I was the VP of Marketing for a company with global operations, and our new group CEO came out of an industry where branding was very important. His previous company ran a distant second place to the industry leader, known for its extensive advertising campaigns, which included television commercials and a prestigious NASCAR sponsorship.
Branding was not important in our industry. Don’t get me wrong – we needed customers to love us, but we sold to engineers who simply didn’t care about things like brands or slogans – as proved by our best competitor, which had a nonsensical name but beat us on all the stuff that mattered.
So, of course, our CEO wanted to rebrand the entire company, redo our graphics and tagline and make sure that our business units operating in the Eastern and Western Hemispheres carried the same name.
I argued with him, foolishly relying on logic, facts and data. We were at a strategy meeting in Europe, and I drew planet Earth on a flip chart.
“This is the Eastern Hemisphere, where we operate under the name, A to Z Supplies[*],” I said.
I circled the Eastern Hemisphere.
“In the Western Hemisphere, we operate under XYZ Supplies.”
I circled the Western Hemisphere.
“We have virtually no customers who buy from both business units,” I pointed out helpfully. “We have six strategic accounts that do,” I went on. “But the agreements are not global and besides, instead of rebranding the whole company, we could just call them and tell them we are connected if we think they might care,” I concluded, implying strongly that they would not care.
“Also,” I noted, “We have a lot of brand equity with our current names. We did an analysis that showed we’d have to spend $2 million in marketing communications to regain the equity we have today for free.”
He looked at me with sympathy in his eyes. I did not GET IT, he communicated wordlessly. And he was right. I did not.
Since he didn’t reply, I continued, bewildered but insistent.
“We sell to engineers,” I reminded him. “They are famous for their skepticism about marketing messages. They care about our product data, our technical expertise, our in-stock availability and our delivery speed. They like the quality and range of our products. They don’t care what we call ourselves.”
This drew no new response, so I plunged ahead, trying to break through his paradigms.
“We could call ourselves, ‘Screw You Supplies,’ and they’d buy from us anyway if we nailed everything else we do.”
This was a step too far, and he announced, without explanation, that we were going to hire a branding agency and rename the entire company.
My heart sank. Branding agencies, with occasional exceptions, are the dumbest consultants on the planet. But they give amazing and persuasive sales presentations, which is their primary core competency, and we went on to spend seven figures on a pointless rebranding that resulted in an awkward, shared identity disliked equally by both operating units, which otherwise got along famously.
This didn’t help our competitiveness one bit and while we studied “mood boards” and breathlessly aspirational slogans roundly hated by our customers, our main rival invested in product data, technical expertise and logistics excellence and kicked our newly-branded asses.
A few years later, that CEO “decided to spend more time with his family,” and both companies went back to their old names.
This is the paradox of leaders in new roles: the lessons they learned in their last jobs are often irrelevant in their new jobs, but they apply them anyway. Consider:
- The CFO moving from a cash-strapped company to one with a great balance sheet who refuses to assume any financial risk, acting as though extending that important customer to 60-day terms might cut too far into our $100 million cash reserve.
- The Sales VP from a capital equipment company who insists on a “deal pipeline” at an MRO distributor where customers place hundreds of $250 orders per year.
- The President from a hotel chain who believes in “empowering the people on the front lines” by granting them so much flexibility that it kills off the process excellence that ensured consistent and outstanding service.
- The Marketing VP who enjoyed so much success with digital marketing at her last job that she ignores the needs of the sales force and spends her budget on SEO, social media marketing and email.
Experience is a great teacher but in business, those lessons only apply in certain contexts. Change your environment, your industry, your business model and your employer, and you might find that your experience is your own worst enemy.
I worked for Grainger for 15 years, rising from Truck Unloader to Marketing VP. (Favorite job: Counter Sales. I can still tell you the RPM of an electric motor from the number of poles. Which, in the spirit of this blog, didn’t apply in later jobs.)
Grainger had the best training of any company I worked for, and it’s not close. And the leadership training was useful everywhere. But when I became a consultant and got my first client, I could tell that everything was different. Executives at this distributor were talking about project selling, blueprint takeoffs, bid submittals and a bunch of other activities that were obviously core to their business but made no sense to me at all.
Fortunately (and uncharacteristically up to that point), I kept my mouth shut and asked if I could make sales calls with reps in several cities. I figured it was better to ask questions and look stupid to a bunch of account managers – who would expect nothing less of a consultant sent by the corporate office – than to a group of senior executives who hired me because I came from Grainger and so assumed I knew what I was doing.
Casually referring to this as “field research,” I visited several cities, rode with a dozen reps, sat down with branch managers, took copious notes, listened carefully, bluffed constantly while nodding knowingly and managed to learn enough about the business to make myself useful for the next six months. I learned that while Grainger is a fantastic distributor, it’s also an atypical one. Most distributors operate quite differently, and my assumptions going into the assignment were mostly wrong.
In the decades since, I’ve worked with many distributors and many more new leaders. I often recount these stories to try to help them question their own assumptions about the usefulness of what they think they know.
And it boils down to this:
Great leadership skills are a portable asset. Listening skills, empathy, humility, inspiration, high aspirations and building high-powered teams work everywhere you go.
But the specific competencies of a business and the ways companies add value vary widely. The most common mistake leaders in new jobs make is that they assume the business lessons they learned in their old jobs apply to their new ones. I’ve seen this weakness take down many an executive who walked away bewildered at his failures, leaving behind a team equally mystified that this promising new leader couldn’t translate his prior success to their company.
If you change employers, bring your leadership skills but walk away from your assumptions about what matters to your new customers and in your new industry. To a lesser degree, this advice applies if you change jobs within your current company. In every case, turn off your hubris, turn up your humility, ask more questions and build your knowledge from the ground up. Make sales calls. Sit with inside reps. Work the counter. Ride in delivery trucks.
People will be eager to explain the business to you but that only works if you’re listening.
* All names and certain details have been changed to protect the foolish.