Look Back and Learn

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Photo by Shane Kislack
Photo by Shane Kislack

I'm not one for being too introspective, which seems rather self-indulgent. However, on occasion, it's productive to take stock, reflect, and learn from past actions—the successful and not-so-successful ones. Now CMO for a year at Mitel, I find that the time is right for just a moment of reflection.

When I arrived at Mitel roughly one year ago we set about transforming the marketing function. We saw that we had a tendency to place our channel, our products, and our brand central to everything we did.

So, our primary point of transformation was to shift our focus and actions from an “inside-out” perspective to an “outside-in” customer-and market-centric perspective. This change requires an arduous effort given the hectic pace of daily business and human nature. Without doubt the silent killer to any change initiative is culture.

Bringing about this shift in perspective required a number of related behavioral changes. For example, we needed to replace a tendency toward striving to look good with actually doing good. Moreover, we realized that there were meaningless, superficial metrics in place; these measures were only monitored on a quarterly basis—and they were certainly not managed. Too much of the activity reflected a check-the-box approach to marketing while neglecting our function's role in growing Mitel's business.

One thing I noted from the very start of my tenure was that my team lacked a growth mindset. Instead, we had a fixed mindset, which is the very antithesis to growth. Establishing that growth mindset requires fears to be allayed; it also requires leaders to demonstrate, reward, and promote growth behaviors. A fixed or “status quo” mindset nudges people toward playing not to lose. This perspective tends to generate behaviors such as fearing uncertainty, avoiding new experiences, and narrowing one's repertoire of solutions.

Adopting a growth mindset

As author and Stanford University professor Carol Dweck has noted, a growth mindset embraces life (and business) as a journey; this tends to generate behaviors such as embracing uncertainty, seeking out new experiences, and expanding one's portfolio of solutions. A growth mindset is about playing to win.

One of the most effective ways to adopt a growth mindset is counterintuitive: understanding the value of experimentation and learning to fail fast. By quickly discovering what works—and what doesn't—we can more efficiently allocate funding and resources to investments that pay off, while much more quickly pulling the plug on investments with feeble returns. For example, when we signed an executive search agency to help us address one of our greatest talent needs, the firm's initial proposals didn't jibe with our needs. We met with them to discuss the dissonance, and we walked away from that conversation with a gut feeling for how the movie would end.

We could have invested more time and money working with the agency to improve their ability to meet our needs. Instead, we pulled the plug on the relationship and selected a new agency. To be sure, the value of this decision exceeded the speed with which we reached it; our team learned to dig deeper in our due diligence (e.g., we spoke to far more references and in a more rigorous fashion before selecting another search firm). The key is to quickly and resolutely learn how to avoid similar mistakes in the future. There is a balance that has to be struck.

I point to this talent-management example because I believe that placing the customer at the center of the business requires companies, and especially their marketing functions, to hire the right people and get the wrong people off the team. Hiring requires time and careful consideration; I would rather hire slowly and carefully to ensure that we attract (and subsequently motivate and develop) the very best talent. One of the most pleasant surprises in my first year at Mitel has been the value of the returns from investing more time in hiring the right people so that we can give them the right development opportunities and guidance to help us get it right with customers.

On the other hand, I would rather fire quickly, which my team learned as we worked through a rigorous top-grading process. That said, I want to clarify that “firing fast” has nothing to do with injecting fear into our team that the first time they step out of line they are gone. On the contrary, one knows very quickly who possesses and who does not possess the growth mindset. One also knows who has the propensity to develop a growth mindset. My position on firing fast is that you know the people who will not make it, so it behooves you to act quickly for your benefit and their benefit.

Our slow hiring and quick firing process laid the foundation for operational rigor, which includes an intense focus on both measurement and accountability. Sales and accountability and measurement. I do not subscribe to the notion that marketing is more art than science, which strikes me as a smoke screen for avoiding accountability. We implemented a robust operational discipline in the very early days of my tenure, and we are now seeing and reaping the rewards of this focus.

What we got wrong, and learned from

If my team and I could somehow transport back to my first day on the job—and magically carry with us the insights we've gleaned since then—we would apply the following lessons:

1. Attack marketing action plans sooner: Rather than waiting four months to wade into our marketing action plans—a process that includes identifying the key performance indicators (KPIs) we manage to heighten our operational rigor—I would have plunged into this effort within my first two months of joining the company. The approach as we executed it worked out quite well; by tackling this process sooner, we would have operationalized our strategy sooner and enjoyed these improved results at least two months earlier.

2. Immediately hire a marketing operations director. I was forced to become very familiar with our marketing operation. That was a benefit, but it also came with a cost: I had less time to invest in refining our marketing strategy, top-grading our team, and meeting with partners and customers. If I had a do-over, I would hire a marketing operations director from the get-go.

3. Be bolder. I think most of us can benefit from this lesson: If you think you are bold, push harder to become even bolder. One way to achieve this is by thinking in terms of what your replacement would do the moment she took over. This type of thinking helps ground you while inspiring you to make tough decisions much faster.

What we're getting right

When I reflect on what we've done well in the past year, customers come to mind first—as they should. Relationships (internal and external) and strategy (and, equally important, operationalizing strategy) also come to mind because they enable us to sustain our commitment to putting our customers at the center of all of our decisions.

For example, we now have a set of customer personas, we have a documented buyers' journey, and an aligned selling process. And we will be relaunching a brand new www.mitel.com based entirely on the voice of the customer (VoC), at the same time we unveil a new contact center designed to ease the process of accessing and communicating with us. Finally, we have more active listening and response mechanisms within the social media world.

Our number-one constituency: Without doubt our biggest area of improvement has consisted of strengthening our focus on and relationships with our number-one constituency: our customers.

For example, we have increased the size of our user group by more than 300% in the past seven months in an effort to gain much greater VoC input. We have worked closely with our user group, which operates as an independent entity, to improve the value proposition related to their investment of time and thought. We're working far more closely with the user group on product development and we get regular feedback from the group regarding on all things Mitel. In return we provide early access to products, specialized content, and expert-level seminars for the user group community.

Strong relationships: Mitel's marketing function has worked diligently to establish strong working relationships with executive leadership, as well as functions and business units throughout the entire company. In particular, we have invested time establishing credibility and trust with our CIO, VP of quality, our regional finance controllers and—of course—our sales teams around the world.

“One company, one mission, one goal” is a great concept, but few enterprises actually achieve this objective due to the existence of competing, uncommunicative silos and fiefdoms.

One of the key benefits of implementing the strategic deployment process, monthly key performance metrics, and action plan review is that these efforts necessarily need to be cross-functional. Are all of these cross-functional collaborations harmonious all the time? Hardly. However, there is far more objectivity coursing through these cross-functional discussions than ever before because this work is now rooted in data rather than in opinion and impressions. You cannot hide from data. Our monthly KPI tracking ensures that we all view our actual performance through the same lens.

Operationalizing strategy: It is crucial to have the right strategy in place. That's necessary but not sufficient, however. Many companies stumble because they struggle to operationalize their strategic plan. One of the many positive experiences and skills I learned in my previous role at Danaher is to resolutely focus on implementing and operationalizing the strategic plan.

This focus requires a move to a monthly rather than a quarterly operations cadence; identifying and tracking metrics that directly reflect the current state of strategic initiatives; reviewing actuals to planned metrics; and, when necessary, developing and executing action plans to close any gaps between actuals and plans.

This experience has been invaluable as we shifted from quarterly report-outs to driving our marketing strategy and knowing where we are on a monthly basis, and shifting from monitoring to managing our business more effectively. To be sure, this process is a journey, and we still have much to do and learn. That said, we are improving each month.

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