All Aboard!

Valarie Willis

Getting a team to change their old habits and begin moving in the same direction is a huge Leadership Challenge. The degree of difficulty became very clear to me after listening to a managing director of a software company. Responsible for international sales and marketing, she faced a big challenge: how to create the same success internationally that had been achieved in the domestic marketplace.

The secret to their domestic success had been the organization's unwavering stance for "Customer-Driven Innovation." And they didn't just give this lip service to this slogan; they lived it out daily. They followed their customers around, watched how they used their product, and from this they learned what worked and what didn't work. Experimentation and risk taking was always encouraged and more importantly everyone was asked to get on board with customer-driven innovation. "It was so deeply ingrained in our operations that it became a part of our very fabric," she explained. This innovation state of mind made this software company quite successful, even though they were small.

One key ingredient to embedding this level of service and attention was to require every person, regardless of their position to spend time on "customer contact activities." This meant helping employees to understand the customer's needs by involving them in listening to customer feedback after a product launch. In this organization, everyone felt connected to the product and to the organization. Everyone was on board!

Replicating this kind of magic globally was not going to be an easy task. Arriving at one of the international locations, the managing director didn't want to waste any time. She went to the office immediately after getting off the red eye flight, driven to make a difference. The local office faced crushing deadlines and long work hours, but the managing director was anxious to set aside business as usual so that she could meet everyone and begin addressing the challenge they all faced. She did the unthinkable. In the midst of this great challenge, she shut the company down for a day.

She spent that day doing two things: building relationships so that she could gain their trust and asking employees to start partnering with their customers. This approach was unheard of at that location. However, she knew that everyone from the engineers to the janitors had to get on board. As she put it, "so the engineers got out of their pajamas (they worked from home), the janitors hung up their mops, and the managers stopped managing for the day."

She asked her team to suspend judgment for one day and invited them to be open to the possibility that they could turn the company around and become profitable. She believed in their ability to make this happen, although it had not occurred as of yet. She explained that the only ingredient missing was the customer. People who were designing the product had never spoken with the customer. This team could use a little 'outsight' to move the project along.

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