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.