Breaking Through Without Breaking Glass

Being a change agent has its own landmines when joining a new company. Here are some steps to help avoid them.

More companies are recognizing the need to introduce classic marketing skills into their business.  But getting the right person is just the beginning.  Too often the host body rejects the transplant.

What company executives often want is a classically trained marketer, from a blue-chip company where marketing is “the hub of the wheel.”   What they need is a person with this kind of background, but who also has the skills and sensitivities to drive change without breaking too much glass in the process.

There are always problems when a candidate joins a new company.  People talk about chemistry.  Fit.  These are not to be taken lightly, because they are critical to any executive’s success.  But in the move from a marketing-oriented company, particularly one that is consumer-oriented, to a company where technology, sales, manufacturing, or finance are the primary drivers, there are a number of additional factors that a new executive needs to recognize and deal with.  Here are some of the landmines we’ve seen first hand and some ideas on how to start dealing with them.

Highly Complex Businesses
Many of the businesses with which we work are either high tech or industrial.  The technologies are highly complex and the companies are often very large and even more complex.  Dozens of departments and divisions, often each with its own vision.  Layers of decisions makers, all of whom have an impact on the product that goes to market.  The result is a level of complexity that is beyond the experience of most packaged goods people.

The incoming marketing executive will need outstanding skills of observation.  You must be able to gather and analyze a great deal of information very rapidly.  You must not only know how to quickly get up to speed on the business; you must also be able to quickly identify the formal and informal processes for getting things done in your new environment.  Importantly, if you’ve been hired as a change agent, it’s likely the business has been in trouble for awhile, so your boss is going to be impatient.

Because of these complexities, many companies have had to depend on processes to make good things happen… or to avoid having bad things happen.  Processes often develop to address a particular problem.  Because the scope of projects in many firms is so large, formal processes are often the only way to ensure that all the pieces come together.

But, processes can take on a life of their own.  The problem for the marketer is that most of these processes were developed without consideration for marketing issues.  It’s tough to be the change agent in an organization with four hundred page procedure books for developing a new product.   People can lose track of the end goal the procedures were designed to achieve.  Passing the critical checkpoints in the process can become the goal in and of itself.

How do you create a sense of urgency in the face of dozens of rules designed to keep things in check?  With systems and metrics designed to minimize risk, how do you push the envelope?

•    First, learn the process.  There’s no percentage in trying to blow it up on the first day. Learn the process AND learn which managers base their power on the process itself.  They are the ones most likely to be a problem if you make changes.

•    Work within the process as much as you can.  Remember there were probably good business reasons for the steps.  See if you can help the team distill the process back to its core elements.

•    Fold critical, market-driven elements into the process and make them early checkpoints.  If you can get Step One to be an evaluation of user needs, you may find that a lot of very bad ideas get killed early and get killed by the process itself, which keeps you out of the crossfire of powers that like or dislike the idea.

Once you’ve established your credibility and you’ve lived with the process, you can begin to recommend changes or wholesale revisions.

Get a Pathfinder
In a complex world, you will fail if you don’t get a map and a guide.  With your arrival the organization will feel threatened.  And, some folks will believe they have a vested interest in the failure of the new marketing direction.  

You will need to not only reassure the team, but also find the person(s) you can trust to help you find your way through the maze.  Pick the wrong guide and you could find yourself in quicksand with your guide leaning over you with a sad expression on their face.

•    Get to know the staff one by one. Your objective is to find those individuals who have some inherent marketing skills and a customer focus.

•    Identify people who see your arrival as a value-add to their career.  Find people who want to learn what you have to teach.

Product Believers
In many of these firms, there is almost a blind faith in the products and in the engineers who create them.  Too often, however, they are so close to the product that they convince themselves they know better than the users just what should be built.

The good news about product believers is that in most cases they do care about what the product can do for the customer.  Get close to these true believers and then get them in front of users.  

That doesn’t mean having them sit down with customers to get a list of product requirements.  What you want to know is what these customers are going to need in the future. From my experience, once a true product believer starts to understand this perspective, their work is not only outstanding; it is also right on strategy.

This certainly is not a complete list, but it’s an important start.  Push for an early success and make sure everyone around you feels like they were a part of it.