Reviving a Troubled Division and a Troubled Career
Finally, I want to talk about reviving a troubled division and troubled career. I want to celebrate some of our executive coaching clients. I have a client who works for a major tech company. He’s around 36, he has kids and he thought he was in the twilight of his career. We had a discussion and he told me, “My career is going nowhere. I work for a part of a tech company that maybe 15 or 20 years ago was seen as an important part of the business, and a lot of attention was given to it. It was mentioned in press releases. The CEO spoke about it. But today, I have 120 people reporting to me. I have a budget, but I don’t sit anywhere near the corporate campus. I don’t go to the main campus. I don’t rub shoulders with the most important executive vice president. I haven’t seen the CEO in two or three years. Nobody worries about us. Nobody calls us into meetings. Nobody asks for our time. Basically, it’s like people have forgotten about us. Morale is low, and everything is fading and failing.”
I made a list of these things, and I replied, “Do you realize that what you have is actually a good thing, but you just don’t see it as a good thing?” He was very puzzled about this, and he asked, “How can this be a good thing? Nobody talks to me. Corporate doesn’t look at me. Nobody pays attention to me. The CEO doesn’t even talk about us. We’re an actual division. We’re a unit of the company that has 120 staff, and we have a fairly big budget, even though we have 120 core employees. But nobody cares about this.”
I told him that in the real world, the last thing you want is attention. When you have corporate paying attention to you when you have an internal legal team saying, “How can we work closely with your unit,” that’s something you don’t actually want in the real world. You want to have a budget, you want to have some talented people, and you want to be far away from the glare of corporate so you can experiment and do what you want.
So, I put him through a series of exercises. I told him that he has to raise morale which is easy to do. The first thing you need to do is have some fun with your people. My advice to him, because he’s so far away from corporate, was to just bring in a DJ on a Friday and spin some tunes in the office. Don’t serve alcohol, but have some kind of coffee hour.
The point is you want people to feel happy. That’s how you raise morale. Before you give them a sense of purpose, you need to make them feel happy. You have to make them feel like they’re not just coming into the office and going through the paces. I made him do these little things at first to make the employees feel valued and respected. He’s lucky because there are only 120 people, all in the same building with open-plan offices.
Next, I got him to start thinking about strategy. I told him: “The problem you’re encountering is that you don’t understand the purpose of your unit, and you don’t understand synergy.” He thought that his unit must be profitable, make money, must lead the company in new ways and must regain its lost pride. It never had the pride to begin with—it’s always been a fairly unimportant unit that’s never been able to take on the tech competitors it’s faced. But that’s how he’s run the business: How do they find a way to make money? That isn’t what synergy is.
Whenever you read about a wealth management division posting stunning successes, a big part of that is usually a digital and IT system that sits behind it. When the wealth management EVP talks about the successes in the wealth management division, externally, they don’t talk about the digital and IT arm. They don’t talk about how they’ve automated processes and how they’ve created apps and many other important things because a bank is basically an IT system. But, internally, everyone knows the IT team was behind it.
Here’s what you need to think about: that’s synergy. By putting the IT team together with the wealth management team, they created something greater than what would have existed if they had been separate. So, in this case, the digital and IT team is not a profit center. They don’t make any money, but they are directly responsible for the outsized profits in the wealth management division, and are subservient and work very closely with the wealth management division.
This is what I was trying to get him to think about. He’s thinking about his unit all wrong. You work in a tech company, one of the biggest in the world. Your business is a division of people who code. You are like a digital and IT arm of a company. You have to think of yourself in that way. Don’t think about how your division can make money. I want you to think about how the capabilities and competencies of your unit can help the business be successful. Stop thinking about what you need. Don’t think about what your division wants. Think about what the company wants. The company doesn’t want your division to be successful because you’re not going to be successful by yourself, and success for you is not material to the company. If you doubled your profit margin, the company wouldn’t care. It’s a drop in the bucket. If you lower your cost structure, it doesn’t matter. If you stop making money, the company wouldn’t care much. It probably wouldn’t come up in a board meeting. But if you find a way to help the company achieve its broad goals, you become a powerful enabler of the company.
I set up a series of workshops, and that’s how we created the Digital and IT Strategy Journal—I put it together for this client to help him understand how he should think through what his team needs to do. The starting point is understanding that his goal is not to make his division profitable and successful. His goal is to figure out how to make his division and unit help the company achieve its broader goals. He needs to stop thinking of his unit as a profit center and start thinking of it as another type of center—may be a cost center, a service center or a value center. So, he started doing that. He started inviting the heads of other divisions to his unit to talk about their biggest priorities. They started having workshops where they thought about what they could do to help the biggest divisions. I’m not going to go into too many details but there is a tool that this company is rolling out to other companies. It’s a communication tool, which is probably the most powerful way this tech company has of getting its software into corporate clients. They’re involved in a massive fight with big startups, backed by billions of dollars and other established tech titans to see who can own the communication space.
These guys figured out that if they embedded a certain capability they’re working on into this communication tool, it made this communication platform much more sticky—meaning that people use it and don’t want to leave because they like it and not because they are stuck to it like to the flypaper, and it’s much more indispensable to users so that the uptake of this communication tool went through the roof.
Everything changed for this client because he was open to rethinking his purpose. For a long time, he had read books saying leaders must lead their people, must build billion-dollar companies, must be profitable. He treated his unit like it was a profit center. It’s not a profit center. This is a digital and IT strategy. He has a team of coders. His job is to figure out how they can support the broader business strategy. He’s done a phenomenal job, and his career has taken off. He’s been promoted. His team is bigger. They’re being called into key meetings these days. My advice to him was not to move to the main campus because it is important to preserve the culture of the unit, and the best way to do that is to sit away from the main campus. Otherwise, he would lose his people—they’re just going to be sucked into other parts of the business.
It’s worth talking about this client, and it’s worth celebrating. Here’s the insight, and it’s a very deep insight: To be successful in the world, you don’t make yourself successful. You don’t make your unit successful. You figure out how to make your broader company successful. And if you do that, that’s when you get true synergy. A big shout out to this client. Phenomenal job. I’m very proud of him.
This is an excerpt from Monday Morning 8 a.m. newsletter, issue #16.