Conversations, the must have for any leader

I share here the English translation of an interview I did a few weeks ago on the blog Leading People:

Today we interview Rafael Ortiz, AFTD Sales & Marketing Director at Graco EMEA. In his team there are people from three continents and in his meetings rarely coincide two people of the same nationality. He also writes regularly in his blog about innovation, marketing and people management.

How do you face the challenge of multiculturalism?

Quite naturally and with common sense. Diversity is always rewarding if you're willing to manage it properly. Although I have a great and very committed team, we must always be willing to listen a lot and be very flexible. This is essential when your collaborators are in twelve different countries and you have a really ambitious business challenge ahead.

What would you say is the secret of success of a team like this?

I think we can not speak of a single ingredient. As with any team you need a lot of communication, emotional intelligence, empathy and above all a shared vision. We spent a lot of time talking each other. As we have very few opportunities to be together, we try to take advantage of every ocassion to have conversations and address the problems and challenges that lie ahead. No effort should be spared in talking with your people. This is a maxim that I always apply.

In addition to communication, a great amount of passion is required. There is nothing more powerful than a team committed to a goal. But you have to make sure that the commitment is maintained over time and the objective is not blurred by the way. For that reason  we must also add perseverance and very much consistency.

Tell us a little bit more about the shared vision that you mentioned before ...

In my opinion it is essential that the team knows where we are going, what moves us and what the business keys and expected behaviors are. It is not only about having clear objectives or action plan to develop. It is also about building together all the conditions for things to move ahead and do it naturally. My mission is to inspire the team and give some guidelines so we do not lose on the road. For  this, as I said before, communication and perseverance are very important. And let me tell you that it works ...

What is your model of leadership?

Although I confess I do not think too much on academic models I must say that the concept “Leading by example” really inspires me. I think the leader should be a model of integrity, commitment and demonstrate this behaviour every single day. It is hardly difficult to get the complicity of a team if you do not put yourself in front of it and get fully involved.

What tools do you use to manage talent in your team?

As a global organization, we use all the usual tools. In our case, the selection process is critical. It is very important that the person who will incorporate lace with our team values​​.

On the other hand I personally believe very much in the dynamics of coaching and I try to apply them both individually and with the team. A curious example that worked very well was the development of a team motto. With this exercise we get further establish ourselves as a high performance team. It helped us make explicit the core values ​​that we have as a group and express them in a very creative way.

How important is traning for you and for your team?

It is fundamental. Throughout the year, coinciding with our team meetings, we often develop technical, product and skills training programs. We try to apply innovative formats. For example, a few weeks ago we had the opportunity to participate in a very interesting training on assertive communication in multicultural enviroments with several role-plays with professional actors.


Let's talk. The conversation company.

A couple of months ago I read an inspiring book called "The Conversation Company" written by Steven Van Belleghem. I would like today to share some of the most interesting reflections.

In the introduction the author says that everyone in an organization can be a marketeer. I fully agree with that statement. If we accept that every company need to give consumers a pleasing experience, exceed their expectations and listen to their ideas we also should accept that the marketing department cannot do all this by itself. In this sense every single person in the organization becomes a potential marketeer because every employee is jointly responsible for the experience of the consumer.

At this point he highlights the importance of generating relevant conversations between the brand and its stakeholders. To handle this complex context  Steven Van Belleghem proposes to introduce the figure of the conversation manager who should be able to transform traditional advertising into conversations about the brand.

One of the most important challenges for this new role is to ensure the organization takes advantage of the potential of the staff in terms of conversation generation. This is a step further on the use of every employee as a brand ambassador. “The more people in your company are plugged into the outside world, the better you will be able fully to exploit your conversation potential” says Van Belleghem.

So what’s next? Obviously “if you can find the right people (positive, reliable, expert, etc.) to talk about your company in the right way (relevant content) you will always be more successful than the companies that are never talked about or are talked about by the wrong people in the wrong way”.

And something else: regarding social media you need a concrete strategy, clear planning and tight implementation.

Where to start? Every company has an average of 28% of satisfied customers who never talked about the company. So look for them and start having relevant conversations with them (ie about their personal experience of your products and services). As we did before with our staff it’s all about transforming your customers into ambassadors (and rewardind them as such).  “Your staff provide the content and your customers provide the experience”.

To achieve all these goals the author suggests an implementation model based on three stages (which at the same time have their own stages). They are very briefly:

  • The build-up of knowledge (including workshops which stimulates the desire of participants to work at the conversation potential of their company  and a conversation guide or a social media policy)
  • Pilot projects (defining pilot projects on the basis of impact and feasibility)
  • Integration and the lever effect (making the 4 Cs –customer experience, conversations, content management and collaboration- fully operational and working with new success indicators).

Finally and as a reminder of the different phases to be developed include here the decalogue of projects suggested by the author of the book:

  • Build up the required levels of knowledge
  • Don’t postpone the difficult conversations
  • Provide the right infraestructure
  • Appoint a conversation manager
  • Define pilot projects on the basis of impact and feasibility
  • Create a listening culture
  • Make the four Cs fully operational
  • Search consciously for the lever effect
  • Implement agile management
  • Work with new success indicators

In summary I strongly recommend reading this book to all those who believe in the power of the conversations as a way to increase the level of engagement of a brand.


Innovation Prowess: Lessons from Professor George S. Day

Innovation is very often a trite topic that is part of the mainstream speeches in the companies and the people who lead them. However, in my opinion, it is rarely managed rigorously. For that reason it is so important to find tools to facilitate its implementation.

I had recently the opportunity to read the book "Innovation Prowess" by Wharton Professor George S. Day and I think his proposals are really practical and to some extent quite easy to apply in the day-to-day of any organization.

As a conclusion he offers five “sturdy handrails” for capture the key lessons of his book. Here I offer a brief summary of them.

Handrail 1: Focus relentlessly on customer value.

He recommends senior managers “to have employees whose passions and priorities are aligned with those of their customers”. Consequently every single level of the company “has to have people who are living with customers, attuned to what they are experiencing, and empathizing with their frustrations and problems”.

Handrail 2: Balance discipline and creativity.

Professor Day emphasizes the importance of having a good balance between “the creative risk-taking part of the innovation culture and the discipline, rigorous, and results-oriented part”. He assumes that tolerating failures can be a good lesson to improve the processes and the next wave of innovations. At the end of the day it comes to getting a good compromise between long-term vision and immediate pressing needs.

Handrail 3: Profit from uncertainty.

“There is no reason to become paralyzed by uncertainty”. This could be a good summary of this handrail. It is important to remember that innovative leaders “stay ahead by nurturing a risk-tolerant culture that is ready to make moves that cannibalize the sales of established products and endorse continuous experimentation”.

Handrail 4: Master ambidexterity.

In this context the ambidexterity is a skill that enables organizations “to diverge with a search for opportunities along a full spectrum of growth pathways, while exercising the discipline to converge in a few high-potential prospects with an attractive balance of risk and reward”.

Handrail 5: Mobilize the entire organization.

When we talk about growth and innovation strategies we shouldn’t settle to simply communicate them to all staff. We should aspire to something more: we have to sell them to every single employee and make sure that they have been bought.

In short, the book shows us that the best way to develop a prowess  strategy is to combine discipline in growth-seeking activities with an organizational ability to innovate.

Video (interview with George S. Day): Leadership strategies for accelerating growth 


The Big Challenges of a B2B SME

Let’s start by defining B2B. According to WikipediaBusiness-to-business (B2B) describes commerce transactions between businesses, such as between a manufacturer and a wholesaler, or between a wholesaler and a retailer. The overall volume of B2B (Business-to-Business) transactions is much higher than the volume of B2C transactions. The primary reason for this is that in a typical supply chain there will be many B2B transactions involving sub components or raw materials”.
Regarding the acronym SME the European Comission says that "the category of micro, small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) is made up of enterprises which employ fewer than 250 persons and which have an annual turnover not exceeding 50 million euro”.
This type of business has some special characteristics that make it have to often face unique challenges. Let’s review some of them:
Sales cycles and specialization

Sales cycles and learning curves are typically much longer than in B2C. Let’s think ie in a small automotive supplier.  Frequently the number of customers of this kind of enterprises is quite small. However although the target audience is usually smaller than in B2C, yet multiple people from different departments and levels within the company are involved in the buying process (Engineering, Maintenance, Procurement, Operations, etc.). This means that SME need people with accurate profiles capable to interact with line managers, maintenance workers or senior engineers at the same time that they deal with the commercial process (in many cases it can take more than 1 year) and educates the customer’s staff. The challenge is obvious: by definition a SME has a small number of employees but  they have to be prepared to deal with all this.
As hinted before  a B2B marketer needs to engage its customers and prospects throughout a complex customer life cycle that frequently lasts longer than a business-to-consumer (B2C) life cycle. As if that was not enough great numbers of B2B companies are not in direct contact with their end-customers. B2B Marketing Strategies are often “push” rather than“pull” and this generates a certain lack of market knowledge.

And something else: SME are not embracing (at least not enough) the power of Social Marketing. Over half of B2B companies are not tapping into social media’s potential as a lead generation tool. However a recent Forrester survey pointed out that some 48 percent of B2B social marketers plan to increase their lead generation usage of LinkedIn discussion groups and pages, due to the high usage of LinkedIn by senior decision makers. At the same time B2B marketing has historically relied on below-the-line interactions – interactions that social media can take to a whole new level.

Channel strategy

Whether the company is part of a great brand distribution channel or it needs to develop its own channel to sell their products,  developing a suitable channel strategy is key for a SME to be successful. In the first case, the manufacturer will audit the SME for commercial, technical and financial solvency and, believe me, this is not an easy task.

In the second case, the SME should do the same with the candidates to become part of its distribution channel. However, due to resource constraints and capabilities it is not always done in a professional way.

On the other hand, it is very important to develop a very aggressive policy of innovation and added value for the dealer. If not there is a high risk: our partner can be tempted to abandon us when we need him most and become our competitors after investing many resources in training.

Of course, there are many other challenges that a B2B SME must face (talent managementproductivity, communication or strategy among others) but those addressed in this post are probably the most critical factors for the success of the company.