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Chronicles of a Sales Leader: Moving Cheese the Right Way

Certain things in life just seem to go hand in hand: thunder and lightning, salt and pepper, pigs and mud.

Similarly, tough economic times often go hand in hand with organizational change. The most obvious and often necessary move is to cut jobs when the top line drops, but it is also a time when companies often look to make changes to the structure of their organization. This is certainly not new to the nature of downturns, and it absolutely can be a good time to make changex—when it feels like less risk.

I've lived through these organizational change initiatives from about every angle. To prove it I have my very own copy of "Who Moved My Cheese," by Dr. Spencer Johnson. I now have a job that gives me a birds-eye view of how many companies execute their change initiatives; accordingly, here are some observations the might help if you happen to be in the role of leading changes and moving cheese around.

Start with what's going on in your customer environment. Whenever anyone contemplates change to their organization, I always want to start with the customer. Of course, you say, that's an obvious statement.

And yet, it's striking how many organizations devote serious resources to a change initiative and completely forget whether or not it helps them get better aligned with what's happening in their customer environment. It can get incredibly myopic really fast as the internal operations and organizational culture begins to creep into the design. This is especially seen with regard to compensation, but that's a column for another day.

The key question to start with, before any reorganizational planning is done, is to ask what has or will change in regards to how your customers buy from you. If nothing is changing about what you are selling, then what is happening with how the customer is buying? If you are embarking on an initiative to add new products or services, how will that impact how the customer will buy from you?

If you are frustrated with how certain products or business lines fail to penetrate key segments, then assess what that means in terms of how customers will buy. Will any of the changes you are contemplating help your customers fix, accomplish or avoid key business issues more effectively than you can today?

Starting with these kinds of questions will lead to more questions, but keep the initiative focused on actually driving results. If you start with the customer and can figure out how to better align with how they buy, then you might actually sell more of what you have to offer. Crazy concept, I know.

The next area I see as a pitfall is to not spend enough time analyzing execution within the organization as it is currently designed. When this happens, organizational change becomes simply a cosmetic fix versus something that will truly produce legitimate results. Lipstick on a pig.

Spend some time analyzing performance inside of the current structure. Who are your top performers? Why are they succeeding, and what makes them different than the rest of the pack? Can any of their attributes be replicated either through training or recognized in the hiring process? Our annual research study showed sales organizations that are outperforming others put some real energy into identifying and cascading best practices.

How about your field sales management? How are they doing in terms of driving execution and accountability? Even if you've done your homework and determine there is a need for organizational change, a key success factor will be the capabilities of your frontline management to lead people. I've seen many well-planned change initiatives die quickly due to poor leadership in the field. I've also seen great success with less-than-stellar strategies because the field leadership knew how to execute. Either way, it's important to assess the level of execution and where the failure points are. Determine what is the result of organizational design flaws or just plain lack of execution.

This leads to another important point: Can your talent make the shift into whatever roles and responsibilities come with the new organization? I see this most commonly play out when top producers in general selling roles get placed into strategic or key account management positions, or when great individual contributors get promoted into management roles. It's so important to understand what will be required in terms of attributes and skills in the future organization and really assess what it will take from a talent perspective to make the shift.

Too many sales leaders set lofty expectations on how quickly organizational change will make a positive impact. This is largely due to underestimating the ramp-up period as the organization makes the shift. The end result leads to a cycle of short-lived organizational changes that play out like a bad rerun for everyone. Consider the ramp-up implications and create enough time to deal with those factors.

Then there's the little thing we all still stumble at called communication. I am amazed to see how little is put into the communication plan as sales leaders go down the path of changing their organization. Despite countless books, articles, and white papers on the importance of communication during change, it still doesn't happen as well as it should.

My theory? Leaders get so wrapped up in spreadsheets and org charts, they forget the human factor. The names on the org chart, assuming they all work full-time, spend most of their waking hours doing their job. Their livelihood and how they support their families are dependent on their success in that job. It's easy to lose sight of that when you've spent weeks, if not months, thinking and planning for the change. The sales leader has had time to contemplate, digest, and get excited for the change. So when the time comes, too much of the communication is on the what versus the why.

It's so important to take everyone through the same journey you've been on that resulted in the decision to change. Tell the story of what's changing with your customers, and therefore your business, and what the future looks like. If the change is significant, invest the time and money to communicate live instead of by e-mail. Be more accessible than ever for people to hear your passion for why the change is important.

Lastly, organizational change should not be treated as a one-time event to be thrown like a big party. Assemble a long-term plan featuring milestones, key metrics, and contingencies when things don't go as planned (which is the only thing that can be guaranteed). Continue to merchandise and communicate the best practices along the way. This will ultimately better prepare you and your team for change in the future, as well.

That's it for now. All this talk of cheese has made me hungry.

SMM columnist Bill Golder is executive vice president of sales at Miller Heiman. Available for keynote speaking opportunities, he can be reached at bgolder@millerheiman.com or 877-678-0397.