Sunday, April 13, 2014

Planning to boomerang? Tips to avoid getting hit in the head.

Over the past month, I’ve made a significant, unplanned career transition. After returning to a former employer a year ago to pursue a “once in a lifetime” opportunity, I have again departed this firm to focus on brands and businesses seeking digital channel expertise. As a result, I’ve gotten a lot of “what happened” questions from across my network, and I thought it might be useful to provide some insight on my decision. While my story is unlikely to grace the pages of an HBR case study, I’m hopeful that you will find value in what I’ve learned.

While exit decisions are rarely easy, this one was particularly challenging for me, given the groundwork for success I was able to establish during my brief return. In addition, any high-profile, short-timespan entry in a career history is obviously going to draw scrutiny. Leaving a company in these circumstances demands extreme clarity regarding your reasons for departure: for yourself, the team you’ve led, and the management that invested in you.

So here, in no particular order, are the three (3) key lessons I learned over the last 12 months as a "boomerang".

(1) There’s no going home!
Boomerangs have a unique challenge that new hires with no organizational history avoid: the baggage of nostalgia. I came back to my former employer remembering the positive experience I’d had there previously, and minimizing the negatives that caused me to leave in the first place. It should surprise no-one that the negatives were still very much in existence, and that the positives I’d enjoyed previously were much less compelling to “modern me”.

I’m not suggesting that you should never consider a return to a former employer. In fact, I’ve had numerous colleagues who’ve made a successful boomerang transition. However, be sure you’re making objective decisions based on what the current organization has to offer.

(2) Trust, but verify
Another potential pitfall for boomerangs is expecting to get the unvarnished truth from former colleagues during the interview process. Even if you've had prior positive working relationships, a former colleague’s first priority (justifiably so) will be to limit risk to her own position within the organization. As a result, you may hear some broad generalities about problems in the work environment (e.g., “oh you know, every organization has its issues”), but straight talk will be minimal at best. In my case, a critical member of my team (with whom I had previously worked, and who had interviewed me) called me the day of my return to inform me she was resigning because of frustrations with the work environment.

Former colleagues can be a great source of input regarding changes in the environment and the specific work situation into which you’re walking. However, these discussions are better held “off the record”. Get out of the interview room and schedule coffee, lunch or drinks to depressurize the discussion. Also, have a plan for the discussion that soft-pedals your information needs. Don’t come on like a litigator; instead use the more relaxed atmosphere to informally guide the conversation towards the information you need.

(3) Secure your vision in advance
This final item is especially critical for boomerangs returning to a similar role, or a different role in the same program / department you left. You’ll almost certainly be coming back with knowledge and skills that you believe could add value to the organization. However, your former employer may be perfectly content with “more of what you were doing before”. Especially if the organization hasn’t evolved in your absence, those shiny new abilities might be as useful as sunscreen on a cloudy January day in Chicago.

This turned out to be my biggest challenge. I had spent five (5) years developing expertise around strategy, business adoption and effective technologies for enterprise collaboration; and, I saw a remarkable chance to apply these capabilities to transform my former employer’s business. Even though I made my desire to pursue this vision clear throughout the interview process, I made the mistake of confusing “acknowledgement” with “commitment”. While all my interviewers were interested in the concept of enterprise transformation, all they really wanted was for the trains to run on time.

Misalignment of individual capabilities and organizational needs is not just a boomerang problem. But, for boomerangs, it is crucial that this misalignment be addressed as early in the relationship as possible. This is because the organization still thinks of you as the “historical you” (i.e., the person you were when you previously departed). Skills gained in the interim are discounted, especially if you’re returning into the same program or a similar role in a different program. If you have a personal objective to utilize and further develop the knowledge and skills you gained outside of the organization, it is critical that there is mutual commitment to when and how your newfound abilities will be leveraged.

Tuesday, December 03, 2013

Dear Michael Dell: What Happened?

Michael:

I’m sure I’m not the first to say I’m excited to see you back leading the company you built. It’s been discouraging to see an organization that had pushed innovation so far, for so long, get lapped: first by lower cost manufacturers, then by the transformational forces of tablet computing and platform as a service. All of a sudden, your company is stuck with a bunch of laptops and servers that no-one needs, and nothing in the pipeline that’s going to move the needle (Venue tablets and consumer electronics? Meh.). I’m sure it’s an uncomfortable place to be.

Note to you, Michael Dell: if it’s a great deal, and it’s in someone’s cart, it’s a safe bet they’re going to buy it.

Not to add fuel to the fire, but the whole online commerce / integrated supply chain thing you had going is also no longer a competitive advantage. I bought my first two laptops (in 2001 and 2004) using Dell’s online “configure to order” capabilities that everyone else benchmarked against, just so I could brag about how easy it was to my peers. Nowadays, I can build everything you had in the early/mid-2000s using off-the-shelf solutions (e.g., Salesforce.com, BigMachines), yet it feels like your ordering experience hasn’t evolved since then. Forget features—the visual design feels like something a second-tier reseller would run.

Even with all these challenges, the Dell site was the first place I went this year to purchase a Christmas present for my teenage son. My wife was tired of him monopolizing the family laptop for “homework”, so I decided to take the plunge and get him a machine that would last him a couple of years. When I got your newspaper circular announcing your CyberMonday deals, I saw my opportunity—an Inspiron 15R Touch for $499. It was a PC Mag Editor’s Choice to boot!

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Leveraging crowdsourcing for efficiency in Customer Experience Management (CEM)

Recently posted to Slideshare, a whitepaper I recently authored on leveraging the capabilities of crowdsourcing to transform the maintenance and management of interactive marketing content.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Choose better consultants by getting engaged

I’ve spent the better part of my career working in and around professional services—living the consulting life, providing support to consultants, or buying their services—but it’s only been recently that I’ve truly started to appreciate why so many consulting relationships fail, end with suboptimal results, or are simply difficult/challenging/frustrating/etc. I don’t assume that this is new thinking; on the contrary, if you’ve gotten here first, feel free to call me a nincompoop. However, as the number of businesses embracing purpose-driven success models continues to grow, it feels like a great time to discuss the need for stronger alignment between businesses and the consultants they engage.

For me, the idea of “consultant engagement” started as a response to a recent, particularly challenging client project I managed. While our team achieved the outcomes documented in the statement of work, the project was rife with challenges that formal agreements and methodologies don’t address. We were unable to establish an effective working relationship with the client, and frequent process and personality issues occurred throughout the project lifecycle. While we have continued to seek and win business with this client as a result of our success, there is an ongoing wariness on both sides that represents a risk for future efforts.

Hence, the Consultant Engagement Model (image below). Most professional services buyers generally have the understanding and skill necessary to identify consultancies that align with their business needs. Vendor management training, detailed RFPs and selection matrices are all designed to get to the right answer regarding need/specialization alignment. But this is only half of what’s required to ensure an effective working relationship.

Consultant Engagement Model
Creative Commons BY SA
The other (and frequently missing) half focuses on evaluating purpose and cultural alignment between the business and the consultancy. Even as companies adopt principles of employee and customer engagement, consultants are still viewed as “hired guns”. While this perspective may not harm the buyer on the lower end of the value chain (e.g., maintenance services), potential risk grows as services move closer to the core purpose and strategic focus of the firm. If you’ve got a cold, you can get the help you need from a doctor, pharmacist or nurse. If you have a heart problem, you need a doctor—and not just any doctor, but a cardiologist.

While consultancies will often present themselves as providing a limitless portfolio of services (a primary source of the “hired gun” attitude), it’s crucial to understand which parts of the service portfolio reflect the consultancy’s core purpose and strategic focus. At the same time, it’s important to look critically at your organization, especially with regards to how success is measured and achieved. Armed with this information, buyers can conduct a more objective assessment of vendor alternatives, seeking consultants who will fit more naturally and seamlessly within their organization.

Our team on the above-mentioned project had all the required expertise. Our challenges resulted from misalignment between the purpose and culture of our client and that of our consultancy. The company was interested in a web technology replacement with no new features or experience improvements; the core identity of our consultancy is wrapped up in the creation and realization of new experiences and capabilities for forward-thinking businesses. Did the client get what they wanted? Absolutely. Did the relationship effectively serve the purpose and strategic alignment of both parties? No; and significant untapped value was left on the table as a result.

So, what can a buyer do to improve purpose / culture alignment and achieve greater value from consulting relationships? A few suggestions come to mind:
  • Get past the sales pitch, fast. Sales professionals are useful at the ends of the sales cycle. At the front-end, they can provide initial context and connections. At the back-end, they’re useful for negotiating the details and closing. In the middle, when you’re trying to refine your thinking and solution approach, as well as get a better idea of organizational fit, seek the involvement of service delivery professionals. Push for participation by consultants that would be involved on the project, even if it requires some financial commitment.
  • Take references seriously. When you request (and check) references, look for context that is similar to your own. By default, sales professionals will offer up successful client relationships that support their primary objective--selling new business. Keep pressing until you’re talking to organizations whose purpose and culture are similar to yours, and work to expand your query beyond a single, designated contact into multiple touchpoints in the reference organization.
  • Go running together. When you’re looking for an exercise partner, you’re more likely to benefit from the relationship if you both have similar fitness levels and goals. Like going for an initial training run with a potential partner, look for opportunities to bring in consultancies for short-term, lower risk efforts that enable you to work together and evaluate fitness. The more often you do this, the better you’ll become at making objective assessments of new consultancies that knock on your door.
As you work through your selection process, keep in mind that (contrary to prevailing wisdom) consultants are people. As people, they go through hiring processes that have been defined (like your company’s) to identify candidates with both the right experience and the character to succeed within the purpose and culture of their organization. Commit your professional services “hiring process” to finding consultancies that provide not only the specialization you need, but also the purpose and cultural alignment that will ensure your mutual success for the long run.

Friday, October 12, 2012