The Value of Strong Mentors

The path for many of us, is not a straight path.  We believe we are going to be something or do something, and then our life plan changes.  Bob Pilon is no different.  Bob was a talented hockey player and bright student at Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, MN.  He was a pre-med major when he realized he didn’t want to spend the amount of time in school that was required to become a doctor.  There were two things that he had to do, now that he had made this discovery.  The first was to figure out what he would do with his life, and the second was to tell his parents that he was not going to medical school.  Neither was an easy task.

There is great benefit to having a trusted mentor.  As an individual, you can gain from their experiences.  You can have an outside view of possible paths to follow.  Mentors are not easy to identify, but when you find one, learn from them.  A great mentor must truly care about you and your wellbeing.  They must have credibility with the outside world, and they must be willing to be totally honest with you.  Bob was fortunate to have a great mentor.  His college advisor John M. Lammert, PHD, Biology Professor, earned his trust.  He was wise, blunt, and held him accountable.  He was consistent in his feedback and his expectations.  His experience allowed him to see the talent and potential in Bob and allowed him to make early course corrections.  

Bob’s mentor offered that he had two choices; he could teach high school biology and coach hockey, or he could leverage his lab work into the field of medical devices.  As he worked through the choices, he chose the path of medical devices.  

Bob’s parents, while I’m certain they were a little disappointed in the change of direction, were just as supportive.  We sometimes take our family for granted, but Bob’s parents were strong mentors as well.

I asked Bob his advice to people who are early in their careers and he was quite adamant about mentorship.  “Find that relationship!” was his answer.  He has shared that with his step daughter who is a sophomore at the University of Tennessee.  The human element to productive work is critical.  Strong, trusting relationships are critical.  The things that stood out from Bob’s story were Professor Lammert’s recognition of Bob’s talent, and the empathy to understand where Bob was coming from.  He saw the potential.  He nourished the talent and Bob turned it into a full and productive career.

Bob took the path of working for a medical device company as a Project Manager upon graduation.  He worked on a cross functional team where he ended up taking the notes.  He was underwhelmed in the role and slightly bored.  There was one individual who didn’t make many of the meetings and Bob asked his superior who it was and why he didn’t make the meetings.  He found out that the individual was a Product Manager/Marketing.  He didn’t make meetings because he was in the field talking to customers.  It was intriguing to Bob.  He felt he could be successful doing that.  He shared that with his manager, and shortly after that he had an opportunity to move to Santa Barbara, CA. and take on a similar role. 

Bob’s work in the Project Manager and Sales and Marketing lead him to his current role.  He is the President of Unipart-Olsen.  They manufacture precision machine parts for Ag, Construction, and other markets.  While it may seem like a leap to go from medical devices to manufacturing for farm equipment, and construction, it was a logical path.  

I met Bob when I was doing consulting work for UOI.  They were looking for someone to sell for them.  We found Bob and could hire him, mainly because he lived near the facility and he wanted to travel less.  His talent was way beyond the role, and in a couple of years he was promoted into a manufacturing role that integrated and aligned the India plants into the offering.  Over time, Bob proved himself to be a great leader and in the past few years, he earned the role of President of the company.  

When he became President, there were issues he needed to address.  The first was a fear of conflict.  His direct reports were made up of a group of individuals and not a team.  There was turf protection but not an open discussion or conflict resolution.  Bob has made changes in his staff and built rules of engagement.  There are still challenges and limiting behavior, but they are addressing these at the staff level.  The challenge for Bob, as well as any other leader is “What happens when you aren’t in the room?”  Bob is very candid, professional, and humble.  He recognizes the challenges of this and his staff is still dependent on his knowledge, but they are learning.  They use metrics to help them track their progress and set the rules of engagement at all levels in the company, even on the production floor.  

From pre-med hockey star to company President of UOI wasn’t a planned path for Bob, but an honest, trusted mentor helped send him in the right direction so he could make the right choices.

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He has industry experience so he must be good…

He has industry experience so he must be good.

Earlier this year I worked with a client to define the skills and values for their sales team.  They had never defined the skills needed for the role.  They left it up to the first line manager to determine who they wanted to work with.  The skills at interviewing and hiring varied widely, and the result was a large portion of the sales team didn’t have the aptitude for sales.  The favorite candidate was to hire someone from inside the “shop” who knew the product, or a runner who drove product to the end customer, because they knew where the customers were.  

The team of first line managers gathered with leadership, and human resources to work through an outcome-based process to determine the skills and competencies needed for a salesperson.  They also captured the values they needed to be a part of the organization.  They had never considered it before.  

As I was working with the team, I was trying to understand why they defaulted to hiring from the industry or hiring from the shop instead of looking for talented sellers.  Was it laziness, ignorance, or lack of process?  Maybe a little of each.  Hiring a person, even the wrong person, inside the company was easier because the first line manager felt they didn’t need to work to train them and because there was no onboarding process needed. Or so they thought.  Just remember B players never hire A players.

Hiring someone from inside the company can be great.  You know them, they know the product and procedures, and they probably know the customers.  So, what is the issue?  The issue is they may not have an aptitude for the role.  One of the people hired from the shop was a strong operations individual, but he did not have an aptitude for sales.  When he was placed in a sales territory, he failed miserably.  After a year, the company moved him back into an operations role.  Two weeks after that “demotion”, he left the company.  They not only wasted a year of sales opportunities; they lost an employee who was good in his prior role.  

The hero of this story is the new VP of Sales.  He is in the process of upgrading his sales team.  And he knows to do that he has to upgrade his first line managers.  Now we are working the same process for sales managers that we did to define skills and values for the sellers.  It’s a critical hire for the VP.  His first new hire in the role, and it affects about fifty percent of his total business.  He recognizes the need to define clearly the needs of the role.  

Do you have a clearly defined set of skills and values you look for in your employees?  Not just sales, but all employees?  People are the life blood of your organization.  Making a bad hire is costly not only in dollars, but in morale.  Please take the time to own the process and define the skills and values for your company.  It is not a silver bullet, but your odds of finding the right people are much improved.

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I have a theory that I shared with my team throughout my career.  My role as a leader was to find great talent, give them the tools to do the job, and then get out of their way.  I still feel very strongly about all three of those.  Finding talent is not easy.  Developing talent through providing the tools and the training is challenging as well.  Letting the individuals develop, even when they are making mistakes, is the hardest challenge.  

I spoke with Ned Hunter, Executive Vice President at Kito Corporation recently and he shared what has made him successful.  Ned leads a very large portion of Kito, globally.  He is a thoughtful, soft-spoken individual with a charismatic way about him that earns a strong following from his team.  They follow him, not just because they like and respect him, but also because of how Ned challenges them to grow into new roles.  Some of the roles may be surprising, even to the individual in the role.  Ned has that kind of eye for talent, and the heart and stamina to develop his staff.  He trusts his instincts.

It’s rare that we think about a high level executive coaching and developing their team.  Most of the time we are sharing stories of great strategists making great decisions.  What makes Ned stand out is his people strategy.  People are the life blood of any organization. Great strategies poorly executed fail. Mediocre strategies executed well, can bring great results.  Kito benefits from Ned’s strong strategy and his team’s excellent execution of those strategies.  

Ned started his career with Kito as the CEO of Harrington Hoists and advanced from there to become a Senior Executive Officer, Chairman of the Americas, then was promoted into his current role where he leads the corporate subsidiaries and market operations globally, except for China.  I first met Ned when he was a Senior Director of National Accounts and Government at Grainger.   Ned was at different level than his peer group, myself included.  He was extremely professional and highly respected. 

Ned saw his role as one to develop not only customers for Grainger, but also develop his team so that they could perform at this best.  He provided them opportunities to grow in their current role.  He has done the same with Kito. 

He started by using discovery.  He would observe his staff in 2-3 different group sessions to see how they interacted and then he would evaluate based on 11 different criteria, including traits like financial acumen, interpersonal skills, time management and negotiation skills.  He then identified strengths and weaknesses and helped to create plans to address them.  “With the right combination of people and talents, the sum is greater than the parts.”  He continues to observe, to look for growth in the individual and the teams.  

Ned found talent in people that may not have even seen it in themselves.  He worked with his finance manager to develop him into his CFO.  He worked with his sales leader to develop him into the CEO that could replace Ned as he moved into new roles.  

The gift that Ned brings to his team is his ability to be patient.  He coaches them based on his view of what he sees. He “plays the tape” so that they can get a clear picture of their behavior, then offers suggestions on how they can grow.  He uses data, derived from asking questions, then listens.  He is curious about what and how people think.  He actually listens.

I’ve worked with leaders who do not invest in their team’s development.  They believe they hire people with talent and their either “get it” or they need to leave.  That is a costly way to grow your business.  The investment in hiring and developing talent that can grow, leads into a long-term strength.  Ned Hunter not only knows this, he has perfected it.

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Listening with empathy and building trust!

Marc Foerster: Listening with empathy and building trust!

Most of us over 25 years old remember where we were on September 11, 2001.  I was a Regional Manager for Grainger at the time, based in St. Louis, MO.  My boss, my peers and I were in a meeting with the DeWalt team that worked with Grainger, in their training headquarters in Towson, MD.  It was a challenging time for everyone, but it was helped a great deal by how the leadership team at Grainger handled the situation with our teams.  First, they made sure every employee was okay.  Then they looked beyond our immediate teams to their families.  They gave us all time to get our minds wrapped around what just happened, and they gave us time to grieve and heal.  We still needed to do business, but it was not going to happen in the state of shock we all were in.  Grainger immediately went to work, providing for the rescue workers.  It’s the kind of company they are.  But not all companies followed that model.

Marc Foerster was in sales for a division of a large US company.  He and his teammates were charged with opening the Brazilian market for their products.  Marc had been traveling for weeks at a time, working in market.  There had been great personal sacrifice to do what they had been goaled to do, but the attack on the US hurt the market globally.  On October 1, 2011, the Vice President of his division turned a chat with the team of 20 of Marc’s peers into a personal attack on the progress in Brazil, despite the effort the team had put forth.  

The VP did not trust the team, and in return, the team did not trust the VP.  There was no discovery, no empathy, and therefore, you could argue, there was poor judgment.  The perception of Marc and the team was that their leader was not concerned with the good of the team, but only the benefit for himself.  He wanted to be promoted, and berating the team for lack of performance was, in his judgment, the way to show he was tough on results.  

Marc shared that he asked for a sidebar meeting and shared his thoughts with the individual as he stood up for the team.  He also shared that he was either fired, or resigned on the spot.  Perhaps both.  People don’t quit companies, they quit their boss.

Today, Marc is the Vice President of Sales and Marketing at Crystal Flash Energy, in Grand Rapids Michigan.  He is a high-energy Business Executive with extensive hands on exposure to each functional management area. His experience ranges from Production Management, Business Unit Management, Sales Management, to Business Development.  He has learned from his experience the type of leader he intends to be, and his style has been successful.

Marc has learned to share the “why” or the intent when setting expectations.  He shared the story  that his staff was evaluating a marketing automation tool that he felt was a good fit for their needs.  He shared his thoughts with his team, and explained why he felt it was a good fit.  But he also encouraged them to do the research and evaluate it themselves.  He pushed his idea hard, but his team came back to him and told him it was too large of an investment.  Their research showed that the total cost of the offering was 2.5 times the original cost to have it perform as they needed it to.  They convinced him to purchase a different product.  He tasked them, then listened to them.  He has a talented team that he trusts.  They trusted him to listen to them and make a judgment, based on their research.  Marc used skillful judgment in that he suspended his initial thoughts and utilized the discovery work his team had done.  

Marc has learned from mistakes.  Some were his mistakes, and some were mistakes of others.  He never gets too excited or to agitated.  He is comfortable gathering the data to make 

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I can really read people, and other lies we tell ourselves!

I’m not sure any of us expected it. When Black & Decker launched the DeWalt brand of power tools in 1992, the demand was staggering.  So much so, it tested all our processes and systems.  One of the most critical was our ability to hire and develop qualified candidates for selling power tools.  We recruited off college campuses, and brought the new hires in for training in Towson, MD.  In the early years of the launch, we hired several hundred salespeople.  We had terrific processes around hiring and we made some terrific hires, that not only contributed to the outstanding growth for DeWalt, but also in leading at other companies later in their careers.  

However, I personally made four hiring decisions that turned out to be mistakes.  The four lasted less than six months in the roles.  In the scope of number of people, we were hiring, they did not have a huge impact, but I agonized over the failures.  What had I done wrong?  Where had I broken the process?  

Just yesterday I read “Talking to Strangers” by Malcom Gladwell.  He made some interesting points that translate well to interviewing.  The book is a review of how we are programmed to believe people are telling the truth, and how we interpret non-verbal cues. When people lie, or their non-verbal expressions do not match their intentions, it creates issues.  He cited several well-known incidences that supported his theory.  I could relate.

In most of our client engagements we talk about having the right people in the right roles, based on their skills, values and aptitude.  The majority of the people doing interviews are very confident in their abilities to spot talent and to understand how a candidate will fit.  Recently I had a COO tell me that he has 40% turnover in his programmers, and he plans for it so it’s not a big deal.  My belief is that if you have 40% turnover, you are not good at interviewing and your entire process for recruiting is suspect.  

We challenge our clients to have a clear understanding of what skills, and values they are looking for in a candidate, and we also challenge them to use behavioral interviewing.  By behavioral interviewing, we mean asking questions that require the candidate to share specific examples of the skills and values.  It’s critical to the hiring “A” players, and not candidates who can talk the game, but can’t show results.  

Truly understanding how someone fits the job and fits your company is difficult.  Taking the time to prepare, and to use behavioral interviewing in your process improves your odds dramatically.  Hiring mistakes are costly. 

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Building Relationships

“If someone has intelligence and a work ethic, everything else can be developed.” 

 – John Allenbach, President, AgoNow 

John Allenbach is like a brother to me.  I say that upfront to allow for any bias I may have in my view of our conversation and his career.  But it’s also to make a point about what has made John so successful in his career.  John develops deep and lasting relationships.  He probably has many other people who feel the same about him that I do.  

John grew up in Mobile, AL and went to school at Spring Hill College.  He played second base and did some pitching for Spring Hill.  I share that because John is a lifelong friend of his coach and his teammates.  He developed his skill in relationship building early, and it’s prevalent throughout his life.  It’s not just a business skill for him.  

His first job out of college was with a manufacturer of hand tools, selling through channel partners.  It was a short stint, but his supervisor left a lasting impression on him.  He helped John become a sales professional.  He helped build structure and process, that allowed John the early successes he enjoyed.  He took an intelligent person with a strong work ethic, and molded him.  

I met John when we were asked to demonstrate tools for Black & Decker at the National Hardware Show more than 30 years ago.  That was the start of a lifelong friendship.  We challenged each other and we supported each other.  I admire the skills that John has, especially those that are not talents of mine.  One common skill we developed is the ability to recognize talent.

In 1992 Black & Decker launched the DeWalt brand of power tools.  The growth was phenomenal and it lead us to recruit and hire several hundred entry level sales people over a four-year period.  As sales and marketing field leaders, part of our responsibility was to recruit talented people and develop them.  We were charged with the recruiting off multiple college campuses.  We were not hiring the next entry level sales person, however, but the next “president” of B&D.  We had to recognize talent and quickly develop them, because we were growing so rapidly, we needed them to move into additional, larger roles in about half of the time we initially thought we would have them.  As John moved into different roles at B&D his eye for talent served him well as he placed people in the right roles.  

We recruited differently than other companies.  We sent our sales leadership team and our current sellers to the campus to recruit.  Recruiting is a selling job.  We found it easier to hire when the people we were interviewing could sit across the table from someone who they would work with.  It allowed us to build trust early in the process.

John developed his talented team by working with them and learning about them.  He built structure and process for his team, much like his first manager did for him.  John was personally involved with his team and that was difficult as they grew in number.  He spent time getting to know them, their families and their motivations.  To this day, his former team members talk about the impact he had on their lives.  John built a level of trust between he and his team that supersedes any that I’ve witnessed.

John is the same with his customers as he is with his team.  He has lifelong friendships.  He knows the names of their spouses, and their kids.  He knows what school their kids are attending and what their major is.  He knows his customers and cares about them.  This takes work.  It can’t be faked.

The ability to be engaged can be learned.  It can also be lost if it is not worked at and measured.  John is successful in introducing AgoNow because of his long-term relationships and the trust he has built through past experiences with his customers.  “People still do business with people, and relationships are as important as ever.” 

John Allenbach is exceptionally skillful at building relationships and aligning talent.  They are skills that he learned and developed as his career progressed.  It was important to John that he develop these skills and he intuitively did so.  Others can develop those skills through a process that starts with measurement of where they are today and measure their progress and success.  Our desire to make it as important to them as it is for John.

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Finding “A” Level Salespeople

I really wasn’t expecting it.  In fact, I really took it for granted.  At DeWalt, we hired off the campuses of major state universities.  We hired for sales positions, but we did it with the idea that the people we hired could become the president of Black and Decker.  That was in the early nineties. Since then, Black and Decker was folded into the Stanley Tool Works and the 400 or so new hires from then, are now executives with other companies.  Thankfully, LinkedIn has allowed us all to keep in contact.

Recruiting, interviewing and hiring that many people in a short window was a huge undertaking and Black and Decker was amazing at it.  The field sales team owned the relationships with the campuses we recruited on, and the process that was built was spectacular.  The team was trained on interviewing, and it was a scientific process that allowed us to use our own style, as we stayed within the guidelines.  

In my consulting, I’ve found that almost all my clients have a recruiting process that is much less structured and rigorous.  It challenges them daily. It leads to turnover and it leads to underperformance. As I work with them, I break finding talented sellers into three areas:

  1. Recruiting “A” level talent
  2. Interviewing process to thoroughly vet the candidates
  3. Hiring the candidates that best fit the needs of the company

We start in the middle with defining a rigorous, behavioral based interviewing process that gives us a fair and equal understanding of each candidate.  Too often the interviews are set with multiple interviewers who don’t have the time to prepare.  The questions they ask are just like the other interviewers.  They end up using resume as a cheat sheet.  This is not only a poor practice; it often leads to failure to truly understand the candidate and it scares away the “A” players.  The interviewers don’t really understand what they are looking for.

The second action we take is to define the skills and values that the company needs for the salesperson to be successful.  This allows the interviewers to know exactly what they are looking for. We use an outcome-based process to define success and translate those inputs into competencies.  We also define the must have values for the individual to work for my client.  Skills can be trained if the salesperson has an aptitude for sales.  Values cannot be trained.  If the values aren’t there, they can’t work for my clients.  It saves a lot of time and pain later.  

Once we have defined the skills and values, we create questions, and assign them to each of the future interviewers and train them on how to ask behavioral interview questions and listen and interpret the answers.  

This doesn’t guarantee that you won’t make mistakes in hiring, but it improves your odds dramatically.  In future articles, we will outline our process for recruiting (Step one in the process) and hiring (Step three).  Please look for “Always Be Looking For Stars”, coming in January 2020.  It’s a little story on how to get big hiring results.  

Jerry Phillips is the President of NineRuns.  He works with manufacturing companies that want to improve their sales and profits.  He is the author of “Always Be Looking For Stars” and speaks on “The three biggest mistakes in hiring”.

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Trust Tracy Bilbrough

Trust: A firm belief in the intention, reliability, and competence of a person or a process.

My daughter sells software and she is very good at it.  However, from time to time she has a crisis of confidence, as we all do.  She will be working on a large opportunity and things happen that she hasn’t planned for.  The prospect may not return a telephone call or email in a timely manner.  The prospect may commit to one thing and then revise history.  They may not actually do anything, but she may read something into the lack of communication that really isn’t there.  I have done the same things earlier in my career.  

My daughter has the DNA to sell.  She is very process oriented and disciplined to her process.  We have a way of communicating about business.  She calls to vent and most the time, I listen.  The times when I try to solve for her is when we have our moments.  I can make suggestions, I just can’t tell her how to do it.  Rightfully so.  What I do share each time is “trust your process.”  Her process isn’t a guarantee that she will close business, but it improves her odds.  Her sales process is reliable.  It helps her be proactive and strategic instead of reactive.  In addition to trusting her process, I also suggest she trust herself.  She has been a top salesperson at every company she has worked with.  She builds strong relationships with her clients and they trust her to do what she says she will. 

We’ve all been in situations where we have experienced the opposite.  I personally have experienced shoddy manufacturing and installation processes that cost the company profitability.  I have worked turnarounds in businesses where the strategy was poorly written and even more poorly executed.  There was no trust in either the plan, or the people developing it.

I personally learned a great deal from Tracy Bilbrough.  Tracy was my VP of Marketing and Sales when we launched the DeWalt brand in 1992.  I reached out to Tracy for input on this article.  He is now the Chairman of the Board and CEO of IPS.  IPS Corporation is a leading manufacturer of plumbing and roofing products, solvent cements, and adhesives for residential, commercial, and industrial use and a global powerhouse.  Tracy is a brilliant, competitive, goal oriented leader who has been extremely successful at growing profitable businesses.  Just as importantly, Tracy is a curious and hungry learner who is highly self-aware.  

I loved my time with Black & Decker/ DeWalt.  It was one of the most market driven companies that I’ve ever been witness to.  They invested in their team with not only product training, but true development training.  It wasn’t just a check the box situation.  It was an investment.  In the 12 years, I was a part of the company, they sent me to training, both internally and externally, over 30 weeks.  One of my favorite training sessions was an internal training called “Breakthrough Leadership.”  Part of that process was to take a preference assessment tool.  We used Meyers-Briggs.  Tracy was certified to teach the utilization of Meyers-Briggs.  He shared some interesting stories around it.

Tracy taught several classes on the assessment tool and its utilization.  One of his sessions was held at the Towson, MD headquarters.  In that class, he had attendee who was an engineer with the company.  She came to Tracy after the class nearly in tears.  She had been working in the company for 4 years and she shared that she felt like an alien.  She was a SFP in Meyers -Briggs terms.  The person who certified Tracy to teach the class shared with Tracy that B&D had a hiring bias.  The vast majority of people, including Tracy and myself, were NTJ’s.  He said he had never seen a company with that strong of bias.  The danger in the bias is the opening to blind spots.  The engineer now knew why she felt like she did.  She was hopeful that others would be more tolerant and understanding.  Tracy shared that he learned more by teaching the class than attending the class.  He had struggled with relating to someone who thought differently.  He now worked to be more understanding and tolerant.  It was an inflection point in his career.

Tracy and I lost touch with each other for over 15 years.  He had moved into an international role with the company, then left the company for a larger opportunity.  He moved into a CEO role with a Private Equity owned company and proceeded to grow and sell three separate companies.  He is now at his fourth PE owned company, IPS, and he and his team are exceeding all expectations.  

It’s fascinating to reconnect with someone after 15 years and I shared with Tracy how much I felt he had changed and grown.  We all tend to freeze people in time, and I was no exception.  Tracy is very self-aware and comfortable with who he is.  He takes great joy in watching others be successful.  Not in the recognition he gets or as his legacy, but truly enjoys watching others be successful.  My question to Tracy is how?  How did he become this strong leader?  The word that came to mind was trust.  Trust in a different sense.

There were a couple of other inflection points in Tracy’s career.  The first was the 360 feedback we were given at the “Breakthrough Leadership” sessions.  He loved the feedback from his peers and direct reports.  It gave him true, deep insight into what he needed to focus on.  He then observed people who were good at those things and learned from them.  The second was a week he spent at the Center for Creative Leadership.  It was an intense week of experiential learning, observation, and evaluation.  Again, he received feedback from his supervisor, peers at B&D and at the center, as well as his direct reports.  Again, he increased his self-awareness through some “dark nights of the soul” and focused on development of his skills.  He trusted in the processes.  To this day, Tracy sends his leadership team to the CCL.  He also does annual 360’s on himself, and his leadership team.  

Throughout Tracy’s career he has utilized processes to perform at best.  He trusts his processes and they have served him well.  However, he is not locked into his current processes to the point he won’t accept different and better ones.  He is a learner and he is willing to share his deep knowledge with others.  

I believe trust is the bedrock foundation of any relationship.  Do we do what we say we will do?  I’ve shared my thoughts and the thoughts of others on judgment and discovery.  Without strong judgment, which comes from strong discovery, there is no basis for trust. Trust is precious.  Without it, we are rudderless.   

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Small To Mid Size Companies Need Process Too!

“We don’t have a large workforce, and we don’t have a lot of turnover.  I think it’s a waste of our time and money to build a recruiting process.”  My friend, the VP of Sales and Marketing, relayed the words of the CEO when he proposed creating a process to recruit, interview, hire, and develop their sales and marketing team.  I was surprised to hear it when he called.  The CEO is a forward looking individual and he has guided his family company through a steady period of growth.  What the VP was proposing was to build a consistent process for future expansion.  He too, was a forward-thinking individual and one of most humble leaders I’ve met.  His teams have always performed exceptionally.  He is a process guy, but strong on the relationships as well.  His team loves him.  He was looking at the growth curve and he believed he needed to plan for additional associates.

When I received the call, the conversation was about the selling processes we were working on.  Mike came around to the stiff arm on the CEO conversation as more of an afterthought.  When we talked through it, I realized that they faced the same situation that most small to mid-size businesses felt.  We are too small to worry about building a process to recruit.  It is too infrequent for us.  

I was talking to another VP of Sales friend of mine yesterday and when I shared the experience with him, he had some great input.  “Large companies can make a mistake hiring and the effect is muted because of size.  Small companies may have three sales leaders with ten sellers each.  If they miss on a hire it can have an adverse effect on thirty percent of their business.”

In building a process for finding talented people for your business, no matter what the size of your company is, you decrease the risk of making a poor hire.  Once you create the process, you can create consistency no matter how infrequent you bring new people to the team.  

The Process:

I’d suggest the entire process is to recruit candidates, interview candidates, select the best candidates.  Sounds simple, but there are details.  I’d suggest you start in the middle of the process and work both directions.

  1. What is your interview process?
    1. Who interviews the candidates?
    2. What are you looking to understand about the candidates in each interview?
    3. What is the time frame you work the candidates through?
  2. What are you looking for in the candidate?
    1. What are the skills needed?
    2. What are the values of your company that the candidate must align with?
    3. What is the aptitude of the candidates?
  3. Once you interview the candidates and you have narrowed your focus to the final two, what now?
    1. How do you determine/test if they fit with the role you are hiring them for?
    2. How to you check references to truly determine if they are the right candidate?

We have a client who initially based their hiring decisions on knowledge of the product and experience in the business.  It sounds great, but they had several people they had hired with that as the profile and they did not have an aptitude for selling.  After struggling for six months, and not producing in the sales role, they moved one individual back into operations.  Two weeks later they lost a good operations employee, because they had moved him into sales when he didn’t have the aptitude.

Mike and I talked through the process and I shared the stories of my clients who had improved their hiring through building the process we outlined.  He, in turn walked his CEO through the conversation again.  He was able to convince the CEO of the benefits.  They have since added three new sellers and one product manager.  All four are well aligned with the values of the company and they are producing, and growing revenue through taking market share.  Mike is too humble to take credit for the success of the process, but he should.  It is well deserved.

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“Just Get To The Road!”

Just get to the road!  When I was interviewing Mike Birch, CEO of Action Target Inc, he shared with me a story that is a perfect metaphor for how he leads.  We were talking about the difficulty in writing a book.  He shared that he tells his kids he is going to write a book.  I asked what it would be about and he stated that he didn’t know the content, but he knew the title.  “Just Get to the Road!”  

Mike has been at the helm of Private Equity owned ATI for 5 years.  In that time frame, they have taken EBITA to record levels.  They are in a high growth mode in a fascinating business.  They build turnkey shooting ranges.  They work in the commercial, law enforcement, international and military markets.  They build the facilities for their customers to train, practice and prepare, as well as for entertainment.  They are world class facilities.  They are global in scope.  

Mike has a physical presence.  He is a strong outdoorsman, both as a hunter and as a cyclist.  The motto of “Just get to the Road” came from his competition in the latter.  The Leadville 100 is a mountain bike race of endurance and strength.  The race challenges competitors with 12,000-feet of elevation gain over the course of the race in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado.  This 100-mile event rewards the individual that finishes in less than 12 hours, with a large belt buckle.  It’s an honor earned through hard work and smart execution.  

It took four attempts for Mike to finish under the 12 hours and earn his buckle.  His story is captivating in how it mirrors his leadership.  The first year he competed he trained hard, and finished at 12:42.  Out of the buckle, but admirable.  He told his wife the next day that he was starting his training for the next race.  

That year he trained harder and worked on nutrition.  His reward was a 12:39 minute finish.  Still out of the Buckle, and frustrated with only a marginal improvement.  Again, he told his wife that training for the following year started the next day.  And it did.  And again, he trained hard, ate well, and still finished out of the buckle.

Mike used his own discovery and analysis to make judgments on where he needed to improve.  He realized he needed a coach and hired one.  They analyzed his results.  He wore a heart monitor and it showed his heart rate of 150-155 beats a minute was consistent throughout the race.  For those who have run marathons or have participated in long bouts of physical activity, you know that your muscles build up lactic acid.  That can prove very detrimental to your performance.  Mike and his coach determined that he was on a strong pace to finish at the 9:30-hour mark for the first 80 miles of the race, but fell off dramatically for the last 20 miles.  Each year, he struggled on a dirt road that lead to the last paved road into the finish line.  The lactic acids made it almost impossible for him to finish.  The road looked flat, but had an incline and he needed to walk his bike up part of the dirt road.  His mantra to get through the dirt road to the pavement became “Just get to the road!”

Mike shared the mantra with his kids.  One of his daughters called him about a challenge in a class she was taking and she ended the conversation about the class challenge by stating back to Mike, “I know Dad, just get to the road.”  It became that engrained in his whole family.

Mike has taken that philosophy to Action Target.  He shared that he doesn’t believe in the first 100 days’ metric that has become so popular in politics and business.  Instead of driving a hard agenda of change in the first 100 days he listens, observes, asks lots of questions and learns.  In fact, he would tell you his first decision at Action Target was to change the chairs in the conference room.  Although not very impressive he knew it mattered to employees and sent a message to the employees that details matter.  Previous leadership had purchased used chairs off Craigslist at a low price, but they were broken and very uncomfortable.  The staff was distracted by them in meetings.  Nothing gets accomplished when you are distracted.  Mike was building trust with his team.

Mike shared his second “major” business decision was to put in a companywide calendaring software system.   It was driven by a need to set a meeting with his staff.  His prior experience was with large, well established companies.  Small details like using a common calendaring system were already well-established processes in these companies.  He asked his assistant how he should set up meetings and she shared that he should send an email to attendees.  He did, and 3 people couldn’t make the meeting time.  It went back and forth several times on email before they could settle on a time and day that they all could meet.  The productivity gain from putting a shared calendar in was small, but extremely helpful.  He also created standing meetings and calendarized them annually.  There wasn’t any more email tag to set meetings. They became very efficient in sharing information. He set strong expectations of participation.  His staff makes the meetings a priority.  

The lactic acids were a distraction for Mike in the Leadville 100.  He had to overcome that distraction to reach his commitment to finishing under 12 hours and earning the Buckle.  He trusted his coach and he trusted himself, and his processes.  Mike trained hard, ate the right foods, and monitored his metrics.  He and his coach determined if he held his heart rate at 145 beats per minute instead of 155 he would be able to reach his goals.  A slight, incremental change, that would provide a huge reward.

In the fourth race, Mike monitored his heart rate and kept it at 145.  If it climbed to 150 he simply slowed his pace and dropped his heart rate.  He kept at it through a disciplined process.  He kept tracking his heart rate (discovery) and made decisions (judgment) on when to push and when to slow down his pace.  He trusted his process and pushed forward (trust).  Mike knew he was psychically capable.  He had the talent and strength.  He has trained physically, and mentally.  He was ready to ride.  He was ready to use his talent in the most efficient way possible to reach his commitment that he had made to himself.

When he reached the dirt road, he said to himself, “Just get to the road”, referring to the paved road into the finish line.  He said it over, and over again.  Then he realized that he was passing people in a stretch that he had to walk in past races.  He began to say it out loud.  “Just get to the road!”  Then he started to shout it, “Just get to the road!”  Looking back on it, he is certain others thought he was crazy, but he succeeded.  He made it to the road and cruised into the finish, earning his buckle with a couple hours to spare.

The set up for the interview with Mike was meant to capture inflection points in his life and how relationships had impacted those moments. My intent was to share specifics of his story to point to one or two of the inputs that had helped him. When he shared the story of “Just get to the Road!” I knew I had to change the narrative of the article.  He used all inputs in his personal life, as well as his business life.  I realized that there is no difference.  What Mike does in his non-work life is the same as he does in his work life.  His commitments are as strong in his non-work life and to himself, as they are to his business life.  

Action Target continues to grow based on a great team of people under Mike Birch’s brilliant but humble leadership.  When they make a commitment, they accomplish it.  “Just get to the road!”

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