Always be nice to gatekeepers and staff…

April 11, 2009

…or you don’t get through the gate.

 

I am continually amazed by some people’s lack of both pragmatism and grace in various business situations. One of the most obvious ones is dealing with individuals who are obviously “gatekeepers”. To me a gatekeeper is anyone who is clearly standing between you and an individual or group you want/need access to.

 

Why should I care?

 

In my undergraduate management class we talk about “power” and its sources. They include things like hierarchical position, control over information, network of allies and several other attributes. A gatekeeper almost always wields a deceptively large amount of power and influence for several reasons that relate to these power bases.

 

First, they are often very close to the principal in question. If they are their admin or adjutant they are typically intimately aware of their boss’s goals, needs, opinions etc. This person is usually personally chosen by the executive and has the executive’s interests at heart. Their success is bound up in their boss’ (at least at some level). They have “referred hierarchical authority” from their boss.

 

Second, because they aren’t a senior executive (or at least are less senior than the boss), they are more accessible and thus are privy to scuttlebutt and gossip their boss may not be. This puts them at the center of information networks with “insider knowledge”.

 

Third, due to both these things bosses often put a great deal of value on their assistant’s view of others. Why? These folks see others in less formal or guarded settings than the boss does. Most of us can control ourselves in obvious power situations where a superior is watching us. How you act when no one is looking is much more revealing. Gatekeepers tend to have a better view of this aspect of us. I have seen people lose six figure opportunities over subtle office issues around how candidate treated staff in situations the hiring manager didn’t see, but heard about.

 

Fourth, these people are often the ones charged with creating order in their bosses hectic worlds. Most senior execs are out of control and the admin manages this as best they can. They can lock down a calendar and completely deny you simply based on schedule and (your lack of) priority.

 

In my experience, a bad run in with an admin or exec assistant can actually be more damaging than a bad run in with the boss. Why. I can forgive you jousting with me, I might even give you credit for standing up for yourself if professionally done. Treat my assistant badly and you’re just a bully. Same as going after my son or daughter. No quarter will be given. View the offer as gone if you were an intern or the promotion off the board later in your career.

 

Conversely, being favored can yield special access, quiet behind doors praise, special knowledge of information others (even senior execs) don’t have access too. This can be as simple as getting 5 minutes to brief the exec on an idea while others are rebuffed. But this access is precious.

 

How do I develop support?

 

So, given the importance of gatekeepers, how do I develop rapport and influence without coming across as craven and just a brown-noser? This is just a specific case of applying concepts on building support from my earlier post. Read here for general guidance.

 

My point in this post is to focus your attention on how important gatekeepers are in the general scheme of things.  In many cases, simply treating them nicely (not even going above and beyond) will go a long way. Showing interest in someone whose whole job is to serve someone else who is the center of attention can be very comforting. You’ll be surprised at how much people will tell you if you simply demonstrate respect and make time to hear about their day.

 

In the end, do unto others as you’d have them do unto you.


Driving to Yes or No: Case Study

March 1, 2009

In my last post I talked about taking a more investigative approach to growth opportunity evaluation. In this one, I’ll discuss both what it looked like leading a venture using this methodology while touching on what it meant from an executive level.

 

I had to eat my own cooking when I took a position leading a “growth opportunity” at 3M. We had adopted a phased approach to allocating budget and resources to opportunities through a venture board structure (ie: limited capital allocated to competing business plans). In the “opportunity” phase, an idea received modest funding to answer high level questions. If the opportunity proved compelling, then it could progress to being a “venture” at which point it would receive higher funding for a pilot or launch year. After that a division would have to own the P&L. I think it’s a good process. Divisions compete for funding new ideas, but take it seriously because they know they will eventually have to own the financial results.

 

My experience was with a new business format opportunity based on an aftermarket car care model that quietly developed in Asia. One of the wonderful things about a diversified global business like 3M’s is that each country unit has incentives to develop innovative new business models based on local market conditions.

 

My challenge was to determine whether we could take our traditionally product based business and brand into retail “do-it for me” services. Our product line included window tint, paint protection film, waxes, polishes etc. This was clearly a global question, in part because 3M China had developed successful 3M branded service centers with partners and also because the Asian car markets were all growing so aggressively with first time, inexperienced car owners.

 

I developed my “issue tree” outlining what I thought the big questions were and also worked through a reverse P&L as well as assumptions list (see last post).  Among my major assumptions (in no particular order) were that 1) we could develop the skills and knowledge necessary to win, 2) that we could have a broad enough portfolio to be relevant to consumers, 3) that brand mattered 4) we could hit defined revenue and income targets and 5) that we had sufficient alignment globally to get it done internally.

 

I went through three phases. The first was a study phase that cost us largely my time and a little research. We easily passed the hurdle at this phase gate. I think of this type of review as passing “the laugh test”. We had executive support and they were interested in the opportunity, so this gate was more of a check in.

 

For the second phase, we needed to do much more work on business model, detailed market understanding and a risk assessment. As a part of each gate, you have to define success metrics and detailed plan and budget for the next phase. Part of my plan included Michele, the kids and I moving to Shanghai, China for an extended stay in 2006 to understand the Asian business.

 

To short cut the better part of a year’s work, here’s what I determined and why I think the process and methodology was a good one. In the end, I recommended a retrenchment of the existing opportunity in China and placing better controls on its use of brand and avoidance of the franchise law for several reasons:

 

1.      The team had been very creative and had excellent results, but the Chinese regulatory environment related to franchising changed in 2005 in ways that were disadvantageous to potential franchisors. Note that at the time KFC and McDonald’s didn’t franchise there either. They owned.

2.      Direct ownership did not seem viable to me given the speed of change in the market, our conservatism operationally and financially and our lack of direct experience in retail services. In addition, we couldn’t find a viable partner or acquisition target.

3.      The reality of company politics regarding brand and legal issues, lack of internal alignment globally and several other internal factors told me that this was not do-able for us.

 

There is a lot more detail than this, but fundamentally I didn’t see it happening for this opportunity. Here’s why I think the process worked.

 

1.      Two years prior to implementing this process I think this would have gotten potentially large funding and failed slowly and painfully. It was sexy, represented “breakthrough thinking” and “business model innovation” and all sorts of other applicable buzzwords.

2.      It could have been sold well and gone OK for a few years until it fell under its own weight. Typically, to be cleaned up by the next manager as the first one would have moved on to bigger things based on the buzz from their cool work. (No one ever really knows the financials of someone else’s business)

3.      We got to a “quality” no, based on data and as a result executives didn’t need to revisit the question. Note here that I always could make the math work. The sheer growth in China could carry very conservative assumptions to a positive financial case. I recommended not proceeding because of the work around the “softer” assumptions that were critical to success.

4.      Corporate was happy that a real effort had been made to answer key questions credibly and reliably.

5.      Another benefit of the process to the company was exposing talent to senior management in bake-offs that exposed the quality of people’s business acumen and drive. It highlighted how many “administrators” versus “leaders” there were.

 

In the end, we went forward as a business unit with a “federated” approach globally while laying out guidelines and serving as a knowledge and best practice sharing hub. Each country took its own approach within guidelines that we laid out. We didn’t try to force a uniform process or business model on each country unit and as a result, the business has continued to grow across 3M. We learned a great deal that has infused other business decisions as well, including some significant acquisitions (lesson: we needed other’s existing expertise and portfolio to be successful quickly). We were fortunate to have a leader who was pro-active in learning and then taking action.

 

The few caveats I have include:

1.      No process is a substitute for talent. A poor team will kill a great opportunity. This is a place to put your best people, not turf out your problems.

2.      It doesn’t work if opportunities aren’t protected. Nothing kills innovation or creativity like strangling it when things get tough.

 

I think this process is a good one. My only caution is to not fall so in love with a process or set of tools that you check your brain at the door.