The sales manager who got away with it
How important is it for your work, your position and your professional growth to have the support of others?
In Great at Work, Morten Hansen tells the story of Ian Telford.
Telford had the idea to start an e-commerce portal to sell epoxy resin online back in 1999. Back then, he was working as a sales manager for Dow Chemical.
E-commerce was barely taking off: during 1999, Amazon sold just $1.64 billion USD… which is a very small amount compared with the $178 billion it sold in 2017.
To create this portal, Telford needed to convince many different groups of people, each with different interests and circumstances.
- First he had to convince the leaders of the commercial area. Of the 12 managers, 9 said no. Telford asked his boss for a new meeting with the managers, and they gave him three months to improve his business case. When the deadline came, Telford convinced the leaders that they were passing up a million dollar opportunity that any competitor could take advantage of. The result? They gave him a million dollars to create the portal.
- A few weeks later an organizational restructuring started at Dow. The new division president paused the project. Telford asked his boss to make an appointment for him with the new president. At this meeting, Telford focused his message to awaken the new president’s entrepreneurial spirit, and he agreed to sponsor the portal.
- Then it was a meeting with the IT guys, who would eventually build the portal. He also got a lot of resistance from them. To overcome this obstacle, Telford understood that he had to make them part of the project. So he called numerous meetings with the IT team to explain the idea to them and then he fulfilled all the requirements that they asked of him. When the e-commerce portal received the first order, Telford dialed IT and told them that the success of that project was as much theirs as it was his.
In the end, the platform he powered was successful. A few months later, a director promoted Telford to a better position.
A crucial skill
If you are an area leader, project manager or brand manager and work in a medium, large or transnational company, Ian Telford’s story can resonate with you.
You know better than anyone that the ability to promote projects -initiatives or efforts that help reduce costs, exploit new markets, position brands, ensure product quality, establish an innovation system, sell more, and a infinite etcetera- is essential in your professional career.
And you also know that to be successful you need the resources that others have (time, money, attention, sponsorship, efforts).
We want to talk about this during August: what skills or beliefs do you need, or can you develop, to be more effective when looking for the support of others in a project, initiative or change?
In this text – the featured article of the month – I want to:
- Explain why stories like Ian Telford’s are relatively new to organizations.
- Make some general recommendations about the skills – and culture – that need to be fostered in people who want to drive initiatives like Telford’s.
The before and after of collaboration dynamics
The New York Times review of the book Cubed by Nikil Saval begins with the following line: “How you work depends largely on where you work.”
The review caught my attention so much that I made the mental note to get the book. So when I saw it in a used books section of a bookstore, I got excited and bought it.
In Cubed, Saval recounts the history of what we now know as an office.
The book was very useful to me for the first Featured Article of 2018, as it dedicates several pages to talk about Frederick Taylor, the father of scientific administration, and taking his obsession with making human work more efficient to absurd levels.
In his madness to measure and control everything, Taylor took the knowledge to the workers and installed it in a separate class of people, Saval explains, stripping the worker of all the power to improve the way he works or to improve other processes in the organization.
The worker became a labor force, and in this transition we all lost.
‘Hope they buy my idea!’
For several decades, the nature of work has changed for millions of people. The world, the market and technology accelerated.
We now live in an environment called VUCA (volatile, uncertain, chaotic and ambiguous), and that has had repercussions in the way we work.
Work – for many – has become less mechanical and more focused on service and problem solving.
“An IBM survey of 1709 CEOs concluded that CEOs are changing the nature of work by adding a powerful dose of openness, transparency and employee empowerment, to the controlling and authoritative ethos,” explains Morten Hansen in Great at Work.
“As a result of this, employees and managers need to interact more with other departments and more as a team, including teams made up of members from other departments,” he continues.
Len Schlesinger and Charlie Kiefer translate this type of individual effort into an interior monologue in an article published a few years ago in the Harvard Business Review:
“I have an idea for a new product (or process, system, program, etc.). I’m not entirely sure it will work, but if it works it will have a huge impact on the business. It is not strictly part of my job and I would not like to take an unnecessary risk to my job or the company, but it would be a shame if I did not try to push that idea. How do I do this in a very traditional company? ”
A few weeks ago I had breakfast with the Construction Director of a retail company. As we enjoyed a donut and a coffee, the director told me a story about how he had spent months selling a project across various departments.
–I need people to buy my idea! he said, a little frustrated. In this company you have to go find the resources, because nobody is going to give them to you.
I don’t think it’s the only company where that happens.
The one in charge of making things happen
What do we call this type of profile whose work depends on other leaders or departments support?
We know about the concept of ‘intrapreneurs’, but it seems to me that this nomenclature applies specifically to those who propose new things. What happens when you just want to improve an existing process?
The other alternative is ‘doer’, but I think it is a little used word in the corporate context. ‘Leader’ on the other hand, is very generic.
‘Champion’? In corporate jargon, champion is equivalent to the one who has the responsibility of carrying out a project.
I like Champion!
In the rest of this article, this is how I will call people who use persuasion, negotiation and other tools of influence to get support and resources for their initiatives, unlike those who do more transactional or mechanical work.
More than fixed profiles, think about ‘champions’ as all of us, when we have the challenge of convincing others on how a specific proposal makes sense.
The belief that all champions need to acquire
To get started, you need to have as much resilience as possible.
In To Sell is Human, Dan Pink explains that the seller – the champion is the same, since he spends his time selling his ideas to his team, leaders and other areas – has to be prepared to face an ocean of rejection every day.
A few weeks ago, the CHRO of one of the largest banks in Mexico told me:
– How scary it seems to be a seller! I have never sold anything.
I said I disagreed: if you became a CHRO it means that you have been successful in selling thousands of ideas to thousands of different audiences.
One way to gain this resilience is by reading Angela Duckworth’s book Grit, and implementing her recommendations.
Another is internalizing the benefits of your project. If you believe in it, it will be easier to sell it. And the other way around: if you don’t think the project makes sense, nobody will buy your idea.
In addition to that internal resilience mindset, I want to share with you, four skills that will help you be more effective in your champion work.
The four behaviors every champion needs to put into practice: empathy, learning to build key messages, finding and telling stories, and mapping your actors
Take time to understand the life and work of your key audiences. Find out what would be the benefits that each one would receive if your project / idea / change is implemented.
Earn them with your empathy, your questions, your interest, and your understanding.
Almost five years ago I wrote this paragraph in an article about the importance of understanding your audiences, and I think it fits perfectly here:
“It is important to listen to the members of an organization because they are human beings, because it helps to know what moves them, what keeps them awake at night. They are the ones who embody the organization, the ones who move it forward. They ARE the organization, and by listening to them, we understand why they do what they do. And we are also able to visualize where the organization is going.”
2. Learn to create and communicate clear messages
In The Articulate Executive, Granville Toogood quotes a speech by Lee Iaccoca, former CEO of Chrysler. The occasion? Iaccoca made an appointment with a group of North American senators in order to request a subsidy for the company.
Iaccoca was surrounded by five or six company lawyers, and in front of him he hundreds of pages full of words.
Instead of following the text, he summarized his message as follows:
-“People, the situation is very simple. I have 100,000 Michigan employees who may be out of work the following week. You could write them a check and let them live on welfare, on everyone’s taxes…
Or you could give me that check and I’ll put those people to work. We will build the best cars in America and we will do it in three years. Later, I will personally return that money… with interest.”
The senators’ response? Basically they threw money at Iaccoca. “A meeting that was supposed to last all morning was resolved in less than twenty minutes,” Toogood closes.
By the way, I leave you the link to an article where we explain how to use a structure similar to the one used by Iaccoca.
3. Find and tell good stories that support your speech
The future is already here, only it is distributed differently, wrote the futurist William Gibson.
According to traditional change management – I am thinking of ADKAR and Kotter’s eight-step methodology – one of the most common reasons for resistance to change is that people do not understand the ‘whys’ or benefits of it.
Is your idea, initiative, program or project already happening in other areas of the company? In other companies in the same industry? In other industries?
Look for success stories, stories about how others implemented something similar to what you propose, where you can see what the results were.
Jeff Sutherland tells in Agile at Scale that SAP sought out and communicated stories of teams that were already living the agile principles, and that this accelerated the adoption of those principles by other teams.
4. Map your stakeholders
Who has the resources you need to advance your idea? Remember the story of Ian Telford, he needed the permission of the company president, money to create the platform and IT support.
Who has to support you? How are you going to get them there? Make sure you have applied the other three previous behaviors before having the meetings that you need to convince them.
What other beliefs, skills, or social habits help champions to make things happen?