as if some ideas or initiatives that came out of my team were viewed through one of two lenses 1) a good idea from a strategic, experienced marketing executive and industry veteran, or 2) a questionable idea from a “grunt” who puts booths together. That made me less effective, created some headaches for my team, and was a (minor, but meaningful) negative for the company.

Here are some suggestions to avoid typecasting yourself in a “small company” role as your organization grows and transitions to the next stage:
  • Recognize and embrace organizational change – Once successful, your company will grow and the personalities and attitudes will evolve. This is true for mid-sized companies growing from 1,000 employees to 5,000 as well as early stage startups growing from 10 to 100. Rather than trying to preserve the status quo in terms of culture, approach, and how you perform your job, recognize this change and push yourself to evolve ahead of the curve, not behind it.
  • Play your position –It’s an old marketing joke that you can’t market the same product simultaneously as a floor-wax and a tooth-polish. It’s true for people as well. Earlier in my career, I was a featured speaker at a breakfast seminar. One of the field marketing managers no-showed, so I volunteered to help hand out name tags. That’s when the lone marketing manager said “For this event to be a success, I need everyone here to see you as a subject matter expert when you’re on stage. If they see you first as the guy handing out name tags, they won’t be able to accept you as a thought leader when you’re up there presenting. So do me a favor and don’t help with registration.” It made perfect sense then but I should have internalized it in a big-picture way rather than as an isolated event.
  • Do what’s best for the company with a long-term viewIf you’re like me, you feel snobby, self-important, and egotistical when you don’t pitch in to help. But a short-term decision to “help out” can create long-term challenges. It’s not worth creating doubt or potential instability for your team just to fix a minor emergency. Look for other ways to fill in the gaps. In my case, I easily could have spent a few hundred dollars of my budget to get a contractor to help set up the booth, or even pulled in another employee. If I had found another creative solution, it would have resulted in better outcomes not just for me but for my team and for the company.

How have you adjusted your approach as a leader in a high-growth company environment? Please share your experience. If you found this interesting, please use the toolbar below to share it with your network.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Survive and Thrive with a Bad Manager

I Quit!
Early in my career, I joined a startup that went IPO. The company was trying to figure out how to scale revenues and operations. I was in technical support and our tiny 10 person department was feeling the stress from a growing customer base with buggy products. While the chaotic, responsive nature of supporting customers really excited me, my manager, who we’ll call Frank, made my life miserable. In short, he redeployed resources away from supporting customers instead to work on “pet projects” that made him look good in front of the Sales executives. Since I was the guy that was “left behind,” his reallocation of resources effectively doubled my workload and made it extremely challenging (what felt like ten-fold) for me to be responsive to customer needs. Worse yet, Frank kept beating on me about my productivity.

I loved my job. I was learning, making good money and people told me I was great with customers. However, Frank increasingly made my job unbearable over a 15 month period and my anger and frustration was spilling into my personal life. When Frank was promoted to Director, I thought for sure I was “cooked” because his work priorities were more visible in the company and therefore I expected my situation to get even worse (if that was even possible). Just as I started planning how I would resign, something absolutely unexpected and wonderful happened… I got a new manager! Sherry transferred from the Engineering team and now reported to Frank as a 1st level manager. Previously, Sherry and I collaborated on several customer escalations and we had a good rapport. She was very metrics and process oriented.

After a few weeks in her new role, Sherry called me into her office. I sat down in her guest chair and she turned her computer screen around so I could see it. She had a dashboard that showed I was the most productive member on the team! She then proceeded to tell me that I was doing a great job (fielding and closing the most customer cases in the department) and to keep it up. Over the next 18+ months, I implemented training programs, worked closely with Engineering to improve the products, all while continuing to deliver support and excel with customers. I really hit my stride and leveraged those experiences and strong business contributions get to my next big role.

Things are Clearer on the “High Road”
It’s hard to be rational when you’re under attack. A natural reaction would have been for me to lash out and defend myself against Frank or on the opposite end of the spectrum, to crawl up in a ball and continue to absorb the abuse. Here are some steps you can take to gain control of your circumstance and come out with a stronger career position:
  1. Stay focused on improving your skills – if you enjoy your work content, keep developing your functional and (if applicable) technical skills. Knowledge and experience are key to growing your career. If you stay focused on learning and doing the best job that you can then you’ll also build up your reputation. Just as your “bad manager” may have you under his microscope, consider that everyone else you interact with is also watching how you handle yourself. Are you perceived as hard working and dependable? Many of them may not even be aware of your dire situation so maintaining a good professional reputation is important because that will follow you wherever you go. Spending any amount of time playing “victim” will be counterproductive and slow down your development. One bad (manager) relationship doesn’t define who you are so keep things in that perspective.
  2. Fight personal agendas with facts – Numbers don’t lie so make certain that you are able to quantify your productivity and work quality according to how you’re being measured. Whatever your manager is criticizing you about, the best way to move from subjectivity to objectivity is to get metrics-oriented. This is the first step in getting on the same page with him or her. Your metrics ultimately tie to departmental goals and objectives that are also quantifiable. Make sure that your work is measurable and aligned to those objectives. Finally, many disagreements have to do with hidden personal agendas. Get to know what your manager’s personal agenda is and decide whether or not it conflicts with your value system. In his book, True North, Bill George discusses the need for every leader to get a hold of his/her “Internal Compass” and how professional failures are quite often associated with compromises in their “values and principles.” My compass was pointing away from Frank’s but completely in line with Sherry’s.
  3. Find supporters – Although I felt isolated under Frank’s attack, because I had strong working relationships with most others, I was pretty confident that he wouldn’t fire me. Generate support from within your department and also inter-departmentally, especially with your managers’ peers. Make sure that they experience and observe you directly and not just through the “filter” of your bad manager. This up-swell of “fans” will counteract the opinion of your bad manager. Additionally, I was fortunate when Sherry became my manager because she created a shield between me and Frank. I knew she had high regard for my work ethic and contributions and would protect me from further unfair accusations by Frank.
  4. Run a marathon, not a sprint – Marathon runners are able to endure a lot of pain between mile 1 and 26. They train their bodies and minds to perform under adverse conditions and to get past that pain. Your current circumstance is just one stage in your (career) marathon where you are being tested. Be patient and try to work through your situation. Leaders learn as much from adversity (sometimes more) than when everything is going their way. If you make a quick to move (i.e. transfer out or even quit) then you’ll be robbing yourself of a great learning opportunity. My management and leadership style was significantly shaped from the negative behaviors I observed in Frank and other bad managers. While you can learn a lot from a good manager, it’s the bad ones that teach you what not to do.
I had a great 3+ year run at the company, both professionally and financially. I’m glad I didn’t “pack up” and quit while under duress because I wasn’t getting along with Frank. I endured his management tactics and when he eventually moved into a Sales role, I was happy that I “outlived” him. It really would have been a shame to prematurely quit a good job. Instead, I left on my own terms - and for a much better opportunity than I would have gotten after only about a year of experience.

If you have any good stories of how you overcame bad management or what you’ve learned from bad managers, please comment and share this blog with your colleagues using the social media toolbar below.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

A Precious (free) Gift from Steve Jobs: Communicate with Impact

11 Million Views and Counting…
With the unfortunate passing of Steve Jobs last week, most people immediately think of his companies (Apple, Next, Pixar) and product innovations (Mac, iPod/ iTunes, iPhone, iPad) as his greatest contributions to modern society. However, his passing has brought even more attention to one of his most famous public appearances. In 2005, Steve Jobs spoke at Stanford University’s commencement ceremony and delivered an inspiring and memorable speech. In less than 15 minutes, the speech conveys a lot of wisdom and was particularly relevant to the audience of young people just starting their professional careers. He advised on important decisions about character, priorities, relationships, and more.

There’s no simple scientific formula that would enable someone to replicate exactly what Steve Jobs did in those 15 minutes. That said, Steve makes very effective use of some high-impact communication techniques that you can leverage to advance your career by improving your  speeches, presentations, and even one-on-one communication.

“Hook” Your Audience
More often than not, people start presentations with something soft, bland, and procedural. “I’m Mike Johnson, Vice President of Channels, and for the next 20 minutes I’m going to talk to you about our 2012 Channel Strategy.” Yawn. These kinds of intros often feel necessary to speakers, but they don’t immediately engage your audience. And keep in mind, your audience is probably used to video-on-demand on airplanes, DVRs, and internet content that lets them switch, in only seconds, from boring content to engaging content. If you don’t engage them from the outset, while they may physically remain in the room, their minds will be “surfing” to other places.

A hook is a communication technique designed to engage the audience, and it can take the form of a personal story, a controversial statement, a quote, or a question to the audience. Steve Jobs spends one sentence to say “Thank you I’m honored to be with you,” and then goes immediately into a hook to engage the audience. “Truth be told, I never graduated from college.” What a great way to get people’s attention at a college commencement speech!

People Remember Stories
At 00:50, Steve explains that he’s going to tell 3 stories, which highlights another powerful communication technique: storytelling. Stories are memorable, so if you want people to recall key points in your presentation, use stories.

Steve also uses a couple of techniques that help increase the impact and richness of his stories. First, he shows vulnerability. Anyone who’s been in high-tech for a few years has heard people tell self-aggrandizing stories about their unbridled success. As an audience, when we hear those kinds of stories we tend to see the speaker as egotistical and phony. Why? Because we’re all human and we all have weaknesses. And most importantly, those stories don’t really engage the audience.

By contrast, Steve Jobs, one of the most spectacularly successful and innovative people of our time, describes how he was given up for adoption as a child, and passed on by a couple who decided that they wanted to adopt a girl. This vulnerability helps us relate to him and draws us in. Later on, he also describes why he got fired by Apple’s Board and how that was the best thing that could have happened to him.

He also uses first person dialog, meaning that he uses specific direct quotes rather than simply characterizing what was said. At 1:45, he describes how the hospital called his parents-to-be and said “We’ve got an unexpected baby boy. Do you want him?” While the linguistic difference is subtle, the impact is much stronger than if he had said “The hospital called, said they had an unexpected baby boy, and asked if my parents wanted him.” Use first person dialog to make your stories more vivid.

Perils of the Podium
He may not have had a choice in whether or not to use a podium. In general, in our speaking engagements, we avoid podiums when possible because they tend to restrict and limit you as a speaker. Not only do they create additional physical separation from the audience, they tend to dampen hand gestures, restrict physical movement, and lessen eye contact with the audience. You can see this in Steve Jobs’s speech – he uses very few hand gestures, never leaves the podium, and has to deliberately force himself to look up periodically to re-establish eye contact with the audience. Granted, some of this naturally flows from the fact that he’s reading prepared remarks, but in general, we’d recommend that you either avoid podiums when possible, or be conscious of their limitations and try to compensate in other ways.

More than technique, what makes a great speaker and a great presentation is authenticity, meaning “true to one’s own personality, spirit, or character.” Get comfortable being yourself when you communicate. People dislike and distrust fakers, posers, and phonies. In politics, you hear candidates’ authenticity evaluated when people use phrases like “comfortable in his own skin.”

Steve Jobs comes across as extremely real in the commencement speech – not as a game-show host, not as a master thespian, not even as the all-powerful founder and CEO of Apple and certainly not as a phony. One great example is at 4:00 when he talks about his love for typography and says “It was beautiful…historical…artistically subtle in a way that science can’t capture, and I found it fascinating.” You can feel his passion and curiosity, and it helps you understand him as a person. You feel like you know him, and that the person up there in front of the crowd is the same person he’d be if you met him for coffee.

Metaphor is a powerful tool that can both increase your audience’s understanding of your point and enhance the dynamism of your content. Steve uses metaphor multiple times during the speech, like at 7:20 when, in talking about being fired from Apple, he says “The heaviness of success was replaced by the lightness of being a beginner.” You can almost feel the weight of Jobs’ success at Apple, and the airy freedom when he started over. At 8:15, when he says “Sometimes, life is going to hit you in the head with a brick,” you feel a sense of suddenness, surprise, violence, and pain. It’s compelling and memorable, and that’s why you should thoughtfully use metaphor in your communications including metaphorical language and metaphorical images in your presentation slides.

Bring it Home
Just like the weak and boring openings described above, we’ve all seen (and probably delivered) regrettable closes to otherwise decent presentations: “Well, that’s my last slide,” “I’m just about out of time but I can take a couple of questions,” etc. These kinds of closes aren’t memorable, don’t reinforce your point, and don’t maintain the engagement of your audience. For his closing hook at 14:28, Steve uses a pithy quote, “Stay hungry. Stay foolish.” to put a memorable and inspiring finish on his remarks that reinforces the messages of his three stories.

Steve Jobs was a unique and incredible person whose legacy includes fundamental transformations of major industries including consumer electronics, personal computing, music publishing, movie production, and more. While there will probably never be another Steve Jobs, we can all take advantage of the techniques he used in one of the most memorable and widely-viewed speeches of his career.

Master Executive Communication and Presentation
ExecCatalyst has partnered with The Henderson Group to create a unique 2-day communication and presentation skills workshop designed for mid and senior level high-tech professionals. Executive Communicator teaches attendees how to influence executive decisions through more effective dialog and presentations according to Line of Business priorities. One Marketing Director said:

"This course exceeded my expectations, and I found several elements of extreme value.   The most beneficial aspect was the quadruple-barrel feedback circle -- self-assessment, peer assessment, executive assessment and presenter expert assessment. I also compliment the feedback quality of the instructors. The powerful combination of the executives, and communicator expert cannot be overstated.  Further, the video provides an immensely rich and relevant tool for participants to tie it all together."

Please share your thoughts on Steve Job’s presentation style and technique by commenting. You can also share this blog with your colleagues using the social media toolbar below.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Get What YOU Want from Executives

An Accidental Enemy
Dean was a startup colleague of mine from a few years back. As the Vice President of Alliances he was successful in creating a partner channel that boosted our revenues. I always found him to be smart, engaging, and approachable, which I’m sure contributed in part to his success in building relationships. That’s why I was so surprised one day when he called me with a problem.

“He literally won’t speak to me,” said Dean. Although I had since moved on to my next role, I’m glad he felt comfortable calling me for advice. Apparently in trying to help the organization as well as to help a peer executive, Dean had created a professional enemy on the executive team, possibly permanently. The irony that a person who had developed hundreds of successful organizational alliances had created such a determined enemy dumbfounded me. 

Dean explained that in his efforts to recruit new alliance partners, he’d been asking the Product team to invest in developing connectors to third-party platforms. His requests always fell to the bottom of the priority list, so they were rarely addressed in the product. This connectivity was Dean’s #1 priority. Being a motivated and creative leader, Dean found the perfect partner to build connectors. Their references were solid, rates were reasonable, and they could address Dean’s needs while taking low-priority grunt-work off of Engineering’s plate. This was a “win-win” if ever there was one!

He shared the plan with the executive team at the next staff meeting, expecting a warm reception for the idea. Instead, a tornado of questions swirled around the room.

CEO: “We added 15 engineers last quarter. Why can’t they build the interfaces?”

VP of Sales: “Is our platform so complex that we have to go to third party specialists just to integrate it with other applications?”

COO: “Who’s going to manage the partner who does the work?”

CFO: “Whose budget does this come from? Is this already in the expense plan?”

Then the VP of Engineering became extremely defensive, and couldn’t address the pros or cons of Dean’s plan because he had never seen it. The tense meeting concluded, and most of the executives left the room feeling concerned about dysfunction in the team, and wondering if there was a problem in Engineering. That’s when the VP of Engineering decided he would never speak to Dean again. From his perspective, Dean had executed a frontal assault on his leadership, his product and technology, his team, and his process. To him, that was inexcusable.

Executive Empathy
Empathy is something we all practice consciously or subconsciously in our closest personal relationships. But somehow that gets left at home when we head off to work. “Putting yourself in others’ shoes” significantly impacts the way we interact with, react, and respond to others. In his book Blink, Malcolm Gladwell highlights a study that supports this. In a nutshell, patients don’t sue doctors that they like. Doctors who engaged with patients and showed empathy were far less likely to be sued for malpractice, irrespective of other factors like training and education and even whether they were at fault. Empathy works.

Executive Empathy puts this concept in the context of an executive. And the point isn’t to “Think like an executive.” The point is to “Think like each executive.” Every business function has different metrics they manage to. Marketing is primarily measured on metrics like lead volumes and sales pipeline. Finance cares about revenue accounting and forecasting, balance sheet, and cash flow. Services is accountable for revenue from services, margin, consultant utilization and customer satisfaction. So while every executive wants the company to be “successful,” they view problems and opportunities through different lenses because they’re measured differently.

Beyond that, there are natural “conflicting interests” that arise from each executive’s metrics. For example, Sales is accountable for revenue, and in most situations doesn’t care a lot about how much money is spent to generate that revenue, whereas the CFO and CMO operate within fixed budgets and have to be careful about overspending. Add in the fact that each executive has their own “hot buttons,” their own leadership style for example, directive vs. consensus driven. Moreover, every executive has personality and character traits that influence their decision making process.  You can see that executive empathy is complex.

Stephen Covey recommends “Seek first to understand, then to be understood.” However, in the fast paced high-tech business environment, people’s  natural tendency is to advocate first and understand second, which usually works against their ability to influence executives. Furthermore, they tend to advocate for things from their perspective. While they don’t deliberately ignore others’ perspectives, they don’t seek to understand and empathize either, and that’s a missed opportunity.

If you want to advance in your career, you must be able to influence executives, so executive empathy is essential. In Dean’s case, his lack of executive empathy turned a great idea into professional failure. He could have strengthened his relationship with the VP of Engineering and made them both look like heroes. Instead the result was public embarrassment that left him with an enemy on the executive team.

Nurture, not Nature
The good news is that you don’t need to be born with executive empathy. It’s definitely a learned skill that you can continually refine. This is one of the key elements of our Executive Communicator 2-day workshop. To date, attendee feedback has been unanimously positive. In fact, a CIO said “I would have everyone on my 200 person team go through this training so that they can communicate and effectively influence executive decisions.” Executive communication isn’t something you want to learn in remedial training after making a public mistake. And for managers, don’t wait until someone on your team has flamed out in front of an executive audience before making this this important investment in their success… and ultimately yours.

If you have any good stories of a “CLM” (Career Limiting Moment) in front of an executive audience, or insights or highlights to share, please comment below and share this blog with your colleagues using the social media toolbar below.

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Right Actor, Wrong “Stage”: Don’t Get Setup for Failure

"Death of a Salesman"
“Tim starts next Monday!” said the CEO at our startup. He had called my mobile over the weekend to share the good news. I was thrilled. Tim was a new Sales executive we had hired to scale up our Sales team and our revenues with it. I had interviewed him and found him to be a very competent professional with deep Sales experience, and on top of all that, he was a genuinely nice and likable guy. But most importantly, he had “been there and done that.” He had come from a major, publicly-traded software company to our small startup having played a key role in getting them from $50M in revenues to well over $500M in only a couple of years. Tim knew how to scale Sales, and that’s exactly what we wanted him to do for us.

18 months later, Tim was gone. I was professionally disappointed and personally sad to see him go. Our sales volumes had grown and Tim had personally closed some very large deals that proved our solution delivered high value to very big companies. But our revenues had not grown as fast as the Board plan called for, and the conclusion was that Tim just wasn’t scaling things fast enough.

Stage-relevant Skill Sets
Looking back on it now, I’ve come to realize that the problem wasn’t Tim, and it wasn’t the company, or the product. The best explanation I’ve ever heard for the real problem was what Tom Kippola from The Chasm Group defines as “Stage-Relevant Skill Sets.” Tom illustrates this concept very eloquently in this video from Catalyze 2011.

It’s pretty typical in Silicon Valley for investors and executives (including me in the prior example) to want to “hire ahead of the curve” in terms of skill sets in key roles. When we hired Tim, we significantly modified our go-to-market model while attempting to execute the rapid-sales-growth plan that the Board had signed off on. We changed pricing and packaging, repositioned our services, redefined our market/ competition, and completely revised the way we engaged partners. Some of these mini-experiments were successful. A few were not. The two key issues are so clear to me now: 1) Tim had a proven track record in scaling Sales once a repeatable model was defined and proven and 2) Tim did NOT have experience  with iterating and experimenting with go-to-market models in search of repeatability. The company initially took it on faith that the model could scale, and added Tim so that it would scale. In summary: We hired Tim too early, because his skill set was relevant to the company’s next stage, not its current stage.

Successful Transitions
Consider the opposite challenge, which is also common in Silicon Valley, where you have people in key roles – Marketing, Product Management, Services, Sales, Engineering who have great skills for the early stages of company growth, but have to transition as the company succeeds and moves on to the next stage. Can the product manager who was great at building 1:1 relationships with a handful of lighthouse customers and an Engineering team of 5 continue success when she has requirements coming from hundreds of customers that need to be integrated, prioritized, and managed into a 60-person Engineering team organized into 5 discrete groups? Maybe. Maybe not.

Water-skiing is a very good metaphor to describe the challenge of this transition. If you’ve ever water-skied, you know that the basics are pretty simple. Floating in the water with your skis vertical while you’re waiting for the boat to take off is easy. And once you’re up and out of the water and moving fast, staying on your skis in smooth water is easy (and a lot of fun, by the way). But transitioning from floating in the water to getting up on your skis is extremely challenging. The boat takes off at high speed, the handle starts pulling you forward fast and hard, and you have to maintain your grip on the handle and balance while your skis slowly emerge as you come out of the water, and during this time, water is pushing your skis apart and flooding your chest and face making it athletically challenging let alone physically hazardous.

Startup-to-Enterprise transitions (and vice versa) can be the same way for high-potential individuals and leaders, and it’s not just an issue for executives. It’s an issue at every level of the organization. Even large organizations go through changes that challenge the stage-relevance of every employee's skills. Part of what we do at ExecCatalyst is to help people and teams make those transitions successfully. So in the waterskiing example, it’s helping professionals understand 1) how things will be different - measurement, processes, skill-sets, etc. when you’re up and out of the water and 2) how to manage the challenges of each transition - so that you’re not left floating and choking, stuck in the water as the boat pulls away.

In addition to “Company Stage,” other critical transitions include:
  • Business Stage (Startup, Turnaround, Sustaining Success, and Realignment)
  • Job function (from technical role to business role)
  • Level in the organization (when you get promoted)
  • Mergers and acquisitions
  • New manager and reorgs
  • Geography and culture

If you think you or your team could use some help managing through these kinds of change, please contact us. We welcome your comments below and any examples of stage-relevant matches and mis-matches. And as always, if you like this content, please share it with your colleagues using the social media toolbar below.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Don't Be an "Accidental" Leader

Leadership Matters
I was a new manager at Oracle when I found out I had been selected as part of a group to get to meet face-to-face with Ray Lane, Oracle’s COO and #2 to Larry Ellison at the time. He gave a short presentation and took questions from the audience and I was amazed at his ability to thoroughly address any question ranging from detailed issues in specific geographies to strategic matters like Microsoft’s intentions in the enterprise database market. A few years later, Oracle announced that he was leaving the company. Oracle lost $8B in market-cap the next day. As a young manager, the headline for me was that “Leadership Matters.” Leaders like that are hard to find, and they aren’t developed overnight.

Hot Topic in Silicon Valley
Last Wednesday evening, ExecCatalyst hosted a high-tech Executive Leadership forum at the Four Seasons in Palo Alto. It was “standing room only” full of Directors, VPs and C-level execs from market leaders like Salesforce, Oracle, Cisco, National Semiconductor, SAP, Informatica, VMware  as well as hot startups like Gluster, Host Analytics, Kapow, KXEN, Intacct, Milyoni, Turnitin, and others. The event topic “Succeeding in the Era of the High-Tech Leadership Paradox” even drew leaders across many industries - from the pharmaceutical industry, health care, manufacturing, renewable energy and also from major leadership organizations including Monte Jade and Ascend. As new software delivery models including SaaS, cloud computing, and open source fuel the frenetic pace of business, these leaders came to explore new approaches to “make room for strategy” while managing time spent on operational and tactical delivery.

“Leadership Development is Deliberate”
Heidi Melin, EVP and CMO at Taleo was one of 4 high-profile executive panelists. Check out this video as she responds to the question “How do you manage strategy vs. execution in a fast moving SaaS company?”

Her point that leadership development is deliberate really struck me. High-tech certainly does moves fast and the pace even seems to be accelerating. I’ve seen many managers and even organizations ignore the need for deliberate development of high potential leaders. But leadership development won’t happen by accident while you and your team are busy executing against your task list. It takes prioritization, commitment, and investment – deliberate activity.

I was very fortunate early in my career when Oracle invested in my leadership development. It only happened because my EVP, Randy Baker, had the vision and commitment to invest in developing every manager in his 5,000+ organization. He made it his priority, committing time and dollars to leadership development programs. Over the course of 1 year, I spent 2 weeks out of the office and away from the business while attending leadership training. Huddled up with 40 other managers, I thought, “Wow, Oracle is investing quite a lot of money and time into us!” Years later, I reconnected with Randy, and he shared with me The realization that in order to be successful as an organization we needed to develop a 'culture' of teamwork and that once operational, it would be obvious to other organizations in Oracle and more importantly our customers.”

Leaders are patient and intentional to set up and measure the hard, fast ROI. Randy continued, “Were the results measurable? Absolutely! We had all the measurements in place that demonstrated positive results on all fronts, most importantly customer and employee satisfaction- the drivers of everything. I could pull up, in my office, the customer and employee satisfaction for any manager in support worldwide! All this data was updated quarterly.”

Intuitively, every good manager has an internal compass that justifies investment in developing talent and building leaders. However, great managers act on the obvious and make investments today that will pay big dividends in the future.

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Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Avoid Career-Damaging Job Transitions - Part 2: Hit the Ground Running

In last week’s blog post, we focused on assessing with clarity whether an opportunity is the right fit for you. In this post, we will explore how best to approach your on-boarding into a new company so you get traction quickly.

A Very Rough Landing

She came in with the reputation of a corporate “rock star.” We’ll call her Paula. She was considered a key player at a highly successful applications company and widely credited with helping to build up an Alliances program that had exceeded its target metrics for six years in a row and in some ways was the envy of the industry. People talked in the hallways during her first week. “That’s her. That’s Paula. She’s the one who’s here to ramp up our Alliances.”

I was in the leadership meeting when she was “given the floor” to talk about her plans. She leaned back in her chair, talked about how she would bring in her playbook, and immediately outlined how she would revamp the partner program to drive more partnership fees. There was an awkward silence that she didn’t appear to notice, and I could tell by the looks on people’s faces that they were having the same reaction I was. At our company, we were trying to drive more revenue with partners, not from partners. The “myth” shattered fairly quickly as people realized that she thrived under a different game-plan and set of objectives that were nothing like ours. She lost the confidence of the team and never recovered from her early misstep.

“Non-Portable Assets”
Your on-boarding process is a compressed 90 day period for you to secure “quick wins” and cement your leadership position in the company. And when you’ve had a great track record of success, it’s natural to assume that it was entirely due to your own talents and hard work. While talent and hard work count for a lot, the fast-pace and pressure of the high-tech workplace and the wildly-different corporate styles and individual personalities are also significant factors in determining your success or failure. What steps can you take to make sure that you avoid stepping into potholes or tripping up on stumbling blocks that will derail your success in your new company?

It starts with the concept of “non-portable assets.” While you can take your talent and work ethic anywhere, you may not realize how many non-portable assets you have that made you successful in your previous role. And just like your desk phone and your file cabinet, these things stay behind at your old job, and are replaced with new ones at your new job. You simply can’t take them with you. Recreating them in a new role essentially amounts to “learning the system” – adapting your skills and approach to the new environment. Here’s how to recreate these assets in your new role, so that your upward trajectory accelerates instead of stalling out in your new job:
  • Your Reputation Is Yesterday’s News – Although your professional experience and accomplishments had everything to do with you getting your new job, they mean nothing to the people who you’ll be leading because they weren't there to see you in action. On your first day, your new manager will probably send a nice note to the department or company stating how excited he is to have you on board. He may even mention your great track record, citing some accomplishments that you probably scripted for him. But unless you’re a family member of the CEO, you’ll need to get big wins under your belt at the new company before you get that “rock star” designation that was previously so familiar. As new leader, your great success in prior roles doesn’t automatically get you on-the-ground and in-the-trenches respect. In fact, raised expectations will make success even harder for you to achieve. Leave your reputation in the past and focus on creating your new list of big wins.
  • Be a “Student” First, a “Master” Second – When changing jobs, you know what it’s like to go from “having all of the answers” to “having all of the questions.” In your previous company, you knew how to get things done in that environment i.e. people, process and tools. You also knew a lot about the product and market e.g. customers, competitors, etc. However, any new company is going to be a step back for you on all of these fronts. On top of that, if you are changing industries, say from an on-premise database company to a SaaS applications company, you’ll be in a very steep ramp-up for a while. As eager as you are to make a big impact and as much as you may put pressure on yourself to quickly implement visible change, the worst thing you can do to is to make impulsive decisions without being fully informed. When I was at Hyperion Solutions, Jon Temple joined as the new head of field operations. He spent 3 months meeting with key managers and individual contributors before he laid out his master plan. He was in active learning mode and gathering facts about what worked well and what was broken. Jon’s investment to get the perspective of the team didn’t just help him make better decisions; it rallied people to get behind his plan because they knew it was a fully informed decision.
  • Make Deposits in Your (Empty) Goodwill Bank Account - Driving big initiatives in any company requires strong collaboration and influence. But the ability to influence others is something that accrues over time e.g. when you help a colleague hit a critical deadline, when you adjust your priorities to support another organization, or when you give someone advice that makes them look like a corporate hero. Unless you’re working for a company where the executives are “getting the band back together”, you don’t have any of that on Day 1, except that the people who hired you have a vested interest in you being successful. Think of it this way: you have zero “credits in the bank” (also known as “political capital”) and you have to rebuild your “account balance” (relationships, favors, etc.) to get back to the level of influence you had previously. Without support, you will have a hard, lonely, and treacherous path ahead. Make a list, or use the org chart to identify what individuals are most important to your success. Put a plan in place to use your ramp-up period to build those relationships and get some quick wins. And don’t over-commit. If you’re a new sales ops leader working with various sales executives, don’t ask for the laundry-list of things that could be improved and then commit to solve it all in only 30 days. Look for common pain points and pick one or two that you can address within a reasonable time frame. Then your “account balance” will begin to rise quickly.
Changing jobs presents great challenges and learning opportunities. And with some luck you make be in a perfect position to capitalize on that opportunity with the next Silicon Valley breakout company. However, there are no guarantees. Trying to replicate success by just repeating what worked for you before will jeopardize a positive, favorable outcome career-wise (a meaningful “stint”) and financially (stock option vesting). Approach your next career transition with objective clarity and a practical assessment of how your skills and experience will flourish in the “new system.” Sustainable leaders don’t let their egos get in the way of their own success. Instead, they adapt and even grow new leadership skills in all situations. Paula was able to make these adjustments in her next transition and the word on the street was that she acclimated well and was very successful.

What other perspectives do you have in preparing for a successful on-boarding? We appreciate your comments.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Avoid Career-Damaging Job Transitions - Part 1: Seeing with 20-20 Vision

A High-Risk Career Move
Colin was 2nd in command on the high-powered marketing team of a hot, market-disrupting high-tech software company that was about to eclipse the $1B revenue mark. He had started as a Director and over the course of 4 years, established a solid track record and gained the trust of the CEO. His personal “stock” was at a career high, but he wanted more. He wanted to be the CMO, but knew that would not happen in the near term so he decided to pack up his talents and take them elsewhere. 

He joined an up-and-coming startup and got the CMO title and “executive staff” prestige he was looking for. However, within 5 months, he unceremoniously left the company after never really getting traction or having an impact at the new company.

How can a smart, experienced, successful executive put his career at risk by making such a bad decision? Interestingly enough, this is an all-too-common occurrence in Silicon Valley.

In Search of “Fame and Glory”
Let’s take a close look at some of the factors that cloud the vision of high-tech rock stars. Being heavily recruited can certainly boost your ego and fuel emotional-based decision making. Here are the “blind spots” to look out for so you are sure you make the best and most informed decision for your career based on a thorough assessment.
  • The “Big Pay Day”– It’s easy to get caught up in all the hype about your own success and role you played in your current company’s success – anxious to “monetize” your growing skill-set and contribution quickly. More money, more options, more responsibility and a bigger title at a new employer are hard to turn away from.
  • Just give me the ball! – The thrill of making game-changing decisions that dramatically impact the business gets your endorphins surging. However, the intense desire to finally be the “big cheese” and to “do it your way” can be a seed of impatience and even impulsiveness.
  •  The grass is greener on the other side – Working at your current company for any period of time provides you with first-hand knowledge of all the warts and wrinkles. There are likely varying degrees of frustration on things you feel should be done faster or in a different way.  As frustrations reach intolerable levels, you’re ready to make a move - perhaps prematurely.
  • Follow the Leader – Having a great manager is one of the most important factors in your success and job satisfaction. So it’s natural to want to follow that manager to her next role. The danger here is that you are easily swayed to join the company based on your manager’s reasons, not yours.

Look Before You Leap
In the fast paced high-tech industry, you are usually reacting to new opportunities that come onto your radar. This reactive, reflexive approach makes you a slave to the process that is being dictated by recruiters or the companies that are courting you.  Here are some keys to help you take a proactive approach to your career management.

  • Money Doesn’t Buy Success – Financial success is a big motivator in high-tech. But don’t just compare your last paystub with what’s in your new offer letter. Think about your finances over a 3-4 year horizon. Guaranteed cash comp, incentive comp, and options create complex earning potential scenarios. What’s your compensation growth potential in each role? What about things like employee stock purchase plan? Matching 401(k) programs? What are the growth prospects for each company and how will that affect each company's valuation? However, while figuring out which role and company puts you in the best position to make more money is an important task,  it doesn’t really matter if you don’t survive through your vesting schedule i.e. like Colin.
  • Don’t believe your own press  – It’s easy to get caught up in the excitement and ego gratification of being pursued by a new potential employer, but their enthusiasm to recruit you doesn’t mean that it’s the right move. Get objective counsel. Use a trusted resource who doesn’t have any strong connections to your current or prospective employer. Everyone could benefit from getting a unique perspective to evaluate high-tech companies in the Valley and relate that to your goals and skill-set. Let them ask you tough questions to help clarify your thinking and get you away from the emotion and excitement frenzy.
  • Patience is a virtue – Recruiters and potential employers will push you hard to make a decision quickly, maybe even with an “exploding” (expiring) offer letter. Those timelines are usually artificial so you should negotiate the decision timeframe that works for you and set expectations up front when you know the offer is coming. Switching companies is a huge decision and you should take the appropriate time you need to consider your options. You will have a different perspective when you have enough time to think it through “away from work.” You should assess whether a few changes in your current workplace would make you want to stay. In other words, if you could outlive the situation that is frustrating you (e.g. a bad manager, difficult co-workers, less than exciting work, etc.), being patient would pay off.
  • Know what you “don’t know” – You know all of the unattractive things about your current workplace. Challenging personalities, bad decisions that have been made, frustrating processes and norms. You don’t know any of those things about the prospective employer, but you should know that they exist. Their special warts and wrinkles will inevitably surface as soon as your “honeymoon period” in the new role is over. Even if you’re the one calling the shots, “wiping the slate clean” in a new company doesn’t guarantee that everything will go your way, so be careful that you remain objective about the new opportunity in front of you. Moreover, investigate. Reach out to your LinkedIn network to see who’s worked there, can give you direct feedback, political insights, and if you are replacing someone, why did that person fail?
Throughout the interview process, both sides are “showing their best.” In fact, you’re likely “playing the part” so well that you’ve convinced yourself that it’s the perfect match. Force yourself to challenge everything at face value and to probe deeper to see if it still holds true. Unbalanced optimism tilts the scale toward unrealistic expectations that could lead to an abrupt, premature exit similar to Colin’s.  There is no perfect job so having more of a “critical eye” will give you the 20-20 vision to clearly assess the pros and cons of each scenario.

In next week’s blog post we will explore the potholes and stumbling blocks associated with on-boarding into a new company and role and how to avoid them so that you get traction quickly. Download our High-Tech Job Search Advantage Program brochure to see more client service benefits.

What other insights can you share on career-damaging job transitions? All comments are welcomed.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Interviewing: Fill in Your “Gaps” with Indirect Experience - Part 2

In last week’s blog post, I featured a successful enterprise Account Manager, William, trying to move into Marketing by leveraging his indirect experience. 

I focused on becoming fluent in the “head knowledge” of the role you’re targeting. This post picks up from there to review specific techniques to use to secure the opportunity.

Making it Happen
One of the great things about high-tech is that the door is wide open with plenty of opportunities to successfully make these kinds of moves - if you understand how to sell yourself throughout the interview process. Here are some strategies to complement the “head knowledge” so you can make your move:

  • Be a good storyteller – Story-telling is one of the most powerful communication tools that you can use. One of our partners, The Henderson Group, helps people master story-telling as part of their Complete Communicator class, which I attended recently and strongly recommend to anyone who wants to go from being a good communicator to being a great communicator. People relate to stories and remember them, and if you’ve been paying attention to people in the kind of role that you’re targeting, you should have some powerful stories to tell your interviewer. Focus on the positive, show empathy for the challenges of the position, and “name names,” especially if there are rock stars or role models in your company performing in your target role. In the example of William, he could mention his conversation with Nancy (a rock-star product marketer) about the highlights from the analyst tour as part of the last product launch. This would show that he’s already learning from people in the department i.e.that he’s “paying attention,” and getting exposure to aspects of Marketing that typical Sales people don’t often care to understand.
  • Market Your Uniqueness – If you focus on positioning your uniqueness, you can turn a perceived weakness (no experience in Marketing) into a strength (with great experience in Marketing’s biggest “internal customer,” which is Sales). William did a great job in his process talking about how as a salesperson, he used Marketing’s materials, training, product roadmaps and more.  He showed how his “internal customer” perspective would make him a better marketer because he had a unique understanding of the needs and challenges of a front-line salesperson. Now instead of his interviewer telling her colleagues “William has no Marketing experience,” she told people “William will bring much-needed front line Sales perspective to our content and processes.” Huge home-run for William!
  • Use the Team, and Use Your Manager – In the absence of direct experience, there will still be some doubts about your ability to perform in the target role, so be proactive and talk about what you’ll need from the team and from your boss to get off to a fast start and be successful. Be careful here. Do not send the wrong message that “I’ll need a lot of help to pull this off,” but instead, show that you can own the game plan for your own success. In William’s example, he said “I know Mark has a lot of experience creating sales tools, so when I have to create one, I’ll draft an outline and get Mark’s feedback before I start writing.” This also tells your potential boss that he won’t have to “spoon feed” you in order to quickly ramp up. You can do this even if you’re moving into a new company and don’t know the new team members well. Talk about the different experiences and expertise that you’ll want to draw on from the team, and give examples of when and how you would efficiently leverage them for your ramp up.
  • Find a friend on the “inside” – Do you know people in the team or department that you’re targeting? Get their feedback before starting any formal processes. Find out what concerns they or the hiring manager might have in considering you for the position. Let them know that you want to make a change, and why you’re excited about the role (and don’t complain about your current role). Find out what the big upcoming projects are, and what adjustments the organization has been making so that you’ll be well-prepared for your interview. If you can build a good relationship and get a supporter “on the inside,” they will advocate for you whenever anyone on the team asks whether you’d be a good fit for the job.
William executed all of these strategies with great effectiveness. He made the transition into Product Marketing, and only 18 months later he was promoted and was running the largest product launch in the company’s history. He’s had a very successful and rewarding career in Marketing since then, and it all started with his ability to make a major career move based on leveraging his indirect experience.

This is all part of what we teach in our High-Tech Job Search Advantage Program for our clients.

We appreciate your thoughts, so please weigh in with your comments.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Interviewing: Fill in Your “Gaps” with Indirect Experience – Part 1

A Gutsy Lateral Move
William had been a successful Enterprise Account Manager for 4 years. He was one of the young rising stars on the Sales team at the enterprise software company where we worked at the time. He had consistently made his quota in the challenging Central region, heavily concentrated with manufacturers whose businesses were in turmoil due to the growth of overseas manufacturing. I wasn’t the only person who thought that William was crazy to move from Sales into Product Marketing. He was making great money, had very strong account relationships, and had all of the skills for a very successful long-term run in Sales.

However, William was thinking about his career. He liked selling and was good at it, but had a strong desire to be in a very strategic executive role. He believed that Marketing was a better path to that goal than Sales management. Nevertheless, he couldn’t afford to come in at an entry-level Marketing position because he would lose too much income at a time when his family was growing (note that estimates an approximate $30K reduction in salary moving from a Sr. Technology Sales role at $100K to a Product Marketing Analyst role at $69K in the Bay Area). William had to figure out how to make a lateral move, preserving as much of his compensation and seniority as possible. Given that he didn’t have any hands-on, direct experience in Marketing, what would he say in the interview when asked “What qualifications do you have to be a Senior Product Marketing Manager?”

Many high-tech professionals who are a few years along in their career path face this same challenge: How do you get the job that you’ve never done before? They get enough exposure to another job function or role know that they want it, but they have to try to make a lateral move with little or no direct experience to lean on. If you prepare properly and understand how your interviewer will make the decision, you can take yourself from dreading the “experience” question to anticipating and even embracing it.

Positioning Indirect Experience
The answer for William was that he had to effectively position his indirect experience. Yes, he had never held a Marketing role, but he had worked closely with Marketing for years as part of the Sales team – through product launches, development of customer references in his accounts, sharing sales tools with his prospects, and even using competitive intelligence from Marketing to win deals. One key to success in any role is having the “head knowledge” to successfully execute that role. To convince your interviewer that you intellectually understand the role, do your homework on the target role in these key areas: 
  • Understand the Key  Metrics – How is the position measured, and how do those metrics fit into the way that the overall organization is measured? For example, if you are interviewing for a field marketing role, talk about “Cost per lead,” “Campaign response rates” or “Percentage of leads accepted by Sales.” This will leave a much stronger impression than talking about how you think field marketing looks fun and challenging. You don’t need to know every single possible metric but knowing the top 3-5 will go a long way in building your credibility and giving your interviewer a strong impression that you could “hit the ground running.” Essentially, you are painting a picture of what success looks like.
  • Be "Process-Literate" What are the most important processes that your target role manages or participates in? For example, if you want to become a product manager, be prepared to talk about how a Product Requirements Document gets created. Where does the input come from, who reviews the document, who signs off, and what role does it play in the development of the product? Showing process knowledge will demonstrate to your interviewer that you understand how things get done and can positively impact the business.
  • Show Political Savvy – This is closely related to process. Who are your “internal customers,” and what will they expect from you? What other functions or roles will you depend on, and for what? Sticking with the Product Marketing example, your primary “customer” in most organizations will be Sales who may look to you for tools, pricing and packaging, or support for specific sales cycles. Corporate Communications will depend on you for messaging and support as a spokesperson with press and analysts. Engineering and Product Management will likely want market analysis and product requirements input from you. Knowing how the role interconnects to other roles and teams will give your interviewer confidence that you understand more of “the big picture."
We used the Marketing example for continuity, but this approach can be adapted to any lateral move. This is all part of what we review in our High-Tech Job Search Advantage Program for our clients (click here to learn more about it).

Next week, we’ll build on this “head knowledge” and review some specific activities and techniques to position your indirect experience and make your desired role-change a reality.

As always, we welcome your thoughts and perspectives so please share your experience and feedback.